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IT MAY BE that I’m getting constantly more cantankerous, or it may be simply a coincidence, but I’ve lately had the feeling that almost every business that I have dealings with is being managed at a level of incompetence that is incomprehensible. I don’t know whether it’s significant that most of the examples that I’m going to give are associated with companies dealing in computers and computer products. We are long since accustomed to every business blaming its mistakes on computers – “it’s the computer” is said without a thought. This used to make no sense to me, but, in a way, I believe there is some justice in the statement – an incompetent or indifferent person can undoubtedly make more serious mistakes with a computer than without one. Computers magnify one’s capabilities for better or worse.

Computer stores generally represent the lower bound in knowledge about the products being sold. I remember Tom Quinn once telling that a clerk in Sears tried to sell him a half-inch fitting for a three eighths pipe with the statement that “there’s only an eighth of an inch difference.” This would be absolutely normal in a computer store where if you ask a technical question, the clerk says, “Oh, that’s a hobby sort of question; I deal in business applications,” and if you ask a business question, you get utter nonsense for an answer.

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For example, one day in removing a plug from a computer board, I awkwardly broke off one of the pins and put my printer out of commission. I went to a Vector Graphic dealer (actually to what seems to be a well above average store in technical knowledge) and consulted with a repairman who explained that it took a special vise to open the plug and to reconnect it to the cable. So reluctantly I put in an order for a new cable and plug from Vector Graphic. As you will see from a later letter, my reluctance was only in part due to the $35 cost. Because I did not want to do without my printer for several weeks, I made a tour of computer stores with the plug and received the unanimous opinion that it could not be repaired.

When I got home, realizing that I had nothing to lose, I used a small screwdriver to pry the plug apart and pulled out one of the several unused pins and replaced the broken pin. With bare hands (no vise) I reassembled the plug, put it in the computer, turned on the printer, and started operating – a five-minute job. When I called the store to cancel the new-cable order I told the man what I had done. “You’re a mechanical genius,” he said. I restrained myself from answering, “No, you are an ignoramus, mechanical and otherwise.”

My present run of mixups seemed to start with the sole example that is not computer related. Out of the blue I received a bill for $6 from a printing supply company that I have not dealt with in five or six years. No explanation, the bill was simply marked “past due.” Into the circular file.

Shortly after that I received a bill for something over $98 from American Word Processing Company also marked “over 90-days past due.” The answer to that is a letter found below which at least had the result of the company sending me a statement showing a zero balance. There was no apology or anything like that, of course.

INMAC, a computer products supply outfit, recently announced a “lifetime” floppy disk. Now everyone knows that floppy disks, used in both personal and business computers, have an operating time of, at best, tens or hundreds of hours. Therefore if someone offers “lifetime” disks, it can only mean that he expects to replace the disks as they fail. I’m not sure that INMAC understands that. Their disks, called INMAC Plus, seem to be very good, but they cost more than normal disks. A few of them are bad when you get them, and every one will eventually fail in use. A letter below describes the results of trying to replace disks that were bad to begin with.

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I do have one exception in the computer area. Potomac Micro-Magic, Inc., (PMMI) makes a superior modem (a device that enables computers to communicate by telephone). When I was having trouble communicating at the top rate, I had no way of telling whether the trouble was my new modem or the telephone line itself. The dealer suggested I take it to PMMI in Arlington, Virginia for testing.

He telephoned them that I was coming, and when I arrived, the receptionist got a man out of a meeting who quickly tested my modem. He found nothing wrong with it but checked several new ones at the same time and finally said, “All of these meet specs, but some are more sensitive than others. I’ll exchange yours for the most sensitive one. It may not help, but it can’t hurt.” Then he said, “Please call and let me know whether it helps or not.” It did not immediately help, but after cleaning up my own telephone connection, I can now communicate at the top rate.

When writing letters to companies, I try to keep them straightforward, reasonable, and short enough so that they might possibly read them. Sometimes it is a bit hard to maintain a good-humored approach to the problems, but I try. Letters follow:

American Word Processing Co.
18730 Oxnard Street
Tarzana, CA 91356
Gentlemen:

To put it very mildly, I am annoyed at you. Far from owing you $99.38 as the enclosed invoice claims, I submitted a check for $98.95 with my order. You subsequently cashed the check. This amount was sufficient for the typewheels ordered plus ample funds for shipment. You shipped the order in three pieces and thus ran up a shipping charge higher than I anticipated. I may owe you $0.43 but certainly no more.

The check was #133 dated 14 Feb 1980, drawn on the Navy Federal Credit Union and signed by me. Since the credit union does not return cancelled checks, I do not have that at hand, but a copy of the check showing your endorsement can be obtained for a fee of a dollar or so.

The first invoice I received in February 1980 had my order on the first page; the second page contained nothing but the credit for the above check. Shortly after that I received all but three of the ordered wheels. The rest came in two shipments extending to May 1980. In the meantime I received invoices, some showing a debit and some showing a credit for the wheels not yet shipped. I assume this depended on whether the second page of the invoice was looked at.

Anyway it was evident to me that there was confusion, and I carefully saved all these papers. After the final shipment in May 1980, I heard nothing more from you so I decided you had finally straightened out the matter. However I kept these papers for six more months before finally disposing of them. If you thought I owed you money, why in the world would you wait for well over a year to send me the bill for it?

I have never received but one order (in three parts) from you, and you have never cashed but one check of mine. Can you manage to pair up these? If you want a copy of the cancelled check and are willing to pay the fee the credit union charges for it, let me know and I will oblige.

I did send in one previous order – that ended unpleasantly also. I urgently needed a certain typewheel and ordered two to meet your stated $15 minimum and asked that they be sent first class immediately. Ten days later I got a letter saying your minimum had been raised to $25 and asking me to call some woman to increase my order. Note that the wheels could have been sent with this notice for the same effort. By then the order was no longer urgent, and I had nothing to say that was fit for the ears of the woman I was to call. My check was returned with a note that my deadline had passed. This should have been warning enough not to have further dealings with you.

In any case I am now precluded from ordering from you since I’m sure you would not ship on credit, and I’d certainly be afraid to send you any money as long as you falsely claim I owe you $99.38.

I would very much like to have this matter cleared up. It’s hard enough for me to keep my business affairs straight; it’s not reasonable that I should also have to keep yours.

Sincerely,
Jacob L. Warner

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Microsystems
39 East Hanover Ave.
Morris Plains, NJ 07950
Gentlemen:

This is my third complaint about not receiving your magazine for which I have long since paid. Let me recapitulate:

In September 1981 I attended a computer show in Washington, D.C., and at your booth there I paid for a three-year subscription to your magazine. I think the price was $27. In any case I paid $29 which included two copies of back issues that I received at your booth.

In January 1982, I called your circulation department to complain that I had received no copies from my subscription. The woman I talked to checked the subscription list and said that I was not on it, but if I would send in proof of payment, she would put me on the list. (Notice who is expected to do the bookkeeping.) I sent in a Xerox copy of the credit card statement – the only proof I have that I paid you $29. At the woman’s request, this was sent to the attention of “Frances.”

About the first of March, I again called your circulation department and complained that I had received no magazines. This time a check of the subscription list showed that, indeed, I was on it. I guess that’s some progress, but it still does not suffice for me to actually receive a copy “any day now.” This is to report that one month later I have not received any copy of your magazine.

In addition this woman said that my subscription was for two years. It may seem a little abstruse to complain about the reduction in my subscription period when I’m not getting the magazine anyway, but I’m positive that when I paid my money, it was for a three-year subscription.

At this point I prefer that you simply return my $27. You have shown that you are apparently incapable of actually sending me any magazines, and I do not care to participate in arguments about how long my subscription is for a magazine that I am not receiving. Further, I was sixty years old when I subscribed, and although my health is good, I can see that I probably will not live long enough to get the first magazine of my subscription much less the last, whether it is a two- or a three-year subscription.

Sincerely,
Jacob Warner

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Vector Graphic, Inc.
500 North Ventu Park Rd.
Thousand Oaks, CA 91320
Gentlemen:

Although this is a letter of complaint, I hope you will read it for I do not want anything from you. Whether you know it or not, you are sadly in need of advice unless you are deliberately doing your damnedest to alienate your customers – if that’s your goal, then you need read no further, you’re doing great. The simple fact is that I’d rather make a trip to the dentist than buy anything (hardware or software) from Vector Graphic. It’s like pulling teeth to get anything from you that one orders.

When I was trying to choose a word processor program, I hesitated a long time between Wordstar and Memorite. Today if anyone asks which he should choose, my answer is very simply: “Your whole staff could be expert in using Wordstar long before you could get Memorite from Vector Graphic.”

It took five weeks of begging and complaining for me to get Memorite. Why? God only knows. I mean here you have something that has a trifling materials cost, weighs a couple of pounds, and sells for $450. Should it take five weeks to get it from California to Maryland? Don’t airplanes make the trip in five hours or several times per day? Wouldn’t five days have been an excessive time? Five weeks!

Eight weeks ago I ordered from you a second copy of two manuals – Memorite and Execuplan. I should simply have Xeroxed the copies I have, but no, I thought I would do the right thing and buy duplicates. By the time you get this, the order will have been cancelled, and I will have Xeroxed my copies.

I cannot understand why a company would mount a national TV advertising campaign to get new customers when it does its best to alienate the customers it already has, or do you need more people to alienate for some reason? I do know that it is not just I that you mistreat – the dealers through which I ordered admit that they can do nothing, that you mistreat all customers without discrimination.

If I were running a small computer company, I’d be worried about the entry of IBM, Xerox, and the Japanese. How can you be sure that they will be as nasty to their customers as you are? If they aren’t, you can be sure that you will not be around much longer. Shades of Detroit.

I’m only writing this letter at the instigation of my wife who said, “Surely, they would want to know.” I told her that I didn’t think so, that any company that gave a damn what its customers thought wouldn’t act that way in the first place.

I’d like to have one of your clock-calendar boards, but I never shall – I’d rather do without one than go through the pain of trying to buy something from you.

Sincerely,
Jacob L. Warner

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INMAC
2465 Augustine Drive
Santa Clara, CA 95051
Gentlemen:

I was quite surprised when you came out with floppy disks that were guaranteed “for life.” Since everyone knows that disks wear out even if their original quality is high, it is obvious that the premium price you are charging for INMAC PLUS disks amounts to insurance for replacement. It should be clear to you that you are going to have to replace a lot of disks, and you’d better be getting yourself prepared to do so.

I bought 50 of your disks and have yet to have one to fail in use. However I did have three that were bad to begin with – they would not format. That percentage (6) is very high for good disks, but it didn’t worry me because of your guarantee. I think I’d better spell out your guarantee; I’m not sure anyone at INMAC has read it. Here’s what it says: “Each INMAC PLUS flexible disk is guaranteed to read and write to your satisfaction for as long as you own the product. Should an INMAC PLUS flexible disk ever fail to perform to your satisfaction, call us for an immediate replacement. Along with your replacement disk we will provide you with a special mailer in which to return your faulty disk.” As you may know, a card comes in with each package for the user to return so that the serial number disks can be recorded as being in the user’s possession.

The obvious high quality of the disks and the unequivocal guarantee seemed to me to amply justify the higher than normal price you charge for these disks. My pleasure, however, lasted only as long as I did not report a bad disk – that’s when the trouble began.

I called, as per your guarantee statement, and was immediately asked for the invoice number on which I bought the disks. I did not have it at hand and explained that I had returned all the cards registering each disk and that ought to be enough. The person to whom I talked said, “You mean to say that you don’t keep a record of your invoice numbers?” Notice that your guarantee did not say that I was to be your bookkeeper.

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A week later I did find the original invoice number, and since I had received no replacement disks, I called again and explained the situation. This time I could cite my invoice. A few days later I received a package containing the three replacement disks. A mailer did not, as promised accompany the disks. A few days later I received a notice that the three disks had been charged to my credit card. Now I knew why you wanted an invoice number – you wanted to look up my credit card number. I immediately called and explained that I did not believe that your guarantee simply entitled me to buy new disks when one failed – I do not need an elaborate written guarantee for that dubious privilege. I insisted that the person to whom I was speaking let me read the guarantee to her. She said she would immediately remove the charge and would send me a mailer.

That was some weeks ago. I still have not received the mailer and recently received my credit card statement to find that the charge had not been removed as promised. I returned the statement to the bank with a notice that the charge had not been authorized as, indeed, it had not been. I do not believe the bank will pay an unauthorized charge; if they do then I will have an argument with them also. On top of everything else, don’t you know that it is illegal to use my credit card without my permission?

The only public notice that I’ve seen of your guarantee was in Infoworld. I plan to send that magazine a copy of this letter. I think their readers should know how the guarantee is being implemented.

The ball is in your court.

Sincerely,
Jacob L. Warner

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Colophon

Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Eurostile Normal. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 460 copies; the text on an SP-15 Vandercook and the cover on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt Maryland 20770.

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