Apple vs. Dell: When Support and Innovation Fail

Opinion: Some buyers of Apple's new MacBook notebook are hopping mad about random restarts and heat problems that don't fit with Apple's image. Still, Dell might be happy to have Apple's current problem and a bit of its banked reputation.

How long can a solid-gold brand take a beating and keep on ticking? Apple Computer will find out this quarter with the growing list of user complaints about its recently released MacBook notebook model randomly shutting down.

But its useful to compare Apples response and the expectations of its customers to the problem with the damage control job Dell did recently.

Apple released its entry-level notebook in May, ready for the graduation gift season and with plenty of time during the summer to fill demand for the back-to-school rush.

Quickly, it became evident that the new model was running hot. There are mentions of heat radiating off of the keyboard in posts from late May and early June on MacInTouch, an enthusiast site focused on Mac IT managers.

Then came reports of random shutdowns. A list of complaint threads on Apples support discussion groups kept growing, as did the suggestions of causes and fixes.

Some said the problem was with the RAM. Or with the heat sink on the processor. Or with the firmware. Or with the battery, even though it was the Mac Book Pro that had a recall on some batteries for some models.

Meanwhile, other customers took to the Web to complain about the random shutdown problem. They created a virtual support group for folks seeking the latest info on the problem.

Despite the pain inflicted on customers, I commiserate with Apple technical support. Such a problem, which can be caused by many different causes, is one of the most troublesome types to diagnose.

For example, if theres a heat problem, it can affect some component or trace on the logic board. This degradation may happen over time and weaken a part that then fails every now and then.

But what was the original cause of the failure? That is also hard to determine. And this lack of information is interpreted by customers as poor service and support.

Apple is now telling customers to send their machines back for repair, letting the company get a better sample for testing.

Some fixes may require new parts, some of which may be constrained. Its tough on the operations side of the company.

I spoke to four users of MacBooks. Two had no troubles. One had had a complete logic board failure and received a new machine after a week.

But the fourth customer said he has a severe case of the restart blues. His machine has been into the shop twice, each time the tech saying it was fixed. On the third try, he is still awaiting its return and the five-day fix keeps being extended.

While thats a random selection, its troubling. But thats statistics for you, right? This is a small sample.

Still, Apple has much good will in the bank. Ironically, its great reputation may be fueling the reaction by customers. They expect quality and demand quality. And when its not delivered, they howl.

And Apple has marketed itself as the warm, cuddly company thats better than PC makers. Its customers have internalized that message, leading to feelings of betrayal when something really goes very wrong.

Now, lets look at Dell. Its customers are complaining about lack of innovation and poor support. At last. The company kept cutting costs until there was no innovation and quality left.

There are many Web sites complaining of past problems with Dells hardware and customer service. Some have curse words in their titles.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about readers concerns about Dells innovation gap.

The company is finally admitting that there is a problem needing a fix. Dell executives earlier the week of Sept. 11 said the company will spend millions to beef up its terrible support program and to improve product design.

"We know weve not done this perfectly in the past," CEO Kevin Rollins said at a press event in New York, referring to service and support. "The Dell experience is the number-one priority of the company. It is where we are going to invest this year and for the long term to provide the best customer experience, bar none."

Good luck. It will take more than a couple of press conferences to restore the shine to Dells brand.

Meanwhile, what good will is left with Dells customer base? It has always been a "cool" company, wanting to connect with its customers only through the Web and advertising. Dude, that is the business model.

Apple engineering may have gone wrong somehow with the MacBook. Or perhaps the trouble will be found in just some of the production runs for the notebook.

But Apple can be happy that its still at the stage where its dealing with the problem, moving to defend its industry-leading reputation for innovation and support. The company can spend some of the good will that its saved up over the years in its loyal customer base.

Dell is only beginning to climb out of a deep, deep hole.

It takes time to build a positive brand. Depending on how Apple handles this notebook issue, perhaps we will see how long it takes to erode that brand.

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