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[personal|tech] Customer service gets weird, then gets fixed

I had what at first seemed a mildly annoying problem with Apple Computer. I’d recently received an email reminding me that I had not purchased extended AppleCare for my MacBook Air. Though I’m a big believer in not spending money on “extended warranties” for most products, I make an exception for my Apple hardware. Over the years, I’ve definitely come out ahead on this transaction. If nothing else, I type over a million words a year, which is damned hard on a keyboard. Plus the little things that can go wrong with any piece of high tech that get slung around as much as my laptop does. Surprised that I had not purchased AppleCare at the time I had originally bought the MacBook Air (November of 2011), I dropped the $249 for the contract.

When I went to register my AppleCare to my computer’s serial number, I found I already had it. Oddly, my MacBook Air showed up twice in my Apple account. Once with AppleCare, once without.

So I called Apple yesterday, hoping for a refund on my $249, which I appeared to have purchased twice. This devolved into an hour-long go-round with AppleCare’s customer service people — whom, I hasten to note, were unfailingly friendly and polite, even during the difficult period of the call — before we unraveled what was going on,

I managed to stump the Tier One agent, who established that I had indeed previously purchased AppleCare, and had now purchased it again, but couldn’t figure out how that had happened. She kept asking me how many Macs I owned. She also asked me if I’d had a major enough service problem to have had the machine completely replaced. (No, as it happens.) Then she passed me on to a supervisor, who asked me the same question in several ways. I finally realized she was fishing to see if I had two MacBook Airs and had confused them.

No, one, I insisted quite truthfully. At that point, the supervisor brought my attention to the fact that the two listings in my Apple account were for two different machines, both registered to me. The AppleCare I’d been prompted to buy was for the second MacBook Air in my listing. The AppleCare I was recorded as purchasing last year was for the first MacBook Air. Except I only have, and only ever had, one MacBook Air. The two machines had serial numbers so close together that I’d mistaken the numbers on the Apple Web site as being the same one repeated twice.

We were all stumped.

I began going through my email archives looking for the original Apple purchase receipt, when I stumbled upon some comments on a series of old blog posts of mine complaining that the MacBook Air I had bought last year was lost in shipment. I pointed that out to the supervisor, who admitted that any shipping losses were handled by a different department, and she couldn’t see any record of my multiple customer service calls regarding the lost machine, which had eventually generated a replacement machine — the one I have now. I was able to read her an old blog post reflecting the fact that the UPS tracking system had no record of the original shipment once it left the Apple warehouse in California. It had never even gotten to Oregon, let alone to me.

What happened was that when Apple sent me the second machine, they never backed out the transaction on the first one. So, from their point of view, I was the owner of a (non-existent) MacBook Air to which the original AppleCare contract I’d purchased last year applied. The MacBook Air in my possession was never covered by that warranty, because it had never been transferred from the serial number of the vanished MacBook Air to the serial number of mine.

At the end of it all, they cheerfully refunded me my $249. They also deleted the originally-shipped and never-found computer from my Apple account to avoid future confusion.

This was one of the weirder customer service calls I’ve ever been party to. The underlying problem was Apple’s error in not backing out the original record and transferring that AppleCare contract. I don’t consider this a failure of customer service, so much as a failure of data management. Given how baffled the AppleCare people were at first, it’s clearly not something that comes up very often. I’m happy with the outcome, and amused by the problem.

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