Reliability and Service: Readers Rate the Manufacturers

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Notebooks: Mixed Results

Compaq replaced her notebook's memory, but "the hard drive was failing right along." --Kimber Porter, insurance agent, Flint, Michigan
Photograph: Dwight Cendrowski

Among notebook PC owners, Apple and EMachines users reported the most satisfaction with reliability, while Compaq, Gateway, HP, and Sony ranked near the bottom.

What's bothering Sony notebook owners? Twenty-nine percent of them reported hardware or software problems with their machines, as opposed to only 16 percent of Apple's notebook users. Customers also reported low satisfaction with Sony tech support. Twenty-three percent of Sony customers who encountered a problem with their notebook said that the company never solved it. The mean for all notebook vendors on this measure was 14 percent.

According to Steven Nickel, general manager of Sony VAIO service operations, the company made some changes to its call centers during the summer of 2004 to improve customer service. Sony reduced the number of call centers in the United States and overseas, improved training, and increased its monitoring of calls, he says, all of which should improve service and problem resolution for Sony customers. The company also began offering more user-replaceable parts to VAIO customers as of summer 2004, reducing the downtime when a part such as an optical drive or a hard drive fails, Nickel says.

Like their desktop-owning counterparts, many Compaq and HP notebook owners had problems when dealing with service reps. Kimber Porter, an AFLAC insurance agent in Flint, Michigan, says that Compaq took too long to resolve the matter when her approximately six-month-old Compaq Evo notebook started acting up in November 2003. The machine kept displaying an error saying that she was out of virtual memory, or it simply shut down.

Porter called Compaq tech support several times, each time being advised to change the memory parameters, which she'd already tried. Then Compaq sent a tech out to replace the memory, but the problem once again reappeared.

"The hard drive was failing right along," she says. Finally, in January 2004, her calls were escalated from a series of phone representatives to a customer service manager, who sent her a new hard drive. It was bad enough that the original drive failed, Porter says, but it was worse that Compaq's support reps wouldn't acknowledge that she was experienced with computers and had already attempted to troubleshoot the problem herself.

IBM's Satisfied Users

IBM's ThinkPad notebook group seems to be a case study in good customer service. IBM notebook owners gave the company the best phone support and service scores we saw in either the desktop or laptop category. While the company's reliability measures ran in the middle of the pack, customers absolutely loved the service.

IBM's secret starts with a little southern hospitality, says IBM's Terry Jenkins, manager of global service and support, personal computing division. "Every single call goes through one phone number in Atlanta," he says. IBM's Atlanta-based call center opened in June 2003.

IBM has also expanded its Thinkvantage program, which gives customers diagnostic tools for identifying problems more quickly. And in a notable decision, IBM has implemented "expedited lines" whereby if you call in with a wireless connection problem, say, you can be routed to a wireless specialist.

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