From kids researching homework to seniors communicating with grandchildren and distant friends, a reliable computer has become a necessity.

For a small business, it's crucial.

But what does a customer do when a company fails to stand behind the product they've sold?

I purchased a new computer from a local company in June, 2008, built to my specifications. Although I had purchased Windows XP which should have meant it would be easy to network with my old computer (also running XP), I couldn't make that work, even after purchasing a KVM switch from the same company.

As I struggled with this, all the USB ports began to fail. I finally took the computer back to the company in February, 2009. They had it there for a week, then another week in March, and after each visit the USB ports worked for a while, then quit.

Several friends I consulted suggested it might be the motherboard, which was still under warranty. Finally, the company agreed to check that, but told me it could take two to three weeks. I assumed that was because there were other customers ahead of me, and only when I called, after two weeks, to see how my computer was doing, was I told that the motherboard has been sent – by postal mail – back to the manufacturer in the U.S.

My computer was in the shop from May 27 to July 20, a total of EIGHT weeks. The motherboard was returned from the manufacturer twice because it was still faulty (and I have a copy of the form the company sent when they returned it for the second time, so I know this to be true).

Finally, I was told the motherboard had been replaced by a new one, but because the faulty motherboard might have corrupted Windows, it would be wise to reinstall Windows. Because I hadn't been able to completely back up my hard drive without USB ports to connect my external hard drive, I worried about losing data. So I said I'd buy a new hard drive and they could reinstall Windows there.

On Monday, July 20, I picked up my computer. After setting it up in my office with everything connected, it would not boot. This happened twice. I was finally able to get the computer to boot the next day, but it shut down unexpectedly after a few hours. There was no blue screen, no error message, just a total shut down of power.

When I investigated, I discovered the new hard drive did not show up in My Computer or in Device Driver. I phoned the company, talked to the Assistant Technical Manager, and we checked the BIOS together. The new hard drive was not there, nor was the new installation of Windows.

The sales slip they gave me contained no serial numbers, either for the new motherboard or the new hard disk. When I checked the computer, the “new” motherboard had the same serial number as the old one.

Meanwhile, I had hand-delivered a letter to the General Manager, complaining about the length of time my computer was in the shop, a total, by then, of TEN weeks out of its first year.

He never responded, and later told me he never received the letter, although I had handed it personally to one of the employees on June 30, with his full name on the envelope.

It was time to write to the owner of the company. My registered letter was received on July 31. I waited until August 6 for someone to contact me, and then  filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

As soon as the BBB contacted the company, the General Manager phoned me. His initial comment was to scold me for going “over his head” to the owner, and when I told him I had written to him, he denied receiving the letter.

When I said I would not make another trip to take the computer back to them, he offered to send a driver to pick it up, said the Technical Manager would work on it over the weekend, give me a new upgraded motherboard and a fresh installation of Windows, and return the computer to me on Monday.

At last, my nightmare appeared to be over. 

But it wasn't. 

My computer was at their shop from Friday evening, Aug. 14, until Monday afternoon, August 17. The Technical Manager phoned me just before 5pm Sat. night to ask for the Windows activation key. I had no idea what he was talking about, and he was most insistent that I had this. He said that if he installed Windows without it, I would only have 30 days before my computer quit (I hadn't realized that's some kind of trial period for Windows).

Needless to say, I was upset, especially because he said this was *my* problem and he wouldn't be able to proceed without it. I asked how he managed to reinstall Windows on the new hard disk in July (when he claimed to have done so, although the new HD never showed up after I brought the computer back here). He said he did this without the activation key, so if the computer hadn't had to go back to them, I would now find myself with a frozen operating system, with no idea why! He never told me in July that I needed an activation key to keep Windows operating.

I was left hanging all day Sunday, wondering what was going to happen, until I finally phoned the General Manager (who had given me his cellphone number) about 4:30 to find out what was happening. He reported that he had told the Technical Manager to get a key from Microsoft, but nobody thought to tell me! Once I had my computer back and hooked up, I saw that even though this was supposed to be a reinstall of the same version of Windows XP Pro I had before, this version didn't look or act at all like my previous set-up.  I wondered if it was actually a reinstallation of the Windows XP Pro I had bought and paid for the year before.  Since I'd never received an Activation Key for that, I had no way to check.

But the real problem was more pressing. The Technical Manager misspelled my name in My Documents, and when I phoned him to correct this, we spent half an hour on the phone without success. He gave me something to try, and when that didn't work, I spent another half hour with him on the phone the following day.

Finally, he admitted he had no solution, and would have to check his databases. Rather than stay on the phone as he did this, I suggested he call me back. Instead, a different technician phoned me in the afternoon and had me make some changes. That corrected the name, but meant I had to reinstall all my programs all over again!

In the process, I discovered that the Technical Manager had assigned my printer to the wrong port, although every time I tried to reinstall it, either using the Microsoft wizard or the disk, it was clear that it should be installed to LPT1. He had assigned it to LPT3.

I reported these problems to the BBB, who agreed to reopen the complaint. 

The company's response to the BBB is to say that they upgraded my motherboard and reinstalled Windows, both at no charge, and therefore have “addressed all concerns.”

Since my letters to the company mentioned that I was a professional journalist and listed the organizations I belong to, the company had their lawyer, who just happens to have the same last name as the General Manager, send me a letter on September 18 threatening to sue me if I write about them. 

So I can't mention their name. But many of you reading this article already know who they are. Surely, they realize that professionals share information with their colleagues, mentioning where they bought their latest computer, what problems they've had, and, in my case, ongoing frustration with repeated service calls.  

There isn't a business, large or small, that can afford to offend a single customer. Word-of-mouth is a powerful tool, and with social media like Facebook and Twitter, bad publicity can spread exponentially.

The company had many occasions where they could have turned this around. If they'd put a temporary motherboard in my computer within a few days in June, then were more careful about the reinstallation of Windows on the hard disk, they would have had a happy customer.

Instead of a win/win situation, we've ended up with a lose/lose. I've lost money and time, and they've lost something more valuable that gold to any business: their reputation.