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Note to tech companies: When you don't deliver on your promises, watch out. Customers have long memories--and they hold grudges. And if you wrong them, they won't come back. Just ask Curtis Gans and George Schwarz.

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Photograph: Robert Cardin

Gans, who lives in Lovettsville, Virginia, favors Hewlett-Packard these days but says that he is no longer a fan of Dell: "I've had relatively good service from HP, and sufficiently terrible service from Dell," says Gans, a faculty member at American University in Washington, D.C. He soured on Dell a year and a half ago, following a couple of bad tech-support calls. The low point occurred when a disc became stuck in his Dell PC's CD-ROM drive. A Dell tech support rep instructed Gans by phone to dismantle his PC, and then "ended his workday and left me with a machine in pieces on the floor." Even worse, the tech never got back to Gans, who had forgotten to write down the man's name or number. In the end, Gans paid a "local geek" to repair his PC. As a result, Gans is done with Dell: "I will never buy from them again."

Schwarz, of Amarillo, Texas, holds the opposite opinion. "I've found HP to be incredibly unresponsive to customers," says Schwarz, who publishes a small local newspaper, the Amarillo Independent, and who has four HP computers--three at work and one at home. Though Schwarz considers his HP systems to be reliable, he's had it with HP support. The vendor never responded to two of his written queries--the first on the subject of shipping HP systems via UPS, and the second regarding problems with downloading HP software updates. In a separate incident, an HP technician wouldn't help him repair an out-of-warranty system, even though Schwarz had originally contacted HP about the problem during the machine's warranty period. Will he buy from HP again? "The answer is no. In fact, the answer is hell no," he says adamantly.

Vendors cringe at such stories, but they say they're working to improve their customers' experience. Says Dell vice president of customer support Dick Hunter: "There are no silver bullets in this. What we're trying to do is go back to the basics, which is taking care of the customer's problem on the first call."

On the other hand, when tech companies consistently deliver rugged, reliable products, customers are eager to talk about it. Allen Brooks, a computer support professional in Austin, Texas, owns three Lenovo ThinkPad R61 laptops, plus an older IBM R51 portable. "I consider them like the old Checker Cabs--big and bulky but really sturdy," he says. "We like the keyboards. Everyone likes them. They're pretty much indestructible unless the user really gets mad and throws one through the window."

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