Tenacity more help than warranty

CONSUMING INTERESTS

October 30, 2007|By DAN THANH DANG

Marquette Brand's tenacity came in handy when she tried to get computer maker Gateway Inc. to fix her broken laptop under warranty. Almost every other response she got was "No."

Where most people would have given up or coughed up any amount of money just to be rid of the problem, Brand demanded fairness.

"I just didn't like the way I was treated as a customer," Brand said. "I know I didn't buy a million dollars' worth of computers from them, but that doesn't mean I don't deserve to be treated with respect."

Anyone who has wrestled with warranty issues knows it can feel like a journey through the nine circles of hell. Theoretically, warranties are supposed to repair, replace or remedy a service or product that's not functioning properly. Consumers often believe, or are led to believe, that warranties will cover any damage.

Read most warranties and you'll see that's far from true. In almost all cases, warranties stipulate that companies will not cover damage caused by misuse, accidents, fire, theft, normal wear and tear, or acts of God.

In other words, as Eric Arnum explained to Sun intern Sara Murray, almost all damage will likely be viewed as your fault.

"The burden of proof is on the consumer," said Arnum, editor of Warranty Week, a newsletter for warranty management professionals. "Unless the consumer can prove it's a common problem, their claims will be denied 9 out of 10 times."

Proving that, unfortunately, requires a level of expertise in physics, mechanics, or some other gobbledygook specialty that most consumers don't possess. That near impossibility of proof renders most warranties useless.

That didn't stop Brand, though.

On Aug. 22, the 37-year-old Randallstown law student opened up her almost new laptop and screamed. Like a spreading ink blot, a crack snaked its way across the liquid crystal display screen, Brand said.

Brand called Gateway support right away. A customer service rep assured her that the one-year warranty would cover the defect. The next day, a box arrived at her home to ship back the computer, which Brand had purchased in February for $577.49.

It was too good to be true.

When Brand shipped the laptop back in early October - she held onto the computer to complete work for her law classes - Gateway sent her a letter asking for additional information.

"I called in and spoke to a corporate manager who said the first guy was wrong and that the written warranty doesn't cover a cracked LCD screen," Brand said. "I read the warranty. I told him there was nothing in the warranty that said a cracked screen wasn't covered. I asked to speak to someone above him. He told me there was no one above him.

Brand said she responded, "Unless you're the CEO, there's somebody above you.'"

But she also realized she was fighting a losing battle. She ended the call and then called the customer service line again. This time, she said she found a slightly more helpful rep who transferred her to yet one more rep who spoke to her rudely.

"He said, `Anyone with common sense would know that a cracked screen is not covered. Any misuse or abuse is not covered,'" Brand said. "I told him, "I didn't misuse or abuse it. That's tantamount to you calling me a liar.'"

Keeping her cool, Brand said she called the service line again until she reached someone helpful. Finally, Customer Service Rep Casey listened to her story, apologized to Brand and then had a technician examine the laptop again.

"She said he couldn't determine what caused the crack, whether it was abuse, misuse or defective material," Brand said. "So she proposed a solution. She said, `If you pay $225, I'll pay the rest.' I agreed to that on Oct. 12. I gave her a credit-card number. On Monday, Oct. 15, FedEx brought the laptop to my home."

Brand was relieved but decided to write Gateway chief executive Ed Coleman to share her experience.

"It took me five or six calls before I finally reached someone who finally listened to me and helped me," Brand said. "I give them credit for the one person who listened, but it doesn't discount the other people who treated me badly. I wanted him to know what was going on at his company beneath him."

Gateway spokesman David Hallisey said that Brand's experience "is not normal procedure," and that, "Our goal is to resolve things immediately."

That being said, Hallisey also said, "Unless the screen is damaged during shipping, I can't think of any instances where a customer has proved or could prove that the screen cracked on its own."

Since Brand used the laptop problem-free for almost seven months, she had little chance of convincing anyone at Gateway that the crack was not her fault - even if it wasn't.

"Gateway ended up paying for half of the repairs in the interest of customer satisfaction," Hallisey said.

What's the take-away here?

If you really believe you're not at fault, keep calling until you reach someone who is willing to listen. Don't harass and do be polite as you explain your position again and again and again.

If your warranty problem still isn't resolved, take it to the top. Again, like Brand, write to the CEO. An executive team at most companies deals specifically with complaints that reach the chief's desk.

If you're offered a reasonable resolution, react reasonably. Realize that many companies hear excuses day in and day out why damage isn't a customer's fault. Should the company refund all or part of your money, race to the bank with their check. Brand was smart to accept the 50-50 split on fixing her laptop screen.

Finally, and most importantly, never make the mistake of relying on a warranty to cover your assets.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@baltsun .com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming.

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