Lousy customer service and 'the click of death'

Personal Computers

March 09, 1998|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

AS ANYONE who has spent hours on hold for bad advice can tell you, customer service is not exactly one of the computer industry's strengths. For the Iomega Corp., it was such a sore point that the company singled it out as a problem in its 1996 annual report. After that came lawsuits and the "click of death."

In 1996, Iomega stopped providing free technical support and started the highly unpopular practice of charging $14.99 per phone call regarding Zip and Ditto storage drives and $19.99 for Jaz drives, not counting the value of time wasted hanging on the telephone for what could be a very long time.

Even if the problem involved installation woes, the company demanded a credit-card number before a customer could reach a technician. Exceptions were made for calls regarding defective products, but such dispensations were entirely up to the company.

When frustrated consumers take their grievances to court, interesting things can happen. Thanks to a Delaware class-action suit that is expected to gain final approval April 3, some of Iomega's practices should soon change.

The proposed settlement stipulates that Iomega will provide technical support to Jaz and Ditto customers free of tolls and charges for 30 days from the customer's first call during the warranty period; after that, charges apply. Zip customers are not as lucky. They will still pay $14.99 per call unless the product is defective. But those who bought their units between Jan. 1, 1996, and Sept. 1, 1997, and have not yet been charged for a call, will get a $5 discount off their first one.

People who purchased units before the September date and paid for calls (the settlement delightfully calls them "charged customers") will have their warranties extended six months beyond the original expiration date or the effective date of the settlement, whichever is later.

The settlement goes far beyond remedies for past indignities. Iomega has agreed to set up a toll-free support line to deal with general product concerns and complaints at no charge and, when necessary, refer customers to the fee-for-service technicians.

As for the click of death, it is one of those stories that spread like wildfire in Usenet groups and on the Web. It refers to a Zip drive that repeatedly emits a clicking sound as its magnetic head unsuccessfully tries to find data on a disk, after which some or all of the disk's data are missing. The experience sounds unsettling because it deals with that most frightening experience: data loss.

There is at least a grain of truth here. Iomega's description of the problem at www.iomega.com/

support/techs/zip/2135.html indicates that in rare cases a bad disk may damage a working drive and that such a drive can then go on to damage subsequent disks. But the company points out that it has sold 12 million drives and even more disks (on which it offers a lifetime warranty) and that "only a fraction of a single percent" of its customers have reported the problem. The number of complaints found on the Web appears to be quite low. And many customers have come to the company's defense with stories of positive experiences and reminders that removable disks and portable drives are often subjected to rough treatment, including doses of substances like peanut butter.

As storage products go, Zip drives appear to be reasonably dependable. Jeff Moeser, vice president for desktop products at Micron Electronics Inc., which handles service calls for the Zip drives it builds into many of its computers, said he considered Zip drives as reliable as standard floppy drives. Every computer technician I contacted agreed.

But though the click of death appears to be rare, the drives, like most computer products, are not without quirks. I have run into trouble installing them on certain computers, and the Web site describes plenty of incompatibilities and anomalies.

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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