After 30 minutes on the phone with Duane Siebert, I'm pretty sure he's not crazy, but I'd understand if you wanted to argue the point.
Siebert owns a toner refill company in Tavares, selling to nearly 200,000 customers in more than 135 countries. He's been at it for 26 years, and, over that time, he's become a little obsessive about customer service.
Live humans answer his phones. He has a six-word, "No time limit, no fine print" guarantee. He includes a bag of M&Ms in each order "just to make it a little special."
"Look, I know nobody's excited by toner," he says. "But we try."
So Siebert was more than a little frustrated when he stumbled into a customer-service problem that, to him, should have been easy to fix. Instead, it became an epic tale of corporate inertia, unanswered questions and one man's effort to reunite a computer server with its rightful owner.
Nothing crazy about that, right?
Here's what happened: In February, Siebert discovered that the $7,000 Dell computer server he'd bought on eBay in 2010 was stolen. He had called Dell for technical service, given them the server's ID number and was told the unit was registered to someone else.
For Siebert, the next step was obvious: Let's get this thing back to its parents. So he asked Dell to email the original owner. Citing privacy concerns, Dell said it couldn't. He tried again, explaining he didn't want the owner's email, he just wanted Dell to pass along a message:
"Hey, this guy in Florida has your missing server. Contact him here, and he'll arrange a reunion."
Dell refused again, leaving Siebert puzzled and annoyed.
"I'm no lawyer," he said, "but how in the world does not revealing any of their contact information to me violate their privacy?"
Dell's response got under Siebert's skin, so he began to scratch.
He called the company repeatedly but hit a series of dead ends. He found Dell's corporate phone prefix online and began random dialing, hoping to find someone who could help.
When that failed, he sent Linkedin messages to company CEO Michael Dell. When that failed, he drafted a press release, headlined, "Michael Dell, are you my server's daddy?"
"The server's proud adoptive 'father'" he wrote, "is pleading for help to do the right thing, so he can reunite Mr. Dell's progeny with its heartbroken family."
A public relations website Siebert uses wouldn't post the release, saying it portrayed Dell – which did not return my calls – in a bad light. Siebert's reaction? Well, duh!
"You're damn right it casts them in a bad light," he said. "I'm trying to return a $7,000 server to its owner, and they won't lift a finger to help."
The story has a more twists – including a call to a company tied to former presidential candidate Ross Perot – but the takeaway is this: Siebert had a hard time getting anyone interested in his campaign. Eventually, a sympathetic detective – who'd worked the original stolen property case – suggested that was likely because insurance had already paid off.
"This is as done as it's gonna get" he told Siebert. "It's yours."
Which would be fine with Siebert if not for the shoddy customer service at the heart of the matter. Lots of people had a chance to make things right, he said, but since the problem wasn't covered on anyone's FAQ, no one did. They all missed an opportunity.
I'll second that.
A few years back, I had a kitchen faucet go bad. It was old, and I had zero paperwork about its warranty. But I called the manufacturer – Delta – which said, "That has a lifetime warranty. We'll send you a new one."
At that moment, plumbing fixtures were more exciting than sex. For days, I subjected co-workers to the story of my kitchen faucet victory. I instantly became a Delta fan for life, because in a world filled with customer indifference, respect is more addictive than crystal meth.
Siebert knows that, which accounts for his no-questions-asked return policy: "We'll give you a refund if you don't like the color of the box."
He'd just like to see the same approach with the companies he deals with.
"I've said it a zillion times before: If you give me a mediocre product but top-notch service, I'm going to come back. Every time."
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