by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, December 1997


This is the second part of my coverage of service contracts and extended warranties. Realistically, much of this admittedly worst case scenario also applies to original warranties offered with new hardware and software.

In our last episode (organ music starts quietly in background and rapidly rises to a crescendo), our hero, the system administrator, had braved the tortuous path to getting authorized to actually receive an on-site service call. The unsuspecting administrator thinks that the system will quickly and efficiently be repaired, reconfigured, and back up in just a short time. (Riiiiight! And, I’ve got some riverfront property in Des Plaines to sell you to go along with that swampland in Florida I sold you last year! I’ll even throw in some sandbags with it.)
The service person might arrive on time - or not. The phase of the moon is as good a predictor as any. I hesitate to use the word "technician" since that word implies at least a minimum amount of training and experience. The most common (and derogatory) designation is "board-swapper". A board-swapper is one who can open a computer, replace a circuit board or a drive, and run a simple software-based test to see if the swap worked. Getting a true technician is much less common.
The service person will attempt to fix the computer in question. If swapping out the particular item brought is not successful, the service person will call for help to get the opinion of a technician. If they find that the wrong replacement part was specified (not uncommon with a purely phone diagnosis, especially by someone who has probably never seen your particular configuration), then you will have to wait for another visit.
All of this assumes, of course, that the phone technician was competent in the first place - not necessarily a valid assumption. I have lost count of the times that I have had to explain things like basic PC technical concepts (like CMOS or serial ports) to an allegedly experienced support technician.
In one example that I witnessed in which lack of expertise was not an issue, the phone-based technician thought that a bad power supply was causing boot-up problems. He also acknowledged that a malfunctioning motherboard could be the culprit. Under pressure from his management to specify an exact solution and to authorize only the minimum number of replacement parts, he mentally flipped a coin and sent a service person out with only a power supply. You guessed it - replacing the power supply didn’t fix the problem. The customer had to wait for another visit to get the new motherboard that actually fixed the problem. So much for time-guaranteed warranty service.
If the on-site person is a representative of a computer manufacturer that uses a highly proprietary design for its computer (as several top computer manufacturers do), and you have another brand component inside, or, occasionally, even attached externally to the malfunctioning computer, you might be directly or indirectly denied service. Sometimes unsupported or competing software can also cause a denial.
A direct denial of service occurs when the service person refuses to even start any serious work because of the presence of the offending product. More frequently, there is a more subtle action involving vendor-to-vendor finger-pointing. "If you hadn’t used that part or software, our product would not have failed." "Our product is not the problem. That nasty unapproved hardware or software is to blame. Call its manufacturer and stop bothering us." "We are not responsible for the configuration of the unapproved product. You configured it wrong and that is causing the problem."
Another variation on this trick is to get caught between the manufacturer who issues a warranty and the authorized service provider who actually carries it out. The service provider must follow very strict rules to get reimbursed, and has no power to adjust to the situation. You can get caught in the middle. Either the manufacturer authorizes service that is subject to interpretation and the service provider won’t do the work for fear of lack of reimbursement, or the service provider has enough expertise to catch a mis-diagnose by the manufacturer and can’t get authorization to repair or replace the right parts. (I’ve seen people replace a disk drive and controller when it was obvious that a damaged cable was the problem, just because that’s what the service authorization paperwork ordered them to do!)
There are multiple variations on this theme. No matter which one you get, the final result is that you don’t get the service you need (and presumable paid for either as part of the product price or as a separate purchase).
If you are lucky enough to be provided with the appropriate part, and it is installed correctly, then the real fun starts. The service person will wake the computer up only enough to test it using simple diagnostic software. Any custom configuration that you had, such as modification of the CMOS setup menu, for instance is lost. You have to put it back. If you had software installed on your hard disk, you have to restore it. If the repaired device was a server, you are also responsible for reloading the operating system prior to restoring the contents of the drive.
Most on-site service people sent under warrantees and contracts barely have enough expertise to put DOS and Window 3.x or Windows 95 on a machine using the standard, menu-driven install programs. Any modifications you’ve made to these operating systems to get your system to run properly are beyond them. Heaven forbid you should ask them to put NetWare or another network operating system back on your system.
Next month I will complete this worst case scenario and provide suggestions on how to evaluate service contracts and extended warranties. I will end this month’s column with a special note to my readers who are involved in some aspect of computer hardware or software service. REMINDER: This is a WORST CASE SCENARIO that includes encapsulations of actual events. Please don’t get bent out of shape and feel the need to write nasty letters because you are being criticized. If you provide competent, ethical service, I’m not talking about you! It’s the bad apples that I’m after, and I think that you must admit, there are far too many of them out there. (He said as he stepped down from his soapbox.)

�1997, Wayne M. Krakau