NEWS - Monday, May 1, 2006

Faulty Xbox 360 Problem?

Chris Szarek has had a nightmare in his quest for a properly functioning Xbox 360. He hopes that his experience with the hot video game console isn’t normal. The 37-year-old photographer for a health care company is now on his fourth Xbox 360 because of quality problems with his earlier machines. Microsoft has replaced each console at its own cost, but Szarek is annoyed at the hassles he has had to endure. Szarek’s grievances may be uncommon among Microsoft customers. But his gripes -- amplified by online forums and blogs that reached thousands of others -- show how, in the age of the Internet, even one single loud customer can threaten the marketing efforts of a big corporation like Microsoft. Microsoft knows that well, because a perceived quality problem caused a lot of gamers in Japan to stay away from the original Xbox in 2002, hurting the momentum of console sales so much they never recovered. The lesson is that companies have to act fast to address quality or be prepared to deal with public relations problems. This time, Microsoft has been moving quickly to deal with complaints. Szarek has gotten swift responses from Microsoft lately, including an apologetic call last week from its top Xbox executive, Peter Moore. The Chicopee, Mass., resident first ordered his Xbox 360 console Aug. 12, from EB Games. He didn’t receive the console until more than a month after the launch, on Dec. 23. He spent more than $1,000 on nine games, the console and other gear. The machine worked fine until Jan. 21, when he saw three blinking red lights when he tried to turn on the console. ``I call them the three red lights of death,’’ he said. On his first call to customer support, he said he was told that he should return the console to the store where he bought it and get a replacement since it was less than 30 days old. At one point, after holding for 45 minutes, his call to customer support was inexplicably disconnected. ``Are you crazy?’’ he reacted. ``Have you been living in a cave? You can’t buy this console anywhere now. No one has replacements.’’ He received a replacement -- a refurbished one that had been returned by someone else and certified as usable by Microsoft -- in the first week of February. He sent that one back on Feb. 10 because the Xbox Live online game service was disabled. He started raising hell on Microsoft’s forums and sent messages to Microsoft’s PR department saying he was in contact with newspaper reporters. ``Customer satisfaction is our highest priority, and we continue to do everything we can to take care of our customers,’’ said Molly O’Donnell, group manager of Xbox global public relations at Microsoft. ``This unique situation provided an opportunity to exercise that commitment. We are happy to know that Chris feels taken care of and remains a fan of Xbox and Xbox 360.’’ Some fans criticized Szarek for complaining so much, saying he was just a ``Sony fanboy.’’ Szarek said he was annoyed at a quote by Microsoft’s Moore, corporate vice president in charge of the games business, who told a magazine that complaints were the result of a few people on the Internet making noise. ``It really pained me to see my favorite gaming company act like this, but I had no intention of being taken for a ride by any company that I have supported with literally thousands of dollars in purchases over the years,’’ Szarek said. His letters to the press got Microsoft’s attention. Szarek began communicating with Larry ``Major Nelson’’ Hyrb, a Microsoft Xbox Live ``blogcaster’’ who is an advocate for consumers inside Microsoft. Szarek received his second replacement -- his third machine and a refurbished one again -- on Feb. 20. Szarek appreciated the communication with Hyrb, but he said he often commiserated with others who had bad customer experiences getting replacements. He estimates that he got about 10 or 11 personal e-mails about people complaining they had similar experiences, but he estimates hundreds of people have posted complaints in various online forums such as, or ``The quality of the product wasn’t there,’’ he said. Microsoft has said that Xbox 360 return rates are within the normal 3 percent to 5 percent average for consumer electronics products. With 1.75 million consoles sold as of March 31, that means at least 50,000 consumers have had problems. The company faces a class-action lawsuit from Robert Byers, a Chicago resident who claimed that his box overheats. At the time of the launch, complaints of overheating boxes and games that crashed received widespread media attention. Szarek’s third machine lasted 61 days, until April 23. As he was about to play ``Rumble Roses XX,’’ the machine flashed the red lights again. Szarek said he had been well trained by now on troubleshooting and did everything he was supposed to do. The machine worked about one in every five tries. He disconnected the cables and the hard drive, then reconnected them. He called Microsoft again and faxed complaints directly to Bill Gates and other Microsoft executives. In an e-mail reply to Szarek, Moore said he would give him a call and get his problem sorted out. Moore said he was disappointed that he got the fax via another executive, J Allard, and didn’t get a fax from Szarek first. True to his word, Moore called from the United Kingdom and told Szarek that he would get a new replacement machine the next day. Szarek told Moore that he had faxed his complaint to Moore himself, and Moore apologized for the delay. Szarek’s experience appears to have been uncommon, though he notes that one gamer in the United Kingdom said in a blog post he was on his fifth replacement console. ``Retailers say that returns have not been a problem,’’ said John Taylor, an analyst at Arcadia Research in Portland. ``My sense is the experience with the Xbox 360 in the U.S. is normal and quality problems are below the radar. Even though the problems are broadcast on the Internet, it hasn’t affected demand at all.’’ Szarek has received a new machine and has been given a few gifts by Microsoft. But he feels he has to speak up. He said he has been getting e-mails of support from other Xbox 360 owners, and he has become a conduit to channel complaints and offer advice to others in the same boat. ``This whole Xbox 360 experience has inadvertently transformed me into a somewhat reluctant gamer’s rights advocate of sorts,’’ Szarek said. ``I never wanted to be in this position. I just want what is right and what I’ve paid for. Who can fault me for that?’’

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