Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Customer Servile

I steel myself as I walk into the back corner of the Yamada Denki (Yamada Electric) outlet in Kashima. I was fortunate to be able to leave Ye Olde Academy early today so I can take care of a few errands, and this is something I've been wanting to do for some time. However, it is making me very uncomfortable. It's not my first visit to the computer corner here; I've been here quite a few times. However, this time I know I'll have to deal with customer service (obscenely dark-sounding diminished 7th chord).

I wouldn't be surprised if customer service in the high-tech industry were a form of Biblical plague. I have had particularly bad luck with them here in Japan. The biggest problem goes back to basic commercial ethics here in the Land of the Rising Sun. Rule Number One is that businesses do not cater to the customer; rather, they inform the customer of what he is supposed to want unless he really sucks. Ask for something other than the latest fad and you get lots of air sucked through teeth and not much else...except in the high-tech field. There you can expect to be insulted. Thus far my track record with high-tech customer service here has run as follows:

  • When I tried to buy my first computer back in January of 1995 I went to a famous shop in Tokyo's Akihabara Electric City. I told them the model I wanted, and everything was fine until I asked if I could special-order an English user's manual. Then the sales clerk suddenly called over their apparent official gaijin handler, who kept trying to tell me in painfully slow, awkward, mangled English that they couldn't sell me the machine for some unfathomable reason. I kept trying to ask the sales clerk (in Japanese) to explain what the problem was, finally to the point that I was angrily demanding at the top of my lungs that he stop hiding behind his English-(non)-speaking lackey and speak to me. After several minutes of this he finally told me that they couldn't sell me the computer because, as a gaijin, I clearly couldn't use a Japanese keyboard. I tried to tell him that the keyboard was not the issue, and he just waved me off and went to a different customer.
  • Instead, in March of 1995 I bought a computer at a new electronics store that had just opened close to home. I chose the model that was their "most recommended buy" at the time: an IBM (cr)Aptiva that had the most powerful processor and the largest hard drive I had ever seen up till then (a 486DX4/100, 730 megabytes). It was also preinstalled with the OS/2 Warp operating system, which I had long been interested in thanks to Snabulus (who was a big OS/2 fan at the time). Later that year, in the midst of the all-new Windows 95 hype, I went to that shop's service counter to ask for advice on setting up an internet connection. They told me that they didn't support OS/2 and insisted their store had never sold that model of computer. I offered to show them the receipt and warranty certificate as proof, and they just waved me off.
  • I asked the local Canon service center for an OS/2 driver for my printer and was told bluntly, "We don't support OS/2. Most people use DOS, Windows, or Macintosh, so we would recommend you switch to one of those." After that I sent a whiny e-mail to Snabulus back in Oregon, who then sent an e-mail to Canon U.S.A. explaining my situation, and they made me a driver! (Gotta love that American business ethic!)
  • When I moved to my current house in 1997 the phone company told me I had no choice but to switch to a digital phone line and an ISDN internet connection. (I now know that to be pure BS, as I switched to analog when I went broadband last year, but anyway...) The phone company rep said to me, [southern accent]"Don't worry, we support both operating systems, Windows and Macintosh!"[/southern accent] I said that I used OS/2, and she replied, "Well, most people use Windows or Macintosh, so I'd recommend switching to one of those." I then called tech support at IBM, makers of OS/2, for advice, and they said, "Well, most people use Windows, so I'd recommend switching to it." (Geeze...don't you guys support your own product?) Then, when all hope seemed lost, I got a call from the phone company. It turned out that they used to be hard-core OS/2 users and had an OS/2 expert on hand with nothing to do. He not only made me a driver for my terminal adapter but came to my house and set me all up free of charge! (Gotta love that Japanese courtesy!)
  • Back in 2004 my wife was using my old work laptop, which had Windows 2000 on it. I tried to put a USB 2.0 card in it, but it required the service pack updates. That machine was never connected to the internet, and when I tried plugging it in and logging on to try the online update the machine was immediately bombarded with worms and crashed. I tried to order the CD ROM update from Microsoft Japan online, but their order form wouldn't accept my non-Japanese name. I then went to Laox, a well-known electronics outlet. I went to the computer service counter, explained the situation, and asked if they could order the CD ROM update. The arrogant geek on duty at the time huffed, chortled, and became both very patronizing and very condescending before terminating the conversation while I was mid-sentence and moving to a different customer. I said, "Um, excuse me..," and he waved me off with a laugh and a, "Don't bother!" (I haven't been back to Laox since.)

Now you can see why I'm a bit uncomfortable about having to deal with customer service in the computer section of Yamada Denki today. I'm especially leery because of my reasons for being here. You see, I bought this Sony Vaio back in 2002. It has always served my modest needs very well, and I have never had any trouble with it (except one case of software glitch and/or pilot error which led to a total reinstall a few years ago). I don't play video games on this thing, and its measly 1.0 gHz processor has always been more than enough for the little bit of movie watching I do. However, I have been noticing it has been running a bit slow lately. A lot of it no doubt has to do with the fact that web sites are becoming increasingly laden with animation and other embedded media, but the fact is that I looked at the machine's performance specs and noticed that, after all the running processes, there was only about 40 mb of available RAM left. No wonder. The machine came with a base 128 mb of RAM which I doubled to 256 mb on purchase. That is clearly not enough anymore. So today I'm finally going to give it some more oomph. It's a sensible purchase from a practical standpoint, but from the eyes of the IT world I might as well be installing an electronic fuel-injection system in a '73 Ford Impala. I can still see that Laox buffoon in my mind waving me off with a smug grin and a "Don't bother!"

I arrive at the computer corner, and someone ahead of me is there for the same reason. I don't hear what make and model of computer he's buying RAM for, but the service rep seems intrigued. However, he seems perfectly polite and reasonable as he makes a number of recommendations. I relax a bit. Then my turn comes up. I tell the service rep the model of my computer, and he starts digging through his guidebook. He turns page after page, eyebrows furrowing deeper, until he finally finds it. He calls off the model number, and I verify it.

His eyebrows furrow further. "Here," he says, pointing at a pile of boxes in a locked display case. "128 megabyte standard."

My heart sinks. "Can't I get anything bigger than that?"

He gives me a look that says "Whathef***?" loud and clear. Then he replies in the affirmative and points to some other boxes. I tell him I want the most powerful type available for my machine there, a 512 mb module. (It's more expensive than some of the 1 gb models there, but they're all for more modern machines, unfortunately.) He takes it over to the register, puts my point card in the reader, and rings up my purchase.

Right after I pay for the RAM module the man shakes his head, clicks his tongue, smirks, and says sheepily, "That really is an old machine, isn't it?"

"Five years old, yes," I reply evenly. "I figure I'll get a new computer someday, but as long as the Vaio runs well I'll keep using it." I hold up the RAM module. "And with this it'll run even better."

The service rep nods briskly, turns on his heel, and walks off. As he passes one of his coworkers I overhear him saying, "Can you believe that?"

Oh, well. At least I didn't get insulted to my face this time...or told I couldn't buy the item because the buttons are in the wrong place...

For what it's worth: I'd forgotten how much "fun" it was installing the RAM module when I first bought this machine back in 2002. Inside accessibility is definitely NOT one of this Vaio's strong points. I basically had to open the main component, remove both the hard drive and the power pack, and disconnect several cables and wires before I could even access the RAM ports, which were still in a very narrow space. Taking out one of the old modules was easy. Getting the new one in was hard. It was a tight fit with little clearance. It took time, effort, patience, and creative use of a waribashi (disposable chopstick). I did get it in though, obviously, and yes, there has been a marked improvement in this machine's performance.

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  • Good that at least you got what you needed w/a minimum of fuss (at least compared to your previous encounters!).

    Customer service is here seems more random...Phone companies (Verizon, Comcast, AT&T) have become horrible providers that increasingly shuttle you off to a labyrinthine muddle of non-help when you call.

    Best Buy is the worst. I hate them!

    Retail seems a bit more like the old days, although if you don't have a reciept, you have more problems (too many shoplifters "returning" items "helped" make that situation).

    By Blogger ladybug, at 12:40 AM  

  • Did you know you can download Virtual PC from Microsoft for free now? It even has OS/2 extensions to make it work better in the Virtual Machine. Yep, OS/2 inside of Windows XP or later. If you are interested, I can let you download my OS/2 setup (since I know you are licensed). :D On these new faster computers, it actually works pretty well. I do admit that it is more of a novelty than a work-a-day device for me. Nobody beats Mahjongg for OS/2.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:12 AM  

  • I would guess that custom computer shops in Japan are rare. My current model is a custom built AMD unit with RAID 1.8gig clock speed and two gigs of ram. I got that in 2003. Its plenty fast for my needs. My biggest problem has been the operating system, all though windows XP is far better than any release so far, in fact many people are switching back from Vista back to XP.

    Ordering a custom computer is easy. I walked into the store, told them I wanted a computer capable of being a small web server, for about a thousand bucks.

    Its the best computer I ahve ever owned.

    I would recomend waiting until AMD comes out with their quad processor before deciding between the Pentium and AMD.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 1:43 AM  

  • Here in Jakarta, mostly when we have problem with our computer or want to upgrade or do anything with our computer, just call a computer shop then they will pick up our computer, tell them what we want to do with it then they will do it according to our request and then delivery it back to us. So easy and less headache.. but then must be careful coz' not all computer shop is reliable.

    By Blogger Selba, at 11:40 AM  

  • I empathise with you, MM, on the customer service. We do get this kind of service once in a while but nothing beats the treatment we used to get from government departments a decade or so ago.

    Though not that many around, custom computer shops are popular with college students and they can be a lot cheaper and more well-equipped.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 12:32 PM  

  • Perhaps you could try shopping online and going right around these guys. Failing there, what are friends in the mainland US for?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:18 PM  

  • Ladybug
    The nightmare of push-button call service, eh? "To hear something totally irrelevant to your question, press one. To hear something totally irrelevant to your question, press two. To be patronized and insulted before being told something totally irrelevant to your question, press three. If you really suck, press four." Welcome to the 21st century.

    I'd be really tempted to do that, but I think I tossed all my OS/2-related software when I finally parted with the (cr)Aptiva and bought this Vaio. You're right, though...I miss both Mahjong for OS/2 and the surprisingly entertaining Bingo for OS/2.

    Custom computer shops popped up during the big computer boom of 1995-97, but they disappeared faster than all those computer superstores. Now they are kind of hard to find. Most Japanese prefer to buy the same thing everyone else does, which is why most stores only sell what everyone is currently buying (and politely inform you that you suck if you dare ask for something different). Of course, it's quite easy to buy the components yourself and build your own. (Gee...maybe that's what I should do for my new studio machine...)

    Some computer outfits here in Japan do the mail-in service, too. My biggest gripe about that, other than the fact that you have no idea who's monkeying with your machine, is that it takes so long. You can expect your machine to be out of your possession for at least a couple of weeks. There's also the worry of disgruntled delivery service workers using your computer as a fencing target...

    Ack...let's not even start talking about government services!

    Yes, I could. Dell is still one of the cheapest makes available here. Of course, both their products and their services seem to have variable reputations, but anyway...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:09 AM  

  • I seem to remember similar stories about replacement parts for older Japanese cars too

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 4:20 PM  

  • Oh, the language thing makes me grimace. When we went to the Czech Republic for a long vacation way back when, I remember standing in line and being totally ignored. One of the girls said something about making the Americans wait. So I got to tell her, in my lispy Czech, that I could understand what she was saying.

    At least she had the conscience left in her brain to blush with embarrassment.

    By Blogger Kami, at 5:22 AM  

  • Swinebread
    This is true. Basically you're required to replace everything you own every couple of years or so. I've often wondered if that has its roots in Shintoism, which values renewal.

    Well, long time, no see! Did you fix the Java problem with your computer?

    I've heard similar stories from former military servicemen about when they were stationed in Germany. If people know you don't speak the local language it seems to be almost like a blank check allowing them to treat you like crap.

    Language is a virus...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:13 PM  

  • Such horrible tales of customer service! I'd freak out if I needed one over there. It's like going to the dentist with a toothache!

    I guess that's the price to pay for living in an extremely dynamic tech zone.

    By Blogger agus, at 12:32 PM  

  • It's also what happens when machines become more important to people than people.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 2:58 PM  

  • I got a new iMac, so I'm a very happy camper. No more Java messes, a little bit faster connection (now that I have a noise cleaner and a more tolerant modem) and no missing data fields. Huzzah!

    Glad to be back.

    By Blogger Kami, at 5:21 PM  

  • I got a new iMac


    What flavor ?

    By Anonymous The Colorman, at 9:06 PM  

  • must be something w/ you capricorns... hashim loves opening up computers and digging around inside of them. i can't even begin to comprehend it!! :)

    i can't get over how they cut you off in mid-sentence and walk off. i'm not sure what i'd do, but really, it doesn't seem like it matters to them what you say or how loud you talk. it shocks me that they're not working for the customer.

    i think i'd be totally intimidated by the ppl there.

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 2:37 AM  

  • Wooowwwww, you kept a laptop running for 5 years? Excellent. The average lifespan is 3 years, and indeed, my first one (a refurbished Toshiba Satellite, 1997) crashed in its 3rd year with me, then the new hard drive crashed not too long after that. My second laptop (HP, 2002) lasted 3 years just fine, but I kept it limping along for a 4th year till I bought my current one (HP, 2006) and it finally died this year. There was only so much maintenance I could do, both software and physical.

    I actually don't mind getting a new one every few years. I am happy to stay with mid-range models so that I can afford to do so, and at that level HP gives me the most bang for my buck.

    By the way, have you ever opened a hard drive casing and seen the hard disk? It's difficult to believe all that information goes on that flimsy thing. No wonder HDs are built like cockpit black boxes. I tried to open the HD on my old HP and it was impossble!!!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 9:14 AM  

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