Don't despair; a service rep might be able to help

Don't despair; a service rep might be able to help

By Thomas R. Temin

GCN Staff

Erin Beasley exists. Unlike Betty Crocker or Uncle Ben, Erin is a real person'a spare-parts order fulfiller deep inside Dell Computer Corp.'s vast support organization.

Michael Dell, buy her lunch and flowers.

Thanks to Erin, I completed a simple upgrade of my still-serviceable, 4-year-old Dell home PC. My 11-year-old son had topped off its 1.6G hard drive from Western Digital Corp. of Irvine, Calif., downloading MP3 songs. Plus, the BIOS was still the original, and I wanted to add a Zip drive from Iomega Corp. of Roy, Utah.

In total, I spent a good eight hours getting $200 worth of drives and a free BIOS installed. It was a hobbyist thing to do, not practical for work [GCN, Jan. 10, Page 25].

My lessons learned:

''People are still terribly important in customer support, no matter how many database-driven, auto-responders vendors install.

''For large organizations such as agencies, it's hard to see how upgrading hardware could be cost-effective, given the time it takes.

''Web transaction systems have a long way to go, if my experience with Dell'purported to be the best at this game'is any indication.

Because I'm editor of GCN, I take special care to acquire things the same way as an ordinary customer. Insider help from marketing or public relations would violate the ethical code of my job. And as the editor of a computer paper, I ought to do this myself.

At one time, guys fiddled with carburetors and valve lifters, but electronics have made it all but impossible to service your own engine. The proverbial shade tree in the yard has turned into the desk strewn with clean metal parts and greaseless screwdrivers.

The Dell case was easy to remove, and the drive cage flipped out on a hinge to reveal an easily accessible second bay equipped with an extra Enhanced IDE controller connector and power plug. This should be easy, I thought. I ordered a 6.4G Western Digital Caviar drive from Micro Warehouse Inc. of Norwalk, Conn., and it arrived the next day.

Mechanical installation was a cinch, thanks to that chassis and clear directions with the drive. But the bootable utility disk hung up when I powered on the computer.

A call to Western Digital's tech support'open on Saturdays'elicited a cheery, 'Oh, you must have a corrupt disk. Go to our Web site and download the utilities and make a new disk, then call back.'

Out for a drive

I made a new floppy as instructed, and it booted fine, but I couldn't install the utilities. Instead, I got an error message: 'These utilities are for Western Digital drives. No Western Digital drives are detected.'

I called tech support and got a great person; I'm sorry I didn't get his name. His workaround instructions were basically to pull the secondary EIDE controller channel cable off what he termed the 'toys''my CD-ROM drive and the recently installed Zip drive'and use it to copy the old disk onto the new one. Then, he said, disconnect the primary controller from the old drive, unplug the power, and hook the primary channel to the new drive and the secondary channels back up to the toys, leaving the old drive in the bay for safekeeping.

Great solution, but how in the heck would one know to do that? It ain't in the directions.

The utilities worked fine, and the disk partitioned itself under Microsoft Windows 95 into four logical disks. Windows also relettered the other spindles.

Dell's Web site told me that my machine had a BIOS update available. I downloaded it to a floppy, and from there I was on my own. But if you don't know your MS-DOS commands, you'll never be able to update a BIOS.

The Zip drive installation was, as I said, a snap, or nearly so. I guess there's a reason Iomega has sold a gazillion of the things. Here the problem was not the software, but mating the drive mechanically to the chassis.

I should note that I've never had to call tech support for the PC, and it's never given me a moment's trouble. Of course, the software has been software, but that's another story.

The Micro Warehouse salesman told me, in effect, don't worry, you don't need any mounting hardware. The Dell support person I checked with initially said the same thing. A response to my e-mail query about mounting hardware elicited this Dell response about the Zip drive: 'It's compatible!'

It turned out I did so need mounting hardware'specifically, a pair of nylon guide rails that screw into the sides of the drive bracket so it snaps in place. Without them, the Zip drive would sit loose on top of the CD drive.

Dell's toll-free parts ordering service is open only from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, Central time'old-fashioned bankers' hours. My 1 p.m. Eastern call at lunchtime was useless. I remembered to try again at about 4:50 p.m., 10 minutes before Dell's closing. I stayed on hold until about 5:10 p.m., when I was cut off.

Dell's support Web site repeatedly crashed my browser at work and at home. Finally, on a Saturday, I managed to drill down to where I could enter my computer's service code. An error message came back saying Dell was unable to fulfill my request. When I finally reached someone on Monday, I found out that because the PC had been delivered to my office, I had to enter my service code as a government agency. Yes, an adapter was available, but I'd have to order it from spare parts; tech support couldn't take orders.

When I came in via the government tab on Dell's home page, Dell's database knew the model, specifications and shipping date of my machine. I clicked through to spare parts and ordered a $9 bracket for the Zip drive, paying $5 for shipping. I got the order and billing confirmation. Two weeks later, I e-mailed the confirming mailbox and asked, 'Am I going to ever, like, get this part?'

This is where Erin comes in.

It turned out that Dell no longer supports the part, she wrote back, but she was working on it. Now at least I had a knowledgeable person to deal with. Several e-mails later, Erin said she'd located a part with a different number from that listed in Dell's parts list, but it would work. She had to go outside normal materials management channels to find it.

The system had lost my credit card information. I could e-mail it to her, but that would circumvent Dell's encrypted messaging system.'So I telephoned'you can get right through if you have a person's five-digit phone extension'and was quite surprised to hear a woman say, 'Hello, this is Erin.'

The upshot: Two weeks later, the rails arrived and I put the computer back together.

Makes me appreciate seat management.

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