May 01, 2002

Three Cheers for the Private Sector!

The Private Sector: Apple Computer's Mail-in Repair Service:

04/30/2002 19:11:00 PT Shipped/Completed
04/30/2002 16:46:00 PT Unit In Burnin
04/30/2002 14:04:00 PT Unit In Repair
04/26/2002 11:22:00 PT Unit In Repair
04/26/2002 11:22:00 PT Hold-Admin/Requote
04/26/2002 10:00:00 PT Unit Received
04/22/2002 16:13:00 PT Request Acknowledged
Tracking Number: 76513889373

The Non-Profit Sector: U.C. Berkeley's Workstation Hardware Support Group

04/22/2002 11:00:00 PT Give up. Call Apple Computer Mail-in Repair, and ask them to send me a laptop box overnight express so I can get the fix started...
04/22/2002 10:50:00 PT Think of embarking on major campaign to improve quality of life at Berkeley by taking an axe to the root of the bureaucracy, and getting rid of managers who think that people seeking services (and expecting people to do what they said they would do--or make sure you know they've changed their course of action) are annoyances to be brushed off. Think of writing to Chancellor...
04/22/2002 10:40:00 PT Think of other clever things should have said to manager, like: "Have you thought about changing your name from 'Workstation Hardware Support Group' to 'Workstation Hardware Inconvenience Group'?"
04/22/2002 10:30:00 PT Think of clever things should have said to manager, like: "2000 machines a year? That's 40 machines a week. 8 technicians? That's one machine per technician per day. Sounds to me like plenty of time to communicate with your customers..."
04/22/2002 10:20:00 PT Call WHSG again. Talk to manager. Say one (lost) voice mail warning me that they are not going to do what they said they would do was not enough. They say it should be enough. They say listen to your voice mail. They say get reliable cell phone provider. I ask whether anybody thought it strange that laptop has now sat on shelf for seven days given I brought it in within one hour of problem emerging. They say no. They say not keep track of machines on shelf.

I change tack. I say disappointed they not make certain that contact was achieved. Say expect followup voice mail or email if no response to their message. Manager says: 2000 machines a year; no time for followup voice mails or emails; my fault warning message not gotten. I ask what WHSG can do to make my life easier, since laptop repair delayed for week. Manager says: no loaner machines. Manager says: you can pick your machine up anytime between 10 and 4 and send it to Apple yourself.

04/22/2002 10:15:00 PT Go back over Verizon voice mail. No sign of message from F--- G---. (But Verizon voice mail has been somewhat wonky recently.)
04/22/2002 10:10:00 PT Call technician F--- G---. Leave message. Call again. Talk to somebody. They say records show "in communication" with me last Monday. I say no conversation at all, last Monday or any other time. They correct themselves: say F--- G--- left message on my Verizon voice mail number.
04/22/2002 10:00:00 PT Call Workstation Hardware Support Group to see when laptop expected back from Apple. Workstation Hardware Support Group says machine never sent to Apple--machine sitting on shelf in WHSG office. I ask why machine not sent. They respond that machine too damaged to send to Apple. I query: surely send damaged machine to get fixed? They respond that case damaged, and that Apple likely to give me a better deal if I send machine in myself. I query why nobody told me about this--and ask how long machine would have sat there on shelf had I not checked up? They shrug shoulders. Suggest I call technician, F--- G---.
04/15/2002 10:00:00 PT Socket where laptop mates with its power plug broken. Laptop cannot be charged up or run off of AC power because cannot be plugged in. Frantically transfer tax files to other machines over Airport as battery dies. Take laptop to Berkeley Workstation Hardware Support Group. They say unit will have to be sent to Apple--and that either I can do it, or they can do it. I say, "You do it. I really don't have time." They say, "OK." I say, "I'll call back early next week to see how things are going." They say, "OK."

From an economist's point of view, this is an excellent example of just why it is that private-sector businesses are so much more efficient on average than public-sector or non-profit-sector bureaucracies. I'm not going to go back to WHSG for any service, ever again, if I have any control over things: from my perspective--if I am, as I think I am, willing to pay $40 a day to get my laptop fixed and back faster--WHSG has burned $300 worth of well-being by its (a) changing its mind about what to do without talking to me, and (b) failing to make the minimal effort needed to make sure that I was informed about the change of plan. Since they've just cost me the equivalent of $300 for no reason--how have they benefitted from this? Not at all--I don't want to see them again.

But do they care? Does their manager care that the next time I need a machine fixed, I won't go to WHSG? Almost surely not. The flow of machines into WHSG is by and large a command-and-control process dictated by Berkeley's internal bureaucratic procedures. The flow of machines into WHSG is not directly connected to his budget. So there are no costs to him of having me annoyed. There is a--small--cost involved in speaking sharply to his technicians, and saying: "Geez. Make sure people know what you are doing if you change the plan." But the only thing impelling him to make that effort to improve communication between technicians and people wanting their machines fixed is the subjective feeling of doing a good job, and that plus $2.00 will barely get you three stops on the BART at rush hour.

At this point someone is sure to raise an objection: "Isn't Apple Computer a big bureaucracy too? Why shouldn't it be as rude, as inefficient, and as careless with its customers as Berkeley Workstation Hardware Support?" The answer is that the pressures are there, but that they are offset by market discipline. If Apple does not sell its products and services to buyers, it dies as an organization, and everyone inside Apple knows that their jobs depend on the organization's profits in a very real and immediate sense. So there are constant pressures on Apple to make its customers happy wherever it can do so cheaply--and putting the status of repairs-in-process up on Apple's website in real time is one thing that makes customers happy, and is cheap and easy to do.

Now this doesn't mean that everything should be privatized: you don't want ruthless and efficient concentration on improving the bottom line $$$$$ figure everywhere. But surely Workstation Hardware Support should be privatized. Surely it's in no one's interest to have repair technicians who have never been told that keeping customers happy when they can do so easily and cheaply is part of their job, and that making sure customers know what is going on is an easy way to keep them happy.

Posted by DeLong at May 1, 2002 03:25 PM | TrackBack

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