She is an attractive woman in her late twenties. Her accent is East-European but her command of English is fair to middling. She knows very little about technology, only that her laptop isn’t working. It’s soon evident that this is a motherboard issue, and we start by explaining that given the age of her laptop a repair wouldn’t be economical. We’re surprised by her claim that the laptop is only two years old, so we look up the specifications to confirm that manufacture of her particular model had stopped over four years previously.
It turns out that one of our local competitors had sold her the laptop a month earlier. She’d already been back to them but they had refused to look at the laptop without payment, so she’d come to us, as we do this for free. We advise her to return the laptop and insist upon a refund, but first we want to recover her data from the hard drive which is still working. And there’s surprise number two. The drive cover is removed to reveal a drive encased not in a drive housing but wrapped in corrugated cardboard and wedged into place. It’s amazing it’s still working as hard drives get hot, and wrapping them up in an insulating layer is a perfect way to kill a drive in very short order.
The absence of the drive housing is in itself telling – the original owner would have removed the drive for privacy reasons (always essential when you’re disposing of an old computer). If you are scrapping a laptop there’s no point in unscrewing the drive from the housing before getting rid of the laptop, which tells us that this laptop had been consigned to the scrap heap once already.
I return to my desk and return with a letter on headed notepaper for her to give to the other computer repair shop. In it I explain the concept of merchantable quality and warn them that if they don’t give her a full and immediate refund I, not the customer, would take up the matter with the local trading standards officer.
Sadly this is not an isolated incident – some of our local competitors even make national news. At present there's no recognised national trade body to represent consumer interests in our field. A few years ago - we joined the Technology Channel Association only to discover that it did little to regulate its members; I remember smiling when I heard a critic describe it as a glorified golf club for the trade. After a year I wrote them a long letter explaining why I was leaving. I didn't get a reply.
So what does a consumer do if they want a trustworthy service? That's a question I can answer - over 70% of our business comes through referrals. A marketing consultant once took exception to this fact and insisted that it meant we were getting our marketing strategy completely wrong. I disagree. It turns out that all you have to do is ask a friend.