What the Dell?

I began writing this piece last Friday, after I was put on hold by Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) service technicians for the fifth time. What I thought would be a relatively easy five-minute call to troubleshoot a minor problem with my new printer turned into an agonizing three-hour trip into Dell.

Acting on my mother's advice to relax and take a deep breath whenever I feel ready to lose my cool, I decided to wait a few days to write the remainder of this article. For the record, it's now four days later, and I'm no less angry.

My problems began innocently enough, when the screen on my new 966 All-in-One Dell printer flashed the warning sign: "Cartridge error #1203." The sign directed me to consult my new printer's manual. Since the problem had a code number, I reckoned there was an easy fix.

I was wrong. There was no solution to error #1203 in the manual. In fact, it said my only method for resolving any such problem was to visit the company website.

I promptly heeded this advice, but lo and behold, there was no reference to error #1203 on Dell's website, either. Undeterred, I called the company's service hotline. After providing my service tag number, I spoke with Kathy, who hastily transferred me to the printer warranty division. The call was inexplicably dropped, and I had to call back.

Next, after supplying my service tag number, I spoke with Josh, who transferred me to a call center in India. Here, I was told that they couldn't address my problem, and that I had to call the toll-free number that I had just called.

Dutifully, I called back and reached Melvin. After again supplying the service tag number, Melvin reassuringly promised to "hot-trace" my call (meaning he would stay with me on the phone line) until my problem was resolved. Finally, I sensed resolution to the pesky problem of "error #1203" was at hand. Then my call was dropped, again.

Beaten but not yet broken, I called back and reached Robin. As calmly as possible, I explained my ordeal to him. After about 30 minutes of attempting to find a fix, he informed me that Dell did not have an internal fix for error #1203. How the company could identify the problem with such numerical specificity, but not have a solution to it, remains beyond me.

What happened next was perhaps even more surprising. Robin directed me -- and I'm not making this up -- to an unauthorized website called In short, Dell doesn't have a fix to some of its printers' problems, but someone else apparently does! Not wanting to risk jeopardizing my warranty, however, I refused this gracious offer of tinkering with my printer's innards.

At this point, I was three hours into my ordeal and I was officially broken. I gave up and asked if I could return the printer. I was told that I couldn't, but Robin's manager offered to send me a new one to replace my month-old printer.

Seeing no real alternative, I reluctantly accepted the offer. But I have to tell you, it felt like I had just made a deal with the devil. If my new printer also breaks, the idea of going to Dell and back once again is not a pleasant thought.

I realize that Michael Dell has only recently returned to the helm of his company, but unless he can begin quickly addressing the quality of its manufactured products and its customer service alike, and rectify this "Dell-in-a-handbasket" situation, I fear that the company's stock -- which has been stagnant for the past five years -- might dip even further.

Now, I'm not saying that it's headed straight to you-know-where, but I can tell you that wherever I was last Friday, it sure had me resolving never to return. For all future purchases, I intend to give Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) , IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , Gateway (NYSE: GTW  ) , Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) , and any other PC manufacturer a much harder look before I contemplate giving Dell another chance.

Dell is a recommended stock in Motley Fool Inside Value and Motley Fool Stock Advisor. Try any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is also hot-and-bothered about the racket that Dell has going on with its ink cartridges. Not surprisingly, he does not own stock in Dell, nor in any of the other companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.

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