Gateway to Hell

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The terrifying truth about electronic commerce – one company’s experience.

The decision where to buy computers for our growing company was an easy one. Gateway was well known to us through their advertising, and offered well-equipped machines at reasonable prices.

After years of waiting in lines of both the telephone and human variety to purchase machinery, the promise of toll-free assistance clinched it for us. We researched the purchase on-line and decided it would be quicker and more convenient to call with our order. Surely Gateway, with its American know-how, was going to kick some European butt.

But no. The first indication that something was odd was with the toll-free line itself. When you call Gateway in the Netherlands, you are invisibly transferred to Dublin, where a Dutch voice prompt asks you to key in the extension. Whereas most Dutch companies in Holland offer English voice prompts, Gateway in Ireland does not. OK, we survived, and got through to a friendly and helpful salesperson.

The next hump, or "drempel" as the Dutch would say, was that we had to pay our order in advance. This done, we waited eagerly for those cow-coloured boxes to graze past our threshold. But alas, they did not. We quickly called Freerk Huisman, our friendly and efficient salesperson, to inquire as to the delay. His response was that yes, delivery was two days as he had promised, after a production time of five days.

Had he mentioned this production time when we made our order? When we made our advance payment? Of course not. And so we waited.

The herd arrived after the allotted seven days and we busily unpacked our bounty. Encouraged by the certain, if delayed, gratification of the phone ordering process, we reconnoitred and ordered again.

Big mistake.

The second time, the computers did not arrive after the allotted seven days. We called our handy toll-free line and spoke with Marlene, a customer “service” representative. Marlene told us a few things, or rather didn’t tell us a few things. First, that our computers had not entered production. Second, that she had no idea when they would, or why we had not been notified of the delay. Finally, she told us that it was – get this – “not possible” to give her last name, nor to speak with her supervisor.

Our marketing director, recently transplanted from New York, was incredulous. He demanded to speak with her himself. Minutes later I heard him screaming into the phone, “I want to talk to an American!” That was not possible either.

Infuriated and not shamed by our cultural faux pas, we tried to reach Gateway’s corporate office in Dublin. On reaching the first line of defence, we demanded to speak with the sales director for Europe. An officious-sounding Irish woman grilled us as to our identity and reason for the call. When we suggested that this call screening was annoying, if not downright offensive, she explained that she needed to inform the manager of the nature of our query before transferring us, which she then did.

Back to the Dutch sales department. On the line came Freerk’s friendly voice again, explaining how the Irish woman told him that our call came to her by mistake. Despite our protests that it did not, Freerk insisted that he would handle things personally and that the equipment would arrive Friday.

It did not, of course.

“They missed their plane in Brussels,” he said, as if our notebook computers had tarried too long in the Duty Free and didn’t make it in time to the gate. “They will be there on Monday.” Being eternal optimists, and warmed by Freerk’s sincere apologies, we waited again on Monday. At 3pm we called him – “they’re on the truck and will be there by five” – and again at 5:30. No sign of them.

At times like these, one must balance the aggravation of trying to get a refund with the anxiety of waiting. Exasperated at the whole experience, we demanded our money back, and the negotiations started anew. We were transferred to Els, another friendly representative, whom we were promised was the deputy manager of customer service. Els had obviously been to the same training school as Freek – no amount of yelling at her caused her to scream back, cry or hang up. She held her ground, was sympathetic, and we calmed down enough to find out that:

  • We could get a refund, but only after the computers returned to Dublin and were “checked in”. This would take about ten days, in contrast with the one hour it took for us to send our pre-payment to Gateway to get this nightmare started.
  • The computers were lost. UPS subcontracted the delivery to an independent company and the driver could not be contacted. They’d probably show up the next day.

We explained to Els that the incompetence of its delivery partner did not absolve Gateway of responsibility. We agreed to touch base again the following day to see if they had arrived and if a quicker refund (which would require manager approval) was possible. Being after 4pm Dublin time, there was naturally no manager available, no doubt because the pubs and golf courses were moving into summer hours.

The denouement is unremarkable: the shipment arrived that evening at 6:30, brought to us by a sheepish teenager in a used van. After carefully inspecting the packages, defeated, we accepted them and called it a day. Elapsed time: 14 days from payment to delivery, a distance of 757 kilometres, or two kilometres per hour.

How a company can become so successful with such incompetence is beyond understanding. We experienced total corporate incompetence and utter failure of core competence; worse was the indifference, distain for us as customers, and absolute refusal to take responsibility for simple tasks.

Here is a company which is not accountable, where you cannot – no matter what – speak to someone in charge. We can only attribute Gateway’s success to the economic extravagance of the last decade and perhaps equal stupidity in corporate purchasing.

The only bright spots were Freerk and Els themselves. Though hopelessly impotent drones in the corporate hive, they were at least available to console us through our grief, though it must be said that Freerk didn’t once call us back as promised to report on progress. Els has graciously agreed to refund the delivery charges. Freerk is likely taking comfort in the fact that we won’t be troubling him with any further orders.

So, at last we have our computers, which came with a one-day on site service guarantee. Let’s hope we never need it.

Response from Gateway

Gateway apologises that we have not met the level of service that our customers should be able to expect from us. We take criticism seriously and are constantly working on improving our service to our customers.

We have been in contact with the people involved and gone through what happened in this particular case and made sure that it will not happen again. Happy customers and service are things that Gateway prioritises and we are grateful for our customers' input on how we can make it better.

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