Technology Upgrades: Welcome to My Nightmare (Yours Too?)


I was having coffee with a friend recently and the subject of word processing software came up. My friend related how he was happily using WordStar. WordStar? I hadn’t thought about it in years, but it was the first computer program I ever used, way back in 1984. I was surprised to find that not only was it still around after 30 years, but that my friend warmly embraced it. This program actually requires users to type in commands to do such simple things as mark a word as bold or in italics. It does not have the “what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG)” functionality that completely took over this space ages ago. Why had he not switched over to a more recent and easy to use program, especially given that many of these are now available for free on the Web? His answer made perfect sense to me: upgrading was so fraught with problems that it wasn’t worth the effort unless absolutely required. Or to put it more bluntly, upgrading really sucks.

I knew exactly where he was coming from. In a three-week period this summer I foolishly tried to upgrade my cell phone and Internet service as well as replace an outdated computer and a dead printer. Each of these efforts turned out to be much more difficult and unpleasant than they should have been; it all became a giant techno-nightmare. Let me share my cautionary tales with folks on both sides of this fence. If you’re on the consumer side, the message is beware! This is not an adventure you should enter into lightly. And if you’re working for a consumer-focused tech company, you need to step up your game to improve the end user’s overall experience.

Even though everyone’s into technology these days, I see problems at the core. You can’t read a business publication or troll the Web for five minutes without reading about hot new technologies, innovative consumer products, and cutting edge startups. Everybody and their mother are looking for the next killer app or great discovery within the Internet of Things. Not me. I’d be happy to simply have something that just, well, actually works as promised. Instead, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by problems that fail hard in three separate categories: hardware, software, and customer service. If enough people get frustrated by the widespread technology and consumer service problems of the kind I experienced, it’s eventually going to take a toll on all technology sellers. I can guarantee that these problems cut into our national productivity. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Computer Upgrade Woes: Mysterious Software Glitches

I recently decided, with great trepidation, to buy a new computer. The old one was reliable, but too slow; I saw the spinning beach ball so often on my seven-year old iMac that I thought I was living on the shore. You might think that the idea of upgrading to a screamingly fast new model had me salivating with joy. In fact, the decision filled me with dread. I’ve gone down this path before, and once again it was anything but smooth sailing. I ordered the new computer and it arrived in short order. I set it up and copied over all of my existing files and software programs. My new machine was blazing! Then I began the death march through each program to make sure that it was functioning properly under the new operating system. One by one I opened each program, and most ran just fine without missing a beat. A few required quick downloads that easily restored functionality. Microsoft Office needed to have the serial number restored, but then it launched flawlessly. I was almost done running through the programs and thinking that I had dodged a high-caliber techno-bullet when the problem struck.

I set up and maintain three websites using a popular program called Rapidweaver. Two of these worked just fine. However, the most important one, the one that tells people about my consulting practice and that I use to earn my living, crashed every time I tried to launch it. It uses the exact same program and the exact same theme as my other two websites, but for some reason, the demons in techno-hell marked only this one to torment me. The company that sold me the website software had no clue as to why it was malfunctioning, nor could they suggest either a fix or a workaround. Despite the fact that the crashes generated error reports every single time they happened, the company had nothing to offer up after viewing them. Replacing the program with a copy from my old machine had no effect. I begged the software people to examine the project file but they found no problems there. I pleaded with them to let me download another copy of the software from their site, but that didn’t help either. Due to the fact that I couldn’t even open my website project (so there was no way to update it), I wound up purchasing a new theme and recreated my website by copying and pasting all of the information on the 40-plus pages of my posted (but now inaccessible) website. Then I had to add back the links and graphics, reformat everything, upload it, and see how it looked. After several rounds of changes it finally was back to where I needed it to be. Trust me: this was a nightmare, and no one at Rapidweaver could explain why it had happened or how to fix it. The guy who designed my website theme (a separate company) was quite helpful, as were the people on message boards and those who host my site on the Internet, but the program itself was somehow fatally compromised.
Key Problem(s): Poor customer service; software failure

High-Speed Internet Service—Fixing a Non-Problem

As part of a cable TV upgrade I was able to double my Internet speed; this bonus was included as part of the package. The Comcast representative said that this would be easy to do, but my existing cable modem needed to be replaced with an upgraded model. The new modem arrived in a few days by mail and I installed it with only a few acrobatic maneuvers needed to locate the proper connecting cables under my desk. In looking over the new modem, however, I noticed it appeared to be identical to the one that I had just replaced. A call to Comcast confirmed my suspicions: it WAS the exact same modem. I hadn’t needed a replacement modem at all! I went to the UPS store to mail back the old modem, disappointed with the customer service advisor who had misadvised me. Sadly, about a week later the new modem failed, necessitating a trip to the Comcast store to replace my replacement modem.
Key Problem(s): Poor customer service; hardware failure

Printer Replacement—Defective Printer Heads Give Me a Headache

For the second time in two years my Canon All-In-One printer (and its successor) died, or, more accurately, the print head went bad. My review of printers on Amazon made by a variety of manufacturers led me to the following conclusion: virtually every model under $200, no matter who made it, got only middling reviews. The large percentage of one star ratings was especially troubling, with many consumers experiencing models that died only a few weeks or months after being hooked up. Since all the models were equally mediocre, I decided there was no need to spend a lot of money on something that likely would not last. I purchased a cheapie Canon, wirelessly connected it to my computer, and began testing its functions. For some reason the fax function wasn’t working properly. A quick Internet search, followed by a call to the company, confirmed the problem. The printer needed a firmware upgrade to get the fax to work. Unfortunately, this upgrade cannot be done wirelessly and requires a special USB cable that is not actually included with the printer. There was no Ethernet connection available on this machine, which probably saved ten cents on the manufacturing side but also prevented me from directly connecting to it. Canon said they would put the cable in the mail to me, which they did quickly, but I had already decided to take the thing back. The inability to update a machine with what’s in the box is really poor product design, and I didn’t want to find out just how many other corners the company had cut. If you offer wireless connectivity, then everything should be wirelessly updateable!

I returned to Office Max and selected a much more expensive Epson printer. I went home and connected it to my computer easily. I confirmed all of the functions were working and printed out a couple of pages. That’s when I noticed something peculiar: my computer indicated that three of the four ink cartridges were full, but the yellow ink cartridge was only at about 10 percent capacity (after printing just two black and white pages)! I couldn’t tell if that ink cartridge was really empty, or if there was some problem with the printer that made it appear that the level was low. I took photos of the supply levels on the screen to show to the store manager, and brought back all of the ink cartridges. I expected the manager would swap my cartridges for a new set, but that’s not what happened. He explained to me that most printers come with “starter” ink cartridges that contain less ink than regular cartridges, and that’s why I had run low so quickly. I told him I knew about the starter cartridges, but it was hard to believe I had drained ninety percent of the yellow ink (and just the yellow ink) printing two black and white pages. He then offered to sell me a new yellow ink cartridge “at a discount” for my brand new printer, an offer I turned down. Why would I want to pay to replace something right out of the box? I said I would bring back the printer if he wouldn’t replace the yellow cartridge. He finally went and got me a new yellow ink cartridge, which I installed and which restored the ink level to full.
Key Problem(s): Poor customer service; design failure; hardware failure

Phone Service Upgrade Nightmare

My family had T-Mobile prepaid phone service, but we decided to upgrade to a paid plan because it gave us more minutes for the same price, and provided service in more places. Let me be crystal clear: we were staying with the same company and keeping our current phones and phone numbers. We were just simply switching plans. I (naively) thought this should be doable in a 10-minute phone call. In fact, it took 3 phone calls on day 1 (total time: a shade under two hours), followed by a 35-minute visit to a T-Mobile store on day two, followed by a 40-minute visit to the same store on day 3, followed by a one hour visit to the store on day 4, followed by a 5-minute phone call to the company on day 5 to get this done. Does it really need to be this hard? The billing for the first cycle also turned out to be incorrect, necessitating an additional trip to the store 3 weeks later.
Key Problem(s): Poor customer service

My Tech Problems: Bad Luck, or the New Normal?

For most people, myself included, any one of the issues described above might not be a big deal. Any individual tech problem is (usually) not fatal. When they occur across many devices and over a short period of time, however, the situation begins to feel like death by a thousand cuts. Why upgrade a product when that may only lead to problems? If consumers don’t think their tech devices and offerings are reliable, they may eventually turn away from them en masse. We’ve become conditioned to expect these customer service and technology problems, and as a result people don’t seem surprised when these glitches arise. Did these companies make these decisions consciously, or were the problems unexpected on their end? These questions were nicely answered when I read Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives by Emily Yellin. The author confirmed just about every bad thought I’ve ever had about terrible customer service. Most large corporations have run the numbers and figured out exactly how much they were willing to spend on customer service (and product quality), and if people like me weren’t satisfied, well, that was our problem. They could live with that. Some companies (e.g. Nordstrom) choose to compete on superior customer service, but the vast majority don’t think they can afford to. They have the right to make that decision, just as I do not to patronize them.

So how should we deal with this problem? First, avoid companies that sell lousy products or give terrible customer service whenever possible. I’ve put a number of tech companies on my “I will NEVER do business with again” list including HP, Intuit, and Earthlink. If you have to deal with these companies, insist that they stand behind their warrantees and service guarantees. If you get no satisfaction, switch to a competitor and share your experience on social media. As The Who once put it, “We’re not gonna take it, Never did and never will…”

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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  • bespoked

    Mr. Lyman, I really appreciate your having written this piece. I, too, am very frustrated with the “dive to the bottom” evidenced by the poor quality of many companies’ products and services. I agree that it is a drag on our national productivity, especially when one realizes that much enterprise software is also of poor quality, requiring tremendous corporate resources to make it work.
    On the consumer end of things, one might do well to join, for example, Consumers Union, in order to gain the voice-multiplying factor of an organization dedicated to consumers’ rights, especially when it comes to companies like Comcast.