A routine problem

We started selling Hewlett-Packard printers in 1991. Sometimes we sold other brands, but we always stuck with HP and Epson for the vast bulk of our printer requirements. We don't sell a lot of printers — computers are our thing, printers just an adjunct to the core business — but I guess we go through a couple of hundred units in a good year. Back in those days, HP products were excellent, and HP service was faultless.

‘This was not an isolated incident. This was simply the last and worst of a long and sorry series of events.’

In September or October of 2001 we ordered a pair of Deskjet 640s because we'd just sold the last one on the shelf. At this particular time we were mainly selling Epsons, but the product mix changes all the time, depending on the current model line up. Up until a few months before that we had been selling mostly HPs.

The two Deskjet 640s sat there on the shelf for a week or two, which is nothing unusual. Some weeks you sell ten printers, other weeks none at all. Some time in October we sold a new computer system with a printer bundled. The printer came back a day or two later: it was faulty and wouldn't print, said the owner.

We powered it up and ran the self test. Passed no problem. Just to double-check, we plugged it into a computer and tried to print: not ready error. Swapped the cable, checked the drivers, tried again. No go. Tried a USB cable. Tried to print from a boot disc with the time-honoured DOS COPY command, but that was the same. So we took another Deskjet 640 off the shelf and gave it to our customer, who went away happy.

That, after all, is what we are here for: to send our customers away happy. Incidentally, it is also why we are still in business after fifteen years in an industry where the failure rate of retailers is a legend.

The routine solution

A little later, perhaps a week or so, we got time to start the RMA procedure. Now with any normal product, you take a form and fill it out with the product details, the fault description, the relevant invoice number, and you fax it off to the supplier. The usual thing is to wait till you have three or four things that need to be returned — maybe two motherboards, a hard drive, and a modem, and then spend 10 or 20 minutes doing the paper work. Sometime later, usually the next day, you go to the fax machine and transfer the RMA numbers that your suppliers have sent you to the goods (which you have already packed up in anticipation), and put them out the front ready for the courier to pick them up.

Every now and then you need to go through your RMA book to make sure that the stuff you sent off has all been returned to you. Most of the better suppliers will have the goods back within a week, very few things take longer than a month.

But with Hewlett-Packard it is different. For HP products you have to use the telephone.

Bureaucracy gone mad

And this is where the trouble starts. We already knew from past experience that HP's call centre takes forever to do anything. For a start, they want you to go through a set procedure with you on the telephone, which is (a) a complete waste of time, since you have already done the troubleshooting long since, and (b) usually impossible, as you don't normally have the customer's entire computer system in front of you, let alone time and space to set it up and test it all over again.

But with practice you can persuade them that, yes, you have tested the printer properly, that yes, you have worked with computer equipment before — in fact that between you and the rest of the staff you have 40-odd years of hands-on computer experience going right back to the 1970s — and that, yes, the printer is actually faulty and you just need an RMA number for it. On average, this takes about ten minutes.

Then comes the hard bit: actually getting the RMA number.

‘According to HP, the printer wasn't DOA, and it didn't belong to an end-user.

Therefore it didn't exist.’

Hewlett-Packard have a procedure. Essentially, it allows for two possibilities and two possibilities only. Either you have just bought the printer and it is DOA, or else you are an end-user.

If you are an end-user, then you are supposed to call HP direct and then find a way to ship the unit to Melbourne at your own expense. Most people don't know how to do that — Melbourne is two hours drive away from Ballarat, and anything up to six hours away from the more remote parts of the state. And anyway, very few people think to call Hewlett-Packard. They bought the printer from Red Hill Technology, so if it doesn't work they call Red Hill Technology (which seems perfectly sensible and reasonable to me). So, when we have an HP printer fail six months out, we ask the customer to call HP themselves on HP's toll-free number, make a note of the RMA details HP give them, and bring the printer into us. We will take care of packing it up and shipping it off to Melbourne for them, we pay the freight, and HP can return it either direct to the customer or via us, whichever suits.

We don't have a problem with that. It's not as good as the normal fill-out-a-form-and-fax-it method, but it's workable. And we appreciate that a lot of people buy HP printers from supermarket-style operations that can't do even the simplest of repair and diagnostic work, and thus understand that HP need a direct-to-the-end-user service organisation.

So much for possibility number one. Possibility number two is the DOA.

If the printer is less than two weeks old then it counts as DOA and you RMA it in the ordinary way through your wholesaler. (Fill out a form and fax it.) The wholesaler sends an authorisation and you ship the printer back to them, they ship it to Hewlett-Packard and you get a replacement. But the DOA procedure HP uses is very rigid. So far as the wholesaler is concerned, if they don't get it back to Hewlett-Packard within their two week period, then there is nothing they can do, outside of giving you a new printer and throwing the faulty one away. (Which we don't expect them to do, of course.)

Now comes the real issue. What if the printer does not belong to an end-user and it is not less than two weeks old? This is the hole that our Deskjet 640 fell into. It had been on our shelf for some time. Maybe more than two weeks, maybe not. Then it went to the customer for two or three days, then it sat waiting for another week or two until Kristi managed to find a free half-hour to waste on the telephone with Hewlett-Packard. (For a normal fax RMA request she would have only needed to find two or three minutes.)

A half-hour later, she came to me saying that she was completely unable to get any sense out of them. They were saying that if the printer passed its self-test there was nothing wrong with it and refusing to issue an RMA. She was still on hold after 25 minutes when she gave up.

So I called them myself — and got absolutely nowhere. I can be very polite, perfectly clear, and very firm when I need to be. I wasted three quarters of an hour and got the exact same run-around that Kristi got. This was a Friday afternoon and I had customers queued up waiting to talk to me. Eventually I had to hang up and do some real work.

There the matter rested for two or three weeks. According to Hewlett-Packard, the printer wasn't DOA, and it didn't belong to an end-user, therefore it didn't exist. Perhaps if I'd had another couple of hours to waste on the telephone I could have achieved a result of some kind, but time is money and I had more urgent tasks to attend to. In the final analysis, spending upwards of three hours to get a replacement for a $200 printer just isn't worth it. Better to throw the damn thing away and spend those hours doing something useful, like earning my $200 back.

Getting results ... eventually

But the matter bugged me. I don't like being ripped off. We paid good money for that printer.

At this stage another customer comes into the story. Lucy was a student. She had bags of time but very little money and she needed a computer with a printer. Ahah! (I thought.) I'll sell the printer to Lucy at half price — taking a $100 loss on it — and she can spend however long it takes on Hewlett-Packards' RMA line. She is an end user (which I'm not), she will fit into their procedure and be able to get the warranty honoured. I put the idea to her and she jumped at the chance to get a brand-new printer at well below cost. An hour or two on the phone was no problem at all for her, and the $100 saving meant that she would be able to afford a printer after all.

‘That cost an afternoon's wages for David, but now I could call HP again and demand that they honour the warranty’

Problem solved.

No it wasn't! Hewlett-Packard, when she called them, went right back to insisting that if it passed the self-test there was nothing wrong with it. She spend a long time on the phone to them — I'm not sure exactly how long — and got nowhere. Eventually she called me for help.

I got her to bring me the printer and had David (one of our part-timers) spend an entire Wednesday afternoon testing the Deskjet 640, making careful notes of every step he took. On my instructions, David plugged it into five or six different computers, using two different USB cables and three different parallel cables, and then doing a test print on each computer with a Epson we had handy. Of course, I had already done this same thing months before (though with just two or maybe three computers) but now I had it detailed exactly in writing. That cost an afternoon's wages for David, but now I could call HP again and demand that they honour their warranty.

But even with this detailed evidence, it still took a half-dozen phone calls, several more hours including well over one hour on hold (I timed several of the calls, I can probably find my notes and give exact durations if need be), some very plain talking (no, I don't mean bad language — you never use bad language when you are doing this sort of thing, no matter what the provocation), and an utter determination on my part not to let Hewlett-Packard get away with refusing to honour the warranty on a printer that had never, ever worked from the moment it was taken out of the box.

Time-wise it was a disaster. I could have made twice the value of that printer in the time it took me to finally get warranty service out of Hewlett-Packard, or treated myself to a whole day off and still been financially better off.

In the end, I only got results by making it 100% clear that I was not going to go away without getting a fair result, and that if Hewlett-Packard didn't either honour their warranty or refund my purchase price right now I would spend the following Monday at the Office of Fair Trading — the Victorian government body that exists to deal with commercial fraud. One way or another I was getting that printer fixed.

Eventually, after endlessly saying "it doesn't matter how far up you take this, my superior will give you the exact same answer I am giving you", Hewlett-Packard came around to seeing it my way, and a few days later they sent a courier to swap me over with a replacement unit which, so far as I know, works fine.

This was not an isolated incident. This was simply the last and worst of a whole series of HP horror stories. This is why we are never, ever going to sell a Hewlett-Packard printer again. In fact, I doubt that we will ever again sell any Hewlett-Packard product.

In the longer term

I have been selling printers here at Red Hill every year for fifteen straight years now, probably sold three or four thousand in that time, maybe more: roughly half each of HP and Epson if we discount the 5% or 10% of other brands. And I'll be selling them for another ten or twenty years before I reach retirement age.

→ At right, a reminder of the grand old days when the Hewlett-Packard badge was an infallible sign of great engineering: an HP 10C calculator. I bought one of these in 1982. It was hellishly expensive — twice the price of any other brand — but worth every penny. Twenty years and uncountable thousands of keystrokes later, it is still in regular use and, though much scratched and very battered, the old 10C still works perfectly. It's hard to think of a better example of the old saw that "they don't make 'em like they used to".

In short, Hewlett-Packard, you just spent an estimated $100 to $200 on paying your call-centre for staff time and toll-free long distance calls, and in the end the only thing you achieved was spending an extra $20 on sending your own courier to make the swap-over instead of letting us ship the dead one to you in the normal way. (We'd have paid the freight coming back too if you'd asked us to — what the hell, we have accounts with several different couriers. What's one extra carton when we already spend two or three thousand on freight per year?)

All this to save replacing one lousy printer which retails for $200. Take out those two $60 ink cartridges and you were looking at a possible saving of $80 Australian — that's $40 US.

And in the meantime, Hewlett-Packard, you've lost two customers.

Lucy, who will no doubt buy four or five Epson or Canon or Lexmark printers over the next ten years or so, when she finishes studying and starts earning and has a family.

And me.

In among my other duties, I plan to be the purchasing manager at here Red Hill for quite some time yet — seeing as I own the business I guess I'm allowed to make the odd decision now and then — and the only other candidate for the position is my business partner, who is in charge of our RMA department and is, if possible, even less keen on doing business with Hewlett-Packard than I am. And she's twenty years younger, which means she might be around the place for longer.

Now we are just a small dealer. Over the next ten years we will probably only sell two or three thousand printers. But small shops that stay in business for a long time add up to some serious dollars. Hewlett-Packard, on my rough figures, you just lost a thousand sales. Not a one-time deal for 1000 printers with your margin cut to the bone, 1000 individual full-price sales.

Probably quite a lot more than that actually, as we don't have time to tell this whole sad story to every single one of the people who come in looking for a printer, so to make life easy on ourselves I'll print this out and put it up on our showroom notice board, right there next to the Epson print samples and the Athlon poster, where we can just point to it and say "that is why we don't sell Hewlett-Packard" and get right on with business. I guess that means that a lot of the people who buy their printers from the chain stores up the road, but come into our busy little shop for service or spare parts and stand around for twenty minutes in the showroom waiting to get a word with me or Kristi, won't buy Hewlett-Packard printers either.

This is a country town you know. Old-fashioned. Country people take service seriously. HP, if you want to be still in business when I retire, you better start taking it seriously too.

Tony Wilson