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Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Laptops: Sony VAIO and Apple MacBook Pro

“If you do build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful.”
Jeff Bezos

Our household purchased two laptops at exactly the same time in 2007. One was a MacBook Pro, made by Apple, and the other a VAIO laptop, made by Sony. Both cost around the same and were expensive machines because at the time they were the fastest and best available.

The journeys that these two machines took over the next five years could not have been more different in terms of the care they received, their utilisation, the amount each one traveled; and therefore the wear and tear that each underwent. Ironically, it was the Apple MacBook Pro that was used as both a home computer as well as a school workhorse and then later also as a work computer. For these reasons it was lugged back and forth between home and class for one year, and then to the office and back for another. As a result, the amount of travel time and use it underwent was likely three to five times that of its Sony counterpart. The Sony machine on the other hand was barely touched for its first year. Then for the next four years when it became a full time computer, it was not lugged from place to place and still rarely traveled in comparison to the MacBook, since it was used primarily as a home computer and only in the last year as a work computer. I would go further to say that the Sony was treated better than some people treat their children. To say it was handled with kid gloves would be an understatement; it was kept clean and well protected from dust and other harmful elements. On occasions that it needed to leave the house it was transported in a state-of-the-art Neoprene Laptop Sleeve with a dimpled interior that provides superior shock absorption and protects against bumps, dust and scratches. Needless to say the MacBook took many a journey in far less glamorous environs, ranging from being wrapped in a pair of jeans to traveling sans protection in a rolling backpack.

Now I am also willing to consider the fact that five years is a long time in today’s frenetic technology update-driven world, where people change smaller gadgets every few months and larger ones every few years. However, I will also state that the problems with the VAIO started early. In the first year the CD-DVD drive door came unhinged; then in the second year the laptop started to overheat to the point where it became hard to work on the computer leave alone place it anywhere near the vicinity of your lap. Having purchased an extra warranty I took it to the retailer and was told that I would have to leave it with them for six weeks because the problems were too serious for them to repair. They needed to send it back to Sony for repair. Turns out the cooling fan was busted, the battery needed to be replaced and of course they forgot to fix the CD-DVD drive door. Naturally, I was livid when they told me it would have to go out again, leaving me without my laptop for another 4-6 weeks - all this within the first two years with barely any use. Meanwhile, not a problem to speak of with regards to the Apple MackBook, which was now enrolled in a college and being lugged to class five days a week and handling a major workload at home during nights and weekends.

Over the next three years the VAIO continued its downhill slide; a slide driven quite clearly more by the shoddy workmanship than the way it was being used. One day late last year, for no apparent and without any warning, the DELETE button flew out almost taking my eye with it. Systematically, the rest of the VAIO started to fall apart, piece by piece - quite literally, as you will see from the pictures. The fan issue also came back with a vengeance, which leads me to conclude it was a problem that Sony was aware of in this laptop and applied the same solution again when it had gone to them for repair. A great company would have offered a replacement, acknowledging the problem, or at least offered an alternative. Sony did not.

Finally, last month I decided to take the laptop to the Sony flagship store and show it to a manager. Now, I want to be clear that I was not expecting the manager to magically offer me a brand new laptop. However, I did expect them to be outraged, embarrassed and even shocked at the condition of one of their highest priced VAIO products.

Having dealt with many companies and their customer service over the years, I see that there are basically two types of companies: those that care and those that don’t. Apple is an example of the former. Needless to say that the MacBook Pro had absolutely no issues other than requiring a replacement battery last year; about a year after the extended warranty had expired. The salesperson at the Apple store saw that the warranty had expired but still insisted on giving us a new battery at no cost. We had come fully expecting to buy one. The gesture was tremendous and the goodwill it created cannot be bought with the largest advertising and PR budgets in the world. Of course, we have told everyone about our great experience and will be buying many more Apple products.

Now contrast this with the experience at the Sony flagship store. The manager took fifteen minutes to show up after we were told he would be with us immediately. When I showed him the laptop (recounting the story I have above), it was like he stopped being a normal human being and turned into some robot reading from a company manual. He told me that the warranty had expired, which I already knew and had explained up-front, and that since I had bought it at a third party retailer, and not directly from Sony, it was effectively not their problem. I tried to explain again that I was not asking them replace a five year old laptop but wanted to know how a high-end product could look like this – no matter how gently or severe the use. It was not like I was a lumberjack or policeman using the laptop in all sorts of harsh environments and subjecting it to god knows what conditions.

Herein lies the difference between most companies and great companies. Had he simply apologized or even seemed to care remotely, it would have gone a long way for this customer. Also, it was clear that I was in the market for a new laptop, and therefore the perfect opportunity for him to ensure I remained a Sony customer. He could have simply offered me some small inconsequential discount off the purchase of a new Sony laptop, purely as a gesture for my trials and tribulations with his product. Instead, he just continued repeating mundane lines from some corporate training manual, about the out-of-warranty and third party retailer. Effectively, leaving this once fiercely loyal customer feeling like he was not even listening. Finally, in frustration I asked for the name of a Sony executive, and he ran off to get a business card.  When he came back he proceeded to add insult to injury by giving me a card for “Sony Technical Support” with a circled web address. He told me that I should email them about my problem and to see if they could help. I stood there completely aghast and then explained that I could have gotten that from their website, and wanted the name of their CEO or Head of Retail. Of course, he did not know any executives’ names, in the company of his employ, including that of his CEO. He once again suggested I go on their website. I left and decided I would share my story about how and why I stopped being a longtime Sony customer.

Unfortunately for Sony they don’t just make laptops but a whole range of products from TV’s to PlayStations. I have no problem with a problematic product, as long as the company takes the steps of fix it. However, I do care deeply about being heard, by the same company, during the far fewer instances that I am not opening my wallet to give them my hard-earned money.