DIRECTV, what about "Make the products work" and "Keep the customers happy" do you not understand?

Summary:Well, I was going to write my post-mortem of the iPhone launch and go into an entire diatribe on crappy customer service and the perils of early adoption, but then I found myself with a much better target than AT&T  Wireless and Apple  -- the idiots at DIRECTV.

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Well, I was going to write my post-mortem of the iPhone launch and go into an entire diatribe on crappy customer service and the perils of early adoption, but then I found myself with a much better target than AT&T  Wireless and Apple  -- the idiots at DIRECTV.

Given that I travel all week long, one of the few pleasures I have in life is returning home to watch my accumulated recordings of Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, History Channel, Sci-Fi Channel and the various movies and other programs I've been wanting to watch for weeks.

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Last year, I decommissioned my two analog TVs in favor of widescreen 1080p 42" LCD flat screens from SONY and SHARP. Naturally, this also required swapping out our beloved DIRECTiVo Series 2 units for HD DVR receivers as well as a upgrade to a 5 LNB satellite dish. Unfortunately, DIRECTV decided to terminate their relationship with TiVo for their next-generation HD DVR receiver and roll their own proprietary units, the HR-20 and HR-21s. So I bought a HR-20 and about six months later, an HR-21, when I got the second HDTV.

Early adoption of bleeding edge technology is not without its headaches. However, for the superior quality picture and sound, I'm willing to put up with some occasional quirks. For a while, the HR-20 had various video compression artifact issues, occasional crashes requiring reboots and slow response time, and was plagued by what one could only refer to as the "Kung Fu Movie" bug -- where the audio on a recording would be out of sync for several seconds. You had to totally reboot the machine to fix this, and it took months for DIRECTV to resolve. Eventually, many of the serious issues with the HR-20 were fixed in the updated HR-21 unit, except for the fact that they decided to pull the over-the-air antenna recording capability out of the machine to reduce cost.  Had I not already invested in a over-the-air antenna so I could record PBS Channel 13 WNET in HD, as well as other local channels not provided by DIRECTV, I would have replaced my first machine with an HR-21 as well.

DIRECTV has been aggressively patching both the HR-20 and HR-21 with upgraded software so it can handle new features like On-Demand Internet content and new HD channel rollouts. However, in the process, the patches effectively busted the core functionality of the HR-20, and to a lesser extent, the HR-21.

Last weekend, when I was looking forward to turning myself into a drooling couch potato for two days with a bowl of popcorn and catching up on my Meerkats and Deadliest Catch, I was alarmed to find a new show stopper bug -- where you attempt to play a HD show and all you get is a black screen, with an immediate prompt to delete the program. According to my wife, who has been tracking the problem and been trying to resolve it with customer service for some time now, its been happening on both of our receivers for the past several weeks.  Effectively, 90 percent of the shows we record on the HR-20 now no longer record properly (with somewhat less on the HR-21) and its a known bug that is affecting a large amount of customers.

Also Read the Follow-Up to this article here.

For our troubles, DIRECTV has decided to refund us a whole $10 a month off our $100+ per month satellite service bill until the issue is resolved, and they told us they had no time frame for when this problem was going to get fixed.  Naturally, I was incensed, so we called their customer service line to ask to speak to a manager.

After being cut off when on hold for five minutes when being transferred to technical support -- a practice DIRECTV's call center appears to engage in frequently in order to clear the boards -- we finally got in touch with the night manager, who we only know as "David". David refused to give us his full name or extension, but he was the guy on duty at 8:30PM Pacific time on Sunday night.

David and his fellow customer service managers apparently could care less that we have been DIRECTV customers since 2001, and that we have our choice of HD providers in New Jersey, including Dish Network, Cablevision and Verizon FIOS, and was happy to arrange for us to cancel our service. As far as he was concerned, as long as we could watch "Live" programming, we were getting our money's worth and they couldn't do anything else for us. Sorry David, but given the fact we don't watch live programming, the two receivers are now nothing more than expensive paperweights at the moment with pretty blue bright LEDs.

Two weeks is an absolutely abysmal, unconscionable period of time to go without updating your customers as to the status of the situation or reverting to the previous software version while you investigate the problem. Yes, embedded systems programming can often be very difficult to diagnose, particularly with technology this sophisticated -- but at the very least, if something is broken, particularly in a services based model, you have to compensate your customers adequately for it.

And being complete jackasses to your most valued, long term customers by being rude to them on the phone and offering to terminate their service doesn't score big points with them either. If I could go to Verizon FiOS in my neighborhood tomorrow and dump DIRECTV, I would. In an instant.

Do serious bugs with your expensive Hi-Def DIRECTV receiver want to make you smash it against one of their customer service reps heads? Talk Back and let me know.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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