Apple: Gazing Deeply into the Gift Horse’s Mouth

[Update (2/8/2005): I’ve just been notified by Bill Catambay, Editor in Chief of The Macintosh Guild that detailed instructions for a do-it-yourself inverter board replacement are now available via the MacGuild website. Bill says that the fix is pretty simple, costs about $130, and the replacement part is advertised as being more reliable and, we hope, longer lasting than the Apple replacement. YMMV, of course, but you might want to check it out.]

[Update (9/22/2004): The repair described below went bad today. It lasted about nine months. I’ve just ordered a new NEC monitor (with a three year warranty) to take the place of Apple’s. You can read more about it here.]

Apple just repaired my out-of-warranty 17″ LCD monitor and waived all fees; they even paid the shipping costs and sent me a box to pack it in. And, boy, do I feel awful.
Some history is in order. It’s a long narrative, so grab another cuppa before clicking the continue link.

Last September, my 14-month old Apple Studio Display monitor suffered a “brain cloud” (you can read a previous post if you want the gory details). All the symptoms matched up with Apple’s own description of a bad backlight. At that time, the monitor was two months past the warranty expiration date. Apple has a schedule of flat fees for repairing monitors, and the cost for mine would be $509, plus $49.95 for shipping. That’s outrageous, especially when you think all that’s needed is a new fluorescent lightbulb.

I went to the Apple website and found a discussion thread where scores of other people had found themselves in a similar situation: a few weeks or a couple of months after the warranty expired, their monitors dimmed. New folks were showing up almost daily to report the same problem. It was beginning to appear that Apple had a quality control or systemic problem on their hands. But no one had been able to get Apple to either acknowledge the problem, or provide some relief in the area of repair cost.

Someone suggested writing Apple, to at least get on record about the problem, in the hope that the company might begin to take notice. They suggested using PlanetFeedback.com to draft an email to Steve Jobs, Apple’s Messiah CEO. I figured it couldn’t hurt — probably wouldn’t help, but couldn’t hurt — so I did just that.

On September 14, I sent an email to Jobs. It was nothing special. I didn’t use a single exclamation point, but I did point out my disappointment with the product and Apple’s apparent lack of sympathy to it. And, I did promise that I wouldn’t buy another Apple monitor, nor would I recommend to anyone else that they do so.

A month passed, then six weeks. No response from Apple, but the discussion board thread was now up to 150+ messages and growing.

Then, during the last week of October, I got a call from someone identifying himself as representing Steve Jobs, in Apple’s Executive Relations Group. I was out of town when the call came in; he left a message on my machine saying that if I didn’t return his call that afternoon, he would call back on Monday (this was on Friday). I picked up the message on Sunday, and thought, “yeah, right.” But, sure enough, on Monday afternoon, the same man called me again and we discussed my situation.

Again, I think I was very calm and logical — although in my mind I was a raving lunatic, slowly being blinded by eyestrain trying to cope with my darkened monitor — and I tried to focus on two things: the apparent frequency with which this seemed to be happening to others, and the exorbitant flat fee charged by Apple for repairs.

He didn’t do much talking…just asked a few questions and mainly listened to me. Then he said he’d visit with their engineering department and get back with me. However, he didn’t hold out any hope that they would provide me with relief in this situation.

A week later, he called back and said that he had decided to make “a one-time exception” and repair my monitor at no cost. He put me on the line with a repair coordinator, who got all the information needed to set up the repair order, and to ship a packing box to me. The box arrived the next day via Airborne Express. This was on a Monday. I packed the monitor, called Airborne, and it was shipped back to Apple that same evening. On Friday morning of that same week, the monitor arrived at my doorstep, repaired and working like new.

The repair order said that the AC/DC inverter and the logic board had been replaced, so this was more than a simple backlight replacement. That was interesting because the message board threads were beginning to lean toward the inverter as the culprit, as more people researched the problem (and a few found 3rd-party repair shops willing and able to work on the monitors. Incidentally, those repair shops were doing these repairs for about $150, vs. the $500 Apple was charging.).

And get this. The Apple rep even called back last week to make sure I was happy with the repair!

So, there I was, the recipient of apparent and unexpected corporate beneficence. So what if I didn’t understand why they had deemed me worthy of such largesse? Well, I’ll tell you.

I felt bad and a little guilty — survivor’s syndrome? — because so many others in the same situation were not getting the same relief from Apple. I debated whether or not to post my experience to the discussion board. On one hand, if I kept quiet, I wouldn’t be leading folks to develop unrealistic expectations about getting similar treatment. Also, while the Apple rep hadn’t asked me to keep it quiet, the way he kept referring to this as a one-time exception seemed to indicate that this really wasn’t something that the public would benefit from knowing about.

On the other hand, however, how could I not tell folks that there was, indeed, something that might convince Apple to make another exception, even if I didn’t know what that something was? And, truthfully, I was a little ticked-off at such apparent arbitrary behavior by Apple, even if I was the beneficiary. I know; that sounds really stupid, but it’s how I felt. So I did it. I posted my experience on the discussion board. And, interestingly, rather than getting upset about it, the people who responded seemed to take some hope from it. “If Apple made one exception, perhaps they’ll make another.” Several decided to send their own letters to Jobs, the way I did.

I don’t know how this will turn out for the others in this situation. I hope that Apple will at least review its service fee schedule, and revise it to be closer to market. And I hope that someone is looking seriously at the idea that they might have a systemic problem with their monitor parts, assembly or design, and that a solution will be found to eliminate future occurences.

The one lesson I got out of this is not to assume that nothing can or will be done simply because you’re dealing with a big company. If you can approach the company not as an irate maniac but rather as a partner in the attempt to identify the problem and locate a solution (as hokey as that sounds), I think you’ll have a much better chance of arriving at a happy outcome.

Will I buy another Apple monitor after this experience? I don’t know. They’re still priced higher than the competition, and their performance specs fall short in some areas. But there’s a much better chance that I’ll continue to be a customer now than there was back in September. And maybe that’s the best they can hope for.

8 comments

  1. Wow, great going Eric. Great job, Apple. Thanks for the full story. For goodness sakes, don’t feel awful, feel justified. They had a bad product, and they made it right. You kept your cool and demonstrated Christian ethics, and you were rewarded. Raise the Praise!

  2. My 17″ display just failed… after 1.5 years. Do you know if Apple revised their repair fees? Or do you know if more people got it fixed free of cost?
    thanks

  3. Benjamin, as of this morning, Apple’s fixed monitor repair fee was still $509 plus $49.95 s&h. You can view the fee schedule here.
    I don’t know if anyone else has been able to convince Apple to repair an out-of-warranty monitor for free. There was an extensive thread on Apple’s own discussion board but I haven’t monitored it lately. The last time I looked, people were beginning to throw around phrases like “class action lawsuit,” so I don’t know if Apple will even allow the thread to continue.

  4. Eric,
    When I worked at a major electronics manufacturer (not Apple), as a Customer Relations Representative, we had several models with one or two known problems, and if anyone called in to complain about those models and problems, we would fax out one-time warranty authorizations like they were going out of style. Some of those models were several years out of warranty, by the way. We were always told to make them understand it was a ONE TIME thing. Sometimes this became absurd when the customer already had a pile of five or more.
    Also, if a model is just a month or two out of warranty and you contact the manufacturer, many will give you a one-time warranty authorization if you can fax them your some type of proof when the product was purchased.
    I was considering buying the 17-inch, but not now. It is too expensive, true, but in my opinion Apple obviously has a serious design issue here, not quality control, but DESIGN, and they are not taking responsibility for the flaw.
    I have also heard that they are actively deleting critical entries on the discussion forums as well.
    I’ve had to send back my dual-USB iBook three times over the last three months (purchased 11/2002), and now my iPod is acting weird, as well as having a battery that lasts 2.5 hours tops (purchased 5/2003). I can’t believe I ever thought about buying another Apple product.
    No more Apple for me. 🙁

  5. Yep, this happens all the time. Car companies have product recalls. Computer and electronics companies have “IF anyone calls, go ahead and fix it.”
    Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called tech support for this or that product only to be told, “Yeah, that’s a known problem. Let me [fix it/send you a replacement/authorize an RMA].”
    If you’re in this boat, call it in.

  6. Hi Eric,
    Just so you know, the thread is now at 354 posts and growing daily. People are NOT happy. My display failed a couple weeks ago after two wonderful years of use.
    Which address did you use to email Steve Jobs? I am assuming it was the steve@apple.com address, but if not, could you let me know? I’m considering doing the same thing you did. Hopefully my politeness will get me similar treatment.

  7. Michael, I still subscribe to the daily digest for this thread, so I’m aware of the continuing growth in customer ire over this problem and Apple’s failure to address it in a generic fashion.
    Frankly, I don’t know what address my email was directed to. As I said, I used Planetfeedback.com, and it provides an email address for Apple, by default, to which all communications are directed. I don’t remember if it tells you to which address your message is being directed; I suggest you check the website and see.
    I think it’s important that people attempt to communicate directly with Apple about this issue. It’s good to vent and share tips and encouragement via the discussion board, but that board is still not considered direct (or “official”) communication with the corporation. If I was Apple, I’d take all postings to such a board with a grain of salt…but I’d give much more credibility to direct communications by individuals who provide verifiable proof of identity and legitimate ownership of the product about which they are seeking help. All discussion boards are subject to manipulation by people with different agendas, if you know what I mean. (Not that I’m suggesting that’s the case here, but I understand Apple’s position in not treating the board as the “paper of record.”)
    Good luck!

  8. Thanks, Eric. I went to PlanetFeedback and sent a letter of my own. Not surprisingly, I found several other letters (including yours) from customers with the same issue.
    I agree that it’s important to contact Apple directly about these issues so they can track the issue. I’m not looking for a free replacement (although that would be nice) but I would at least like to know that Apple has looked into the issue and fixed it in the newer displays, so I can feel more confident in my next Apple purchase.
    Thanks for letting other users know about your experience.

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