Thinking of calling Dell tech support? You may already be a "winner." In three separate calls during our undercover testing for LAPTOP's annual Tech Support Showdown, Dell persistently pushed premium warranties. At one point a rep claimed we had won a daily drawing that allowed us to buy a four-year extended warranty for the discounted price of $317. All we wanted to know was how to improve our battery life.
We wish we were making this up – and so does Dell. When confronted with our findings, the company told us that our observations give the company "important lessons to learn from."
You think? Here's a blow-by-blow of our experiences and Dell's responses to our follow-up questions.
Call No. 1: A Software Warranty for a Hardware Question
We made our first support call at 2:56 p.m. EDT on a Thursday, and Sakhi from India took our call with a rather curt tone. We asked how to make three-finger swiping work on our touchpad, but before he addressed our question, he asked for our details and put us on hold for over three minutes while checking our account.
When the Dell rep came back on, he informed us that our problem was a software issue, and that we would have to sign up for a paid software warranty before he could assist us any further. We could pay a one-time fee (with 72 hours of additional support), but this would run us $129 for the single incident. He also offered us a $239 Value-Bundled Plan that would cover four major incidents for the next year, including support for other Dell-manufactured devices such as desktops and printers.
Sakhi pushed us hard to buy the software warranty, saying we shouldn’t even take some time to think about accepting the offer. He informed us that he could have a special discount approved by his manager to get the same $239 software warranty for $199, an offer that would expire if we hung up. When we insisted on mulling it over, Sakhi asked whether he could arrange a call back in 10 to 30 minutes. Really.
We wanted to know why a touchpad question wouldn't be covered under a traditional warranty. After all, our query involved hardware and software. Dell said this was an error.
Call No. 2: Buy Some Hardware to Solve Your Software Question
On our second call, to Denzil at 11:19 a.m., we asked about using Dell DataSafe to back up our computer. Denzil also told us that software questions — even those about Dell-specific software — weren’t covered under the hardware warranty, and that if we wished, we could sign up for the $239 software warranty. We said we weren’t interested, at which point Denzil hastily asked us to at least speak to his manager, who could tell us more about the offer.
When his manager, Raj, got on the phone, he explained that Dell DataSafe Online would be free for 2GB of backup storage for one year. Beyond that, Raj said, there is an option to extend for two or three more years of service for a fee. We were surprised when Raj then suggested that, to get the job done, we buy an external hard drive from our local electronics store instead. He mentioned that this would ultimately cost us less money, and inquired whether we were interested in purchasing a unit from Dell. We said we’d think about it. Raj thanked us for our call.
In response to our experience, we asked Dell whether tech support reps are incentivized to sell software and extended warranties during support calls, and, if so, whether they’re required to promote these offers during every call. Dell gave us the following response, which doesn’t directly answer our question about incentives:
Call No. 3: Congratulations! You've Won the Chance to Pay Us $317!
We placed our third call to Dell at 2 p.m. and, after holding for five minutes, asked Sherma how we could improve our laptop’s battery life. He gave us a hurried explanation about never letting the battery’s charge go below 40 or 50 percent and then, in a surprised tone, told us that we had won a daily drawing to purchase a four-year extended hardware warranty for our laptop for $317.
When we told him that we weren’t interested in a warranty, Sherma told us that only three customers win the drawing per day, and that the normal price for such a warranty is $512. We again told him we weren’t interested, at which point Sherma said that if we didn’t want the discounted offer, he would give it to his next caller. We once again told Sherma that we didn’t want to purchase the warranty, to which he replied in a clearly agitated tone that he was only trying to save us money. He then began telling us that we were also eligible for a software warranty.
We gave Sherma one last chance to redeem himself by asking if his suggestion to keep our laptop’s charge between 40 and 50 percent was the only way to improve its battery life. Before hanging up, Sherma once again asked if we were sure we didn’t want the warranty. Our call lasted just five minutes.
We were pretty shocked by this daily-drawing sales tactic, so we asked Dell how long support reps have been employing it and whether they will continue.
“Daily drawings are not a regular practice nor encouraged tactic in technical support and we have used your feedback to reinforce this with our teams. Their only priority is to resolve our customers’ issues.”
Dell says that 80 percent of all solutions in technical support are available to customers on support.dell.com. Based on our experience, we highly recommend going that route. Customers should never feel pressured to upgrade to a premium warranty at a time they’re just looking for a little help.
Telling Dell PC owners that they’ve won a contest in order to entice them to pay more seems particularly manipulative. And while we’re glad Dell says that this is not a “regular practice nor encouraged tactic,” we hope the company stops the practice altogether. At least Dell now admits that hawking a warranty shouldn't come before helping. Here's what the company told us when we asked what changes it would make as a result of our findings.
Dell’s tech support isn’t all bad. During our testing we found helpful answers through the company’s Interactive Support Agent, live chat and even Dell’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. But grading Dell’s phone support was an easy call this time around: F.
Stay tuned for our full 2012 Tech Support Showdown report on all of the brands.