A Tale of Shockingly Good Customer Service

Last Updated Jun 10, 2011 12:15 PM EDT

Ask any business owner and you'll hear the same tale: good customer service is a tricky thing to pull off. But it's also critical if you want your business to succeed, and so I want to share a true story of how one company defied expectations and turned an unhappy customer into a delighted one.

I own two HP desktops. Different makes, different sizes, different ages. About a month ago, one of them died abruptly: it would no longer recognize the hard drive. Two weeks later to the day, the second one suffered the exact same fate.

Luckily, I was able to rescue my data from both. Turns out the hard drives were fine, but the motherboards had failed. A bit of online research lead me to an HP support forum, where I discovered that dozens -- perhaps even hundreds -- of other users had encountered the very same issue. Clearly, HP had used a bad batch of motherboards across a wide range of desktops.

Because both my systems were out of warranty, however, I figured that was that. HP wanted $300 per machine for repairs, which made no sense given the comparable price of brand new desktops.

Of course, I wasn't going to buy more HP gear. Hardware failures happen across all brands (yes, even Apple), but twice in two weeks? And a forum packed with similarly burned users? Think I'll see what's on special at Dell.

Before I parted ways with HP for good, I decided to send an e-mail to CEO Leo Apotheker. (Turns out HP has a special page set up for just such communiques.) Though I expected nothing from it, I described (in polite, non-threatening terms) what had happened and explained that I wouldn't be buying from HP again. Clicking Send gave me only a sliver of satisfaction, as I expected the message would wind up in a virtual dead-letter pile along with thousands of others.

It didn't.

The next day, I received a call from a friendly, apologetic member of HP's customer-service escalation team. We chatted a bit about the situation, and then she turned me over to a case manager. This guy was even friendlier and more apologetic. Alas, because both PCs were out of warranty, the best he could do was offer me 50 percent off the repair charges.

I politely declined. He apologized again, profusely, saying he wished he could do more, and said the offer was good for 30 days if I changed my mind.

Half an hour later, the phone rang again. It was the case manager. He asked me a couple more questions about the systems, then put me on hold for a couple minutes. When he returned, he said, "You know what? I'm going to repair these machines."

The day after that, two shipping boxes arrived at my office. HP was paying for overnight freight, both ways, and expediting the repairs to boot, promising a turnaround time of 4-6 business days.

Needless to say, I was blown away by all of this. And assuming both machines do get fixed properly (they're winging their way to the repair depot as I write this), I will not only buy from HP again, I'll recommend the company to others.

And that, my friends, is the result of good customer service.

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.