Sometimes when a customer has a problem with your product, the blame lies with someone(s) at your company. Maybe, for example, your firm shipped out a smartphone with a cracked display straight from the factory. Maybe it pushed a bad firmware update to users’ routers, bringing down their networks. Or maybe the marketing department went over the top in the claims it made about a computer’s specifications, features, capabilities, and the like.
Sometimes the blame for a problem actually lies with the customer. Maybe that smartphone got dropped on the sidewalk or in the bathtub, and the customer’s now fraudulently trying to redirect the responsibility your way. Or maybe, the customer installed hacked firmware on that router, cranked up the wireless broadcast power beyond spec, and ended up frying the power amplifier circuitry. Or maybe the customer didn’t read the spec sheet closely enough and over-assumed what that computer was capable of.
And sometimes there’s a murky grey responsibility area in-between those two extremes, where the blame lies neither with the manufacturer nor with the customer but with some link(s) in the in-between chain. That in-between culprit might be a retailer or reseller, for example. Or it could be the hardware or software (supposed) partner. Or it might be a service provider that your product taps into…when the service is online and running as designed, that is. The following are some representative examples from my recent personal experiences.
At the beginning of this year, when preparing for my Bluetooth earbuds project, I picked up a set of what were advertised as brand-new Jabra Elite 85ts from an eBay seller. Admittedly, their well-below-normal-retail price had me suspicious from the get-go, but I figured I’d either end up with a killer deal or could file a dispute and get my money back. After they arrived and I initially charged them up, they name-reported themselves as Elite 85ts to my smartphone during the Bluetooth pairing process. But my Jabra app didn’t acknowledge them, so I couldn’t customize their controls, fine-tune their equalization, update their firmware, etc. And when I looked closely at them, it quickly became obvious that I was dealing with counterfeits. Here’s what a real set of Elite 85ts looks like, complete with multiple sets of internal and external microphones for not only voice communication but also ambient noise suppression purposes:
And here’s what my knockoff set looked like, complete with (I believe) official albeit already-opened Jabra packaging and a clone of the Jabra charging case:
The LED colors and illumination pattern sequences of these fakes were non-standard for the Elite 85t, I learned after diving into an official user guide online.
And once I got my hands on a real set for comparison purposes, I noticed that the audio prompts weren’t Jabra-standard, either. But if I hadn’t done the research, I might not have realized I’d been sold forgeries; I’d only be mad at the manufacturer because the software didn’t work correctly and the ambient noise suppression was faulty. Suffice it to say, I filed a dispute with eBay and got my money back.
Whenever possible, I try to buy a (factory, ideally) refurbished or (better yet) open-box version of a product, versus a brand-new alternative. I do this not just for fiscal reasons—refurbs and open-box units are often heavily discounted in comparison to brand-new alternatives—but because I’m re-acquiring something that’s likely been returned (or worst-case, traded in) by someone else and would otherwise end up in a landfill. The approach is not only environmentally but also economically beneficial. Not only for me but also for the retailer. But in offering such products, the retailer takes on the responsibility (if it’s being responsible, that is) for ensuring that each product is functional and its cosmetic condition, along with in-box and other contents, are either as-new or that any deviances have been clearly and extensively documented. To quote eBay’s description of “open-box”, for example:
The item is in excellent, new condition with no wear. The item may be missing the original packaging or protective wrapping or may be in the original packaging but not sealed. The item includes original accessories. The item may be a factory second.
Unsurprisingly, this “clearly and extensively documented” aspiration isn’t always actualized. For a recent Earth Week promotion, Amazon put a bunch of stuff in its returns-sourced Warehouse website section on further discount, so I took the plunge on a few purchases. My results were mixed. A Zhiyun Crane-M2 gimbal came with a non-official smartphone mounting bracket in the box; I suspect someone broke or lost their bracket, so bought an entire new gimbal, snagged the bracket and replaced it with a piece-of-junk alternative, then returned the kit for refund…and Amazon didn’t catch the switcheroo. Similarly, a Twelve South Forté MagSafe charging stand had been partially assembled, snapped into multiple pieces at the stem in the process, and then returned and resold by Amazon as unused. And what of the Brother DR-630 printer drum, which arrived in already-opened packaging? Was it truly still new, only opened prior to a buyer-remorse return? Or did someone buy a new one, put their old empty one back in the bag, and return it for refund? There’s unfortunately no way to tell save for trying it myself, since print-count stats are logged at the printer, not within the drum itself.
BuyDig (formerly known as Beach Camera) is another frequent recipient of my wallet contents in exchange for clearance and open-box merchandise. And again, sometimes things work out fine; my Microsoft Surface Duo smartphone bought from them, for example, came in like-new condition. Same goes for the two sets of Mackie CR-X studio monitors I recently acquired. Other times…not so much. There was the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio set where I’m guessing the original purchaser had swapped out and kept the Scarlett 2i2 audio interface, replacing it with a lesser-featured Scarlett Solo. Then there were the Blue Yeti microphone and TRENDnet TPE-TG82g PoE multi-port switch, both sold as open-box units but, judging from cosmetic appearances, heavily (ab)used prior to being returned. And then there was the Mackie EM-USB microphone that was supposed to come with a suite of software, all of which was missing (once again, presumably lifted by the original purchaser prior to return) from my open-box acquisition. To its credit, BuyDig did right every time I reported a problem, offering a hefty further discount if I was interested in keeping the purchase, otherwise paying for return shipping and rapidly processing refunds. Still…
Resale merchant Decluttr was ironically showcased just the other day (as I write these words) in the Wall Street Journal. My recent (and only to-date, I think) purchase from them, specifically via their eBay storefront, was a Google Pixel 4a 5G smartphone in claimed excellent condition …which it was. But in at least one other notable respect, it unfortunately wasn’t as advertised. Google sold two versions of the 4a 5G, one carrier-unlocked but only supporting “sub-6” GHz 5G frequency bands, and the other $100 more (when new) and Verizon-locked but additionally supporting mmWave 5G (which Verizon brands as UW, for ultra-wideband). I’d been looking for a spare for my two carrier-unlocked 4a 5Gs and, since Verizon is one of my two carriers (for work, with AT&T for personal use) I figured that if I found a mmWave-supportive unit, I could also test out that higher-bandwidth (albeit shorter-range) 5G service variant. This particular unit was advertised as Verizon carrier-locked, with model number G6QU3 and manufacturer part number GA01945-US, all indicative of a mmWave-capable 4a 5G. So, I took the bait. But through several weeks of use, including a week in Silicon Valley, I never saw the “5G UW” service indicator show up on the display even once (and there’s no other way that I’ve found to confirm which phone model you actually have, especially if it didn’t come in original retail packaging). This MIA 5G UW notice by itself wasn’t a definitive ruling, because mmWave service remains scant (I’ll devote an upcoming blog post to this topic). But my suspicion was heightened when I stuck an AT&T SIM in the supposedly Verizon-locked phone and got service. Then I drove to near-downtown Denver Sloan Lake, whose shoreline is supposedly Verizon 5G UW-rich…and still didn’t get the indicator. Again, I filed a dispute with eBay and got my money back. But had I not done the legwork, I might have just blamed Verizon for sub-par 5G UW coverage.
Last but not least is Woot, who was recently selling Amazon-branded, supposedly 60W-capable USB-C cables. They were hefty enough, in comparison to the waif-like cables that typically come bundled with smartphones and the like, so they could have been 60W-capable. But all I could find spec-wise was a notation on the packaging backside indicating that they supported 5V at 3A…which, my calculator tells me, is only conventional 15W. To its credit, Woot didn’t even bother asking me to ship the cables back, it just refunded me outright. Still…and ironically, by the way, Woot is owned by Amazon.
I was an early adopter, and have long been an advocate of, the Mozilla Foundation’s various open-source software products. I use its Firefox web browser and (affiliated) Thunderbird email client daily, and its (again, affiliated) SeaMonkey WYSIWYG HTML editor forms the creation foundation of the weekly newsletters I develop for my full-time employer. But one of the products’ common greatest strengths—their extensibility—is also a chronic Achilles’ heel. I can’t count the number of times over the years that installing or upgrading an extension developed by someone else either interfered with someone else’s add-on or brought their common application nexus to its knees. Sticking solely with official Mozilla-blessed add-ons unsurprisingly improves the situation but hasn’t eliminated these issues in my experience.
And of course, bigger picture, who among us has not experienced a situation wherein installing or upgrading an application has resulted in “destructive interference” with other applications or the computer or mobile device operating system on top of which they interoperate?
My wife has long had an Amazon Echo device in the bathroom so she can listen to tunes as she gets ready in the morning. Originally it was a Tap, which is environmentally resistant (think shower steam) reflective of its intended portable use case but is also no longer being sold. The Tap apparently also has sub-par Wi-Fi capabilities; after transitioning her to a third-generation Echo Dot—which I also moved closer to the Wi-Fi access point on the other side of the tile wall, bypassing the glass mirror intermediary in the process—inherent operation greatly approved. But still, seemingly at least once a week, she specifically has issues with her SiriusXM subscription. Either the Echo Dot tells her that she’s already using her account on another device (which she isn’t) or all she gets is silence in response to a request she verbally initiates.
The Roku in our living room is similarly deficient. No service (Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Paramount+, etc.) is notably better or worse than the others, it seems. They all seem to have periodic “brownouts”. And when they do, a perpetual hourglass or, more likely, a blank screen (sometimes even followed by a Roku hard reboot!) is the extent of the debugging information I typically obtain. About all I can do at that point is switch to a different streaming service in engineer-brain attempting to discern whether the service itself, the Roku or my Comcast broadband connection is the culprit.
The common theme in all these cases (if my explanations didn’t make it obvious) is that problems caused by someone or something other than the developer/manufacturer can easily instead be incorrectly blamed (by an understandably technology-uninformed customer) on that developer/manufacturer, resulting in long-term brand damage. How can you prevent this undesirable outcome? This is an admittedly tricky situation, because in addition to the long-term relationship with the customer that you’re striving to cultivate, you also have relationships with retailers, hardware and software partners and service providers that you want to preserve, no matter that your critiques of them may be perfectly valid. Here are some thoughts:
- Retailer shortcomings are at the root of the “before you return this product, please call our toll-free number for assistance” literature that you’ll often find inside product packaging. The fundamental aspiration, of course, is to bypass the retailer intermediary, not only preserving the sale (versus a profit-obliterating return) but also taking care of the end customer in the process. Two key points here: don’t argue with the customer and don’t blame the retailer in your communication with the customer. If something is missing in the box, just replace it: deal with the retailer directly afterwards.
- Regarding misbehaving third-party software, an application (or foundation operating system) architecture that “sandboxes” various pieces of software so their misbehavior doesn’t adversely affect the functionality of code elsewhere may require more development time and effort upfront, but will likely reap dividends down the road. Such an approach may admittedly also introduce resource inefficiency, due to the additional “handshaking” and other overhead it incurs. But, unless you control the entirety of the code base your hardware will run, it may still be justified.
- And regarding third-party services that your product may tap into and leverage, an informed-as-much-as-possible consumer is a happy-as-possible customer. Using my earlier Amazon-in-bathroom tale as an example, instead of feeding my wife nothing but “white noise” (the worst possible outcome that I can imagine), the Echo Dot could instead sense that SiriusXM is down, communicate that fact to the listener, and offer up its own Amazon Prime Music service as a temporary alternative…even if the listener isn’t currently an Amazon Prime Music subscriber (which we are, but I digress). Amazon gets a happy listener, who accurately blames SiriusXM instead of Amazon for his or her issues. The incremental cost to Amazon is effectively nil, because the workaround offered to the listener (therefore any royalties that Amazon will need to pay the music copyright owners, absent subscription-fee reimbursement compensation) is temporary. And Amazon may end up even getting a new subscriber out of the situation.
What examples of tarnished reputation resulting from misdirected responsibility blame have you personally encountered? And what solutions have you come up with? Sound off in the comments.
—Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.