September 16, 2007

The Problem with Big Box Tech Shops

Post inspired by this article

As many of you know, in addition to being a tech for a non-profit, I also work for one of the "big box" stores (in a non-tech/non-sales role). I hear customers complain about our tech service, I read reports about how customers get scammed by other tech shops, etc. My feelings on this are very mixed because I work on both sides of the spectrum.

From being a tech, I know customers tend to lie, not miscommunicate, not misrepresent, just out right lie... They also usually don't know what is broken, they use terminology they don't fully understand and because of this they say things like "my hard drive is bad" when they really mean "my computer wont boot up" They think "Hard drive" = "computer" so that in it self is a problem.

From working in the big box store, I know the techs they hire, for the most part, are sub-par. Don't get me wrong, I have met some -good- techs. Many of them are working there as a second job (we live in an area with a very high cost of living, and tech pay is much lower than the national average) , but the majority of them are under trained, and some are just plain dumb.

The stores like to hire sales people then teach them to be techs, because they think learning to fix a computer (most issues that customers have) is easier than teaching to be a good sales person. Only, they forget to teach the tech part, and doing good diagnostics is hard to teach.

In addition to having poor techs, the people talking with the customer, taking down notes of what the customer says the problem is, checking in the computer, etc. ARE NOT TECHS. They typically are the ones who want to be techs, but don't have the skill yet. So there is the tendancy to get bad info from the customers, which make the tech who is diagnosing the problem have an even harder time (and many times misdiagnose) which makes the tech who is doing the repair, fix the wrong thing, then the guy doing quality control check to see if the wrong thing is fixed.

It is really a prime example of "garbage in garbage out".

For example:

  1. Customer comes in and says "my wireless card is broken so I can't connect to my wireless router"
  2. Person checking in the computer writes down "wireless NIC is bad, can't connect to wireless network" or in some cases, takes what he hears and makes his own diagnoses (remember many of these people think they are techs, but don't really know much and don't realize it. or they think they know whats wrong, because they may not know of other things that could cause the same problem.)
  3. Tech as a first step reinstalls the NIC (probably doesn't even test to see if it working before reinstalling because this would be his next step anyway)
  4. Once reinstalled, he updates drivers etc. Then tries to connect to a wireless network and it works.
  5. Quality control person verifies that it can connect to a wireless network. Then calls the computers owner and has them come pick it up.
  6. Customer goes home and still can't get online, then calls back upset because we "didn't fix their computer"
This is a very common problem. The issue isn't that we didn't fix their computer, its that it probably wasn't properly diagnosed to begin with. The techs did what they were told, the wireless was broken and now it works. What really needed to happen was for the person taking the computer in to figure out -WHY- it couldn't connect to the wireless. Maybe the customer just didn't know how to connect to a wireless network.(this would be my first guess) Another problem could be the wireless router (this is probably what the store would blame next, and recommend buying a new router) So because they didn't diagnose the problem to begin with, it never got resolved.

Why this is an important issue:

First, because they are wasting customers time and money. This is a big problem, customers are why the store is there. No customers = no money. Pissed off customers are loud customers, so having one trash your tech shop is a great way to not get more customers.

Second, its bad for business. Even if the customer is wrong, the store needs to fix the problem. They warranty their work, so until the customer is satisfied, they are spending time and money fixing the issue. In the case of in home repairs/set-ups for the store I work, they warranty the work for 30 days. That means if it stops working in 30 days or less we send a tech back to fix it. We also out-source most of our in-home stuff. The techs we hire get paid ~$50 per "job". We charge the customer ~$150.00 per job. So if the tech gets it right, we make ~$100 per job. However, many times we have to send a tech out more than once, and each time we pay out that $50 again. I've seen techs get deployed to the same house up to 5 times, thats a loss 100 bucks for the sale, plus what ever time it took to talk to the customer on the phone, plus the bad word of mouth to other customers.

The same goes if customers bring in their computer over and over saying we never fixed it. If the store is paying a tech $15.00/hr (which is about average in a big box store shop) and they charge 150 for a repair, thats a huge profit. Most repairs take less than an hour of a techs hands on time (i.e. a windows install may take 45 minutes but only 2 minutes of it is a tech touching the keyboard. Same with virus scans, updates etc) but if a tech is actively diagnosing and researching a problem it is burning real time. if he has to look at the same computer 4 times, and it takes longer each time (which it will because its harder to diagnose a problem you think is fixed) your profit is shrinking a huge amount.

What to do about it:

As a customer you have a few options, and a lot of power. Your options are as follow:

  1. Stop going to big box stores. Find a local tech or a small tech shop (although these are also known for scamming and sub-par work) and use them. They are typically cheaper, are far less sales oriented, and have better quality control.
  2. Keep going to a big box store, but complain until the job is done right. Be polite when doing it thought. Screaming at a tech will not fix the problem. in fact, it is likely to get him to say anything to shut you up, then put your computer in the bottom of his "to-do" pile because you just pissed him off. Be as nice as you can (and the tech should return that gesture and be as helpful as possible) and work together to resolve the issue (like should have happened to begin with)
  3. Educate yourself. This is the most important if you want to protect yourself. You don't need to be a computer expert to resolve most computer issues. But you do need some knowledge. Learn the basic components of your computer, this way if you take it to a shop and they say "the RAM is bad...it will cost you 300 bucks to replace" you know they are full of crap because you know RAM isn't that expensive. Learn some basic trouble shooting steps and be patient enough to call your manufacturers tech support. They will help you diagnose some problems (although they are wrong often as well) Learn the basics of your operating system is. And learn how to use Google. If nothing else, copy the error down when it pops up, then go to Google and type it in and hit search. Most likely a few results will come back and you will have an idea of what the problem might be.
  4. Dont be affraid to get a second opinion. It may cost you some in the beggining, but could save you a bundle in the end.
  5. Please please please dont let "your friend who knows a lot about computer" toy around with it, unless he really is a tech. Too many times, that friend knows just a little more than you, and ends up messing things up even more.
  6. Fell free to walk away. if you don't like they way a tech, or anyone, is treating you, then walk. They don't deserve your business.
  7. Don't give in to their sales techniques. Remember, that tech you are talking to in a big store like BestBuy or CompUSA has a sales quota. And the more they sell the more they get paid. (they don't get a comission but do get a "spiff" on certain services they sell) Treat these guys like car sales men.

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