PC Repair Rip-Off!

Need to get your PC fixed? Steer clear of the top national chains--all four fumbled on our undercover tests, and many tried to peddle costly, unneeded parts or services.

Charles Piller
From the April 1998 issue of PC World magazine
Posted Wednesday, April 01, 1998

People have been grousing about how much it costs to fix their PCs since the first Altair rolled out of a storefront in Albuquerque, New Mexico, more than 20 years ago. Misleading estimates, rude and occasionally dishonest technicians, and big repair bills seem to be alarmingly typical these days. But are the horror stories just isolated cases?
To find out, PC World conducted a detailed investigation of service stores. Posing as unsophisticated customers, PC World reporters in six cities tested 20 branches of four giant computer chains. After reading this article, you'll never view computer service the same way again.
Best Buy, CompUSA, Computer City, and RadioShack all have bold slogans: "You Have Questions, We Have Answers," trumpets RadioShack. "World Class Customer Service," boasts Computer City. The others are similarly self-assured. Do they live up to their billing? The answer affects a lot of you: These four chains are the biggest companies that repair a wide range of major-brand PCs. Each of them has a strong national presence, repairs computers not purchased in its own stores, and advertises widely. In short, each represents a primary choice for most consumers. According to the trade magazine Computer Retail Week, these chains collectively account for more than one-third of the $29 billion earned last year by the top 100 computer retailers.
And the big four provided a far greater percentage of repair services because many of the top retailers are direct-mail companies (such as Micro Warehouse) or discount houses (such as Costco) that do not repair the machines they sell.
That turns out to be bad news for consumers. Take RadioShack. In our tests, it properly fixed only two PCs in five tries; one store took 25 days to complete work and even then didn't detect the source of the problem. Because RadioShack offers no phone support--for free or fee--perhaps it should change its slogan to the more apt "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Unfortunately, RadioShack's dismal performance was far from unique. Stores from every chain wanted to sell us a new hard drive or motherboard (or both) to fix a problem caused by a faulty $7 cable. The common urge to prescribe costly, unneeded parts suggests that naive consumers pay dearly at thousands of stores across the country every day. And few ever realize that they are wasting their money.
Service isn't much good unless your computer gets fixed. But the fix itself is only part of good service. We evaluated five stores from each major chain based on a combination of the key factors in the consumer experience--accuracy, quality, cost, efficiency, and helpfulness.

Service Test: Defining Our Approach
PC World doesn't often go undercover. But that was the only way to find out how consumers were really being treated by the big chains' repair services. Here's how we did it: First we purchased 20 identically configured, refurbished Compaq Presario 4122 PCs--using one for each of five stores at each of the four chains. (Compaq was not consulted on our test planning or in the development of this article; this make and model was chosen merely because of its near-universal acceptance by repair shops nationwide.)
Before setting up our test problems, we verified that each system was in perfect working order. We reformatted each hard drive, then reinstalled Windows 95, along with several applications and dummy files.
How We Tested
Posing as typical consumers, we presented the following tests to the stores:
Problem 1. To test phone support, we sabotaged each PC's display by renaming the video driver. A good tech should be able to diagnose the problem over the phone and guide a user to a solution: reinstalling the driver.
Problem 2. On 15 of the 20 systems, we damaged the IDE hard drive cable by cutting several of its internal wires. The damage was not visible, but the system wouldn't boot. Correct solution: Replace the IDE cable. On the remaining 5 systems we disabled the CD-ROM audio by cutting the sound cable. Correct solution: Replace the cut cable.
Problem 3. We moved one SIMM in each machine to an incorrect slot, reducing usable system memory from 16MB to 8MB. We didn't tell the technicians that the memory seemed faulty. The PCs ran so slowly, and the wrong order of the SIMMs was so easy to see, we believe a trained person should readily spot this problem.
How We Graded
We evaluated stores by measuring key factors in the consumer experience, assigning points according to relative importance. The best possible score was 100 points.
Accuracy (20 points maximum in store, 55 phone). Did the store diagnose the problem correctly and without confusion? If so, it scored big; in the few cases where a store got close enough to identifying a problem without clearly defining it, we gave partial credit.

Quality (30 points, in store only). Did the store fix the problem? This is the acid test of repair experiences, of course. Without a fix, no store was graded above F. We penalized stores that tried to sell unneeded parts or services.

Cost (20 points). Was the final bill fair and consistent with estimates? If so, we gave high marks; overcharges were penalized.

Efficiency (15 points). Did the store meet its own completion estimates? If so, we graded it high, even if the PC spent a long time in the shop. But if a store wasted our time with sluggish repairs, communication breakdowns, or long waits on hold, it lost points.

Helpfulness (10 points). Were employees instructive and courteous? If so, we gave them their due. Stores with terse, uncommunicative, impatient, or rude techs were marked down.

Misplaced SIMM (5 points, in store only). Did the store spot the problem and fix it?

We gave each store an overall grade based on these criteria, then averaged grades for the five stores within each chain to get a single letter grade as follows:
A = 90 to 100 points
B = 80 to 89 points
C = 70 to 79 points
D = 60 to 69 points
F = less than 60 points

Rampant Incompetence: Every Chain Falls Flat (chart)

Service Problems: Faulty cable and misplaced SIMM (chart)

Phone Support: Corrupted video driver

Easy Problems? Not for These Stores
We created three equipment problems (for details, see Service Test: Defining Our Approach. The first, to test phone tech support, was a corrupted video driver that degraded on-screen color. The next problem required reporters to bring PCs into the shop. Each identically configured PC had either a bad hard drive cable or a bad CD-ROM cable--easy problems to diagnose and cheap to fix. Our third problem was a misplaced SIMM, which slowed the system to a crawl.
Our findings suggest that a service visit to any of the giant chains is not for the faint of heart (for an overview, see Rampant Incompetence: Every Chain Falls Flat; for details, see Service Problemsand Phone Support Problem):

Of 55 problems tested across 20 stores, a total of 30 were misdiagnosed, ignored, or went otherwise unfixed. Best Buy and Computer City each missed on 9 of 15 tries. Given 10 problems to solve, RadioShack missed 6. CompUSA missed on 6 of 15 problems.

Only two stores fixed all three problems: the CompUSA superstores in Santa Clara, California, and Woburn, Massachusetts. And even they were not perfect. The Woburn store lost points for inefficiency and lack of helpfulness, and the Santa Clara outlet fell short for suggesting a time-wasting fix for the phone problem.

Seven of 15 stores did not meet a minimum level of acceptable service for the phone test (RadioShack doesn't offer phone tech support). Only 3 of 5 Best Buy and 3 of 5 CompUSA stores passed--and one pass in each case was marginal. Only 2 of 5 Computer City stores passed.

Ten of 20 stores did not meet a minimum level of acceptable service for the bad cable; no chain solved the problem in more than three of five tries.

Thirteen of 20 stores failed to detect the misplaced SIMM; only CompUSA solved the problem three times; Computer City and Best Buy failed in four of five tries.

Nine of 20 stores--3 RadioShack outlets and 2 stores from each of the other chains--either replaced or tried to replace parts that were in perfect working order.

On cost, Best Buy was best, with charges as low as $20; CompUSA stayed under $100 but charged a minimum of $90. RadioShack and Computer City wanted to bill up to $720 and $605, respectively, for parts and labor we didn't need.

Precious Few Highlights
Not all the news was bad. At least one store in every chain performed reasonably well, and in a few cases we had dream experiences--effective repairs punctuated by courtesy, efficiency, and low cost on in-store service. (Even top performers didn't match that record for phone support, however.) CompUSA boasted one standout with its Santa Clara superstore. "They fixed the faulty hard drive cable faster than they said they would," our reporter commented. "Didn't even charge for the cable, and got the SIMM problem right."
In Westminster, Colorado, Best Buy offered superb service for a disabled CD-ROM audio cable. "When I brought it in (with a crying baby, for realism)," our reporter says, "a tech checked all the settings to make sure it wasn't just a software problem. They charged the minimum diagnostic service fee--$19.99--and threw the cable in for free."
In phone support tests, Best Buy and Computer City were uneven when it came to helpfulness, but all except one CompUSA store treated our reporters with complete courtesy and patience. And several stores from these three chains were easily accessible by telephone. What did the best stores do right? First, they listened carefully. Then they seemed to take a methodical approach and didn't jump to conclusions, ruling out obvious possibilities first, and then moving efficiently to the next steps.

Phone Support: A Cautionary Tale
Unfortunately for consumers, in the real world the right answer counts more than accessibility and kindness--and for phone support, right answers were hardly the norm. Only three stores--Comp-USA's Woburn outlet, and the Best Buy stores in Westminster, Colorado, and West Covina, California--gave us outstanding service, pinpointing the problem with our driver and promptly explaining how to reinstall it. More routinely, we encountered techs who either came up with a time-consuming fix (reinstalling all software from the Compaq QuickRestore CD, which overwrites all data on the hard drive) or were simply stumped.
CompUSA's $24.97 phone support charge may not seem onerous, except when you consider that only three of the chain's five stores solved our problem--and two of those used the marginally acceptable QuickRestore fix. The two other chains, on the whole, were generous with their time. While Best Buy does not officially offer or charge for phone service, its techs still provided phone support when asked. But their advice failed in three of five cases. Computer City advertises a standard charge of $2.49 per minute for phone support, but four of five stores didn't charge us. Unfortunately, a sweet deal turned sour in three cases, when suggestions from the chain's techs didn't help at all. The Denver outlet made matters worse, advising our reporter to delete an undamaged video driver. RadioShack's lack of phone support means that the chain offers no way for consumers to screen a problem: A simple software glitch could send your computer to the shop for a lengthy and costly stay.

In the Shop: Litany of Errors
If you use a trusted mechanic for your car, a breakdown may still be expensive and frustrating, but at least you can be confident you're getting a fair deal. If you take your computer to one of these four chain's stores, you'll often find techs who seem to have no idea what they are doing--and they do it very slowly.
Overall, RadioShack was the least effective chain--generally inefficient and unhelpful, it failed to fix our cable problem three times out of five. Not a single RadioShack store fixed both the cable and the SIMM problems. Two RadioShack stores eked out C ratings--the others flunked. Computer City scored only a bit better: Three stores passed marginally; only one of those fixed both the bad cable and the misplaced SIMM.
CompUSA and Best Buy bettered this record slightly: Nearly all their stores got strong marks for helpfulness, and two stores from each chain performed well on many aspects of the consumer experience. But the rest performed terribly: Only two CompUSA stores fixed both problems; none of the Best Buy shops did so.

"We'll Have to Get Back to You..."
Can you imagine being without your computer for days? How about weeks? If you go to one of these chains for service, consider taking home a rental PC. Only three stores diagnosed and completed work within 48 hours--the Best Buys in Denver and Westminster, and the Computer City in Pleasanton, California. Six other stores took longer, though they met or improved on their estimated completion dates. But among those nine "efficient" stores, only five actually fixed our cable problem correctly, and only a single store caught the misplaced SIMM.
Average repair times ranged from about 3 days for Best Buy, to 6 days for CompUSA and 10 days for Computer City. RadioShack averaged more than 14 days per machine. This was primarily due to the chain's cumbersome system of transporting all machines dropped off at local stores to centralized service centers for repair. RadioShack executives have acknowledged this weak spot. (In fairness, the faster chains' stores sometimes suggested that we replace working parts. Had we elected to follow this bad advice, the repair process would have taken longer.)

Diagnostic Ineptitude
When we brought PCs to a shop, we described our faulty cable symptoms--no audio on CD-ROMs, or a 'Drive not found' message for the hard drive cable. The techs took it from there. Unfortunately, none of the chains was able to figure out the faulty cable problem without considerable aggravation in more than two cases out of five.
Worse, when a store botched the cable problem diagnosis, it never ended up fixing it. Our reporter's experience at the CompUSA store in Framingham, Massachu- setts, was alarmingly typical: "Over the telephone, the technician said he'd seen my disk controller failure 'a million times a day' and it meant I needed to replace the hard drive. I really had to wrestle with him to accept the machine for a hands-on diagnosis." When the tech finally relented and agreed to diagnose the problem in the shop, he proceeded to recommend a new motherboard.
That part-replacement mentality quickly became familiar. None of the chains offer commissions that might encourage replacement of serviceable parts, but stores in every chain--three RadioShacks and two from each of the others--tried to convince us to replace parts that were in perfect working order. This could merely have been incompetence. It may also have been deliberate efforts to sell unneeded components or services.

Peddling Unneeded Parts
A technician at the RadioShack in San Francisco tried to sell our reporter both a new hard drive (instead of just a new cable) and an antivirus software package, claiming that the machine was infected with the NYB virus. The suggestion was puzzling, given that the store could not get the system to recognize the drive, and therefore could not have scanned the drive to determine that a virus was present. (We scanned all PCs before bringing them to the stores, and just to be sure, we scanned that "infected" drive after we fixed the system ourselves. It was free of viruses.)
Although our reporter left strict orders with the Best Buy store in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, not to replace any part without permission, the techs went ahead and installed a new motherboard anyway. "On the plus side, they replaced my old motherboard and its 150-MHz Pentium CPU with one using a 166-MHz Pentium," our reporter noted. "The entire process was an exercise in incompetence mixed with what appeared to be good intentions."
After the tech at Best Buy's West Covina, California, store recommended a new hard drive, our reporter did everything he could think of--short of confessing knowledge of the precise solution--to help the store succeed. "How about trying the drive in another system?" our reporter helpfully suggested. The technician's reply: "I didn't hear the hard drive make any noise, you know, like it was working. So it's a goner." He insisted that a new drive would make things as good as new--without mentioning that all data would be lost.
The most perplexing of these cases took place at the RadioShack in Carlsbad, California. The store diagnosed hard disk failure and claimed to have replaced the drive--again, without our permission. When we checked the machine, the old hard drive was still there.
"Our records indicate that a hard drive was sent to Compaq in exchange for the new one," said Bob Kilinski, vice president for service at Tandy, RadioShack's parent corporation. "If the wrong drive was inadvertently sent, Compaq's system is not designed to make that distinction." Kilinski then added, "Such a widespread system [as RadioShack] can experience an individual problem...we always do our best to correct it."
That episode reflected the generally chaotic communications we found at RadioShack. In one case, the service center claimed to have transferred our PC back to the store where we left it, but the store didn't have it. The machine resurfaced a week later.

Fast and Loose With Warranties?
Aside from what appears to be at best an inaccurate claim to have replaced a hard drive, there is another curious aspect to the Carlsbad RadioShack case. It involves warranty repairs. The Compaq PCs used in our investigation were in fact still under warranty. Our reporters, however, identified the machines as being out of warranty, posing as worried consumers who expected to spend their own cash. To our surprise, several stores took the initiative to check directly with Compaq, and learned that the machines were indeed covered. (We authorized only one repair under warranty, although two other stores replaced parts under warranty without our permission. PC World reimbursed Compaq for all warranty expenses the company incurred as a result of this story.)
On the surface, a store's investigating warranty status looks like great service. But each time we encountered this apparently beneficial service, the store urged us to replace perfectly functional parts. You might shrug and think, "If it happened to me, why not go for it?" But a new hard drive means you lose your data. In all three of the cases where parts were replaced under warranty, we were charged for labor, even though the warranty covers labor. And in the long run, manufacturers pass along costs associated with warranty abuse by jacking up PC prices.

Danger Signs
Overall, our many disappointing experiences at the service stores seemed to share certain characteristics:
Rush to judgment. Many of the stores' technicians made a firm--and incorrect--diagnosis before checking the problem thoroughly. Our reporters had to stand in long lines in many stores; pressure to move machines rapidly through the queue could partly explain the haste.
Carelessness. Lapses in store oversight let bad assessments go forward unchallenged. (According to the Better Business Bureau, computer retail stores rank 7th worst among 327 types of businesses on number of overall complaints; however, the Bureau's data do not distinguish between sales and service problems.)
Inefficiency. Some stores use disorganized or sluggish systems for moving and tracking products and communicating with customers.

Response From the Top
PC World asked all four chains how they account for their lackluster showing. Best Buy declined to comment, but executives from other chains seemed chastened.
"I'm certainly not happy with any report that says customers are getting less than they deserve," said Nathan Morton, chief executive officer of Computer City, a Tandy subsidiary that may soon be spun off as a separate company. "But it's a very high priority for us to get it right."
"I don't challenge the results," said Paul Poyfair, CompUSA's executive vice president for services. "I'm obviously not very pleased." He then said, "We have 1500 techs across the country, and we've typically fared very well, but it's something that keeps [vice president for technical services] Rick Fountain and myself up at night." Poyfair added, "You can be assured that this will be something we focus on."
"Obviously, we're disappointed. It's very disturbing. I've already addressed [PC World's findings] with our people," said Tandy/RadioShack's Kilinski. "On the surface, it looks like someone made an assumption about a product based on past experience rather than checking carefully." But, he added, "we take customers seriously, and we take service seriously."
In defense of their stores, all the executives said that internal customer surveys indicate most people are happy with the service they receive. None of the chains would release the survey data to PC World.
The executives also argued that you can't expect flawless performance--PCs are very complex, and sometimes problems can't be reproduced in the shop, said Computer City's Morton. "But that's not to excuse anything. We want to be right 100 percent of the time."
CompUSA's Poyfair and RadioShack's Kilinski argued that their stores would have caught diagnostic errors if our reporters had, for example, permitted the techs to replace a hard drive or system board. They predicted that technicians would have caught the cable problems during the installation process. Our experience suggests otherwise. In one case--at the Computer City store in Pleasanton, California--we permitted the replacement parts to be installed. At the Best Buy store in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, parts were replaced without our permission; and the Carlsbad RadioShack claimed (wrongly) to have made a replacement--again unauthorized. In no case was a misdiagnosis detected in the process.
Why did we have so many bad experiences? Is the problem mostly one of shoddy management and inept or careless technicians--or is there a training gap?

Root Cause: Training Lapse?
All the chains say that training is a top priority, and they all use training programs administered by computer vendors. Computer City rewards technicians with higher pay if they get extra training, says Morton. Every CompUSA store employs a "master technician" as a troubleshooter. And all four chains require their technicians (sometimes after in-store training) to obtain A+ certification, administered by the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) and widely accepted as a baseline standard for diagnosis-and-repair techs.
PC World learned from CompTIA, however, that of the 20 stores we tested, only 8 had more than half their techs certified A+; no Computer City and only one Best Buy repair facility had achieved this status. (CompTIA says that in some cases, A+ certified shops are not registered with them.) In any case, the distinction proved an unreliable indicator of skill. The average grades for the A+ certified stores were a D+ for our phone test, and a D for our in-shop test--barely better than the stores without overall A+ certification.
After encountering so many major errors, we naturally asked chain executives about their efforts to improve quality. Computer City is automating a system for gathering data on customer experience and for marshalling a response to problems. CompUSA says it will soon reward tech managers who score high on customer satisfaction surveys. "From time to time we will screw up, but we're trying to do everything we can to keep that to a minimum," CompUSA's Poyfair said. In light of PC World's findings, RadioShack may require a second tech to verify the need for expensive repairs.

Pay Your Money, Take Your Chances
Until the chains improve, are you stuck with taking a repair gamble? Yes and no. PC World did not test regional chains like Fry's Electronics (California) or Micro Center (eight states), or office-supply chains such as Staples and Office Depot, because none of them repair systems that weren't purchased at their stores. And we didn't try local mom-and-pop stores, whose dependence on referrals can make good service a life-or-death proposition. Anecdotal reports suggest that small, community-based businesses of any kind tend to be more responsive to customers than are large national chains. (Tellingly, one RadioShack technician actually suggested to a reporter that he'd be better off going to a mom-and-pop for repairs.)
But whichever service provider you choose, our experience suggests that a little homework can spare you major headaches and needless expense. When you buy a computer, look for one with a long warranty. Then get smarter about which problems really need fixing, and learn some troubleshooting skills. (For a head start, see the Troubleshooting charts, links at right.) When you need help, solicit referrals from friends and colleagues, and try your PC manufacturer's technical support line. You can also screen services through the Better Business Bureau. (For more tips on how to avoid exasperating and costly repair experiences, see Don't Get Taken: Checklist for PC Repairs.)
Of course, no single person will ever experience the barrage of frustrations met by our team of reporters. But consider this: At RadioShack, we faced less than a fifty-fifty chance of getting a problem corrected at a fair price, and the odds were barely better at the other chains. So unless you've gotten positive feedback about a specific store or checked its record, steer clear of the big four computer retailers. Our investigation suggests that if you must get a machine repaired, depending on the big chains is risky business.

Don't Get Taken: A Checklist for PC Repairs
Troubled PCs remind us of the movie Twister: The problem is evident, but you often have no idea where it's coming from or what your best escape route is. When error messages start pelting your monitor, grab this checklist before you run to the nearest repair facility.
Think Ahead
Before you find a repair store:
Try online help. For common problems, check newsgroups such as alt.comp.hardware.pc-homebuilt and comp.sys.ibm.pc.hardware.

Call your credit card company. Some automatically extend warranties for products bought with their card.

Before the Repair
Based on our experience, you may fare better at local stores not connected to large chains. Ask friends for tips, and find out how long the recommended stores have been in business. You can check many stores through the Better Business Bureau. Ask the store if it will give you an estimate for diagnosis and repair. Also, before you go:
Put a name-and-address label on your PC and monitor.

Back up your data.

Know your system's purchase date and its warranties.

Record the serial numbers of major components.

During the Repair
If you're confused, consider bringing a technically savvy friend with you to the repair facility. At the store:
Read all the fine print.

Get written estimates.

Arrange to get your original components back unless they are needed for a trade-in.

Insist on authorizing every proposed repair, rather than giving the store a blanket okay.

After the Repair
Once a store has cured your system, use these guidelines:
Pay by credit card. The credit card company may intervene if disputes arise later.

Get a signed list of what repairs were done.

Check your PC's system memory and the component serial numbers to be sure you're not getting short-changed.

Keep all receipts.

If the worst happens, and you think you've been ripped off:
First ask the department and store managers to make it right.

Seek help from your local Better Business Bureau.

Complain to the local district attorney or the state attorney general.

--Laurianne McLaughlin


* Link to actual article online if it is still available.