Sick of hearing about the Xbox 360’s red ring problem? Microsoft hopes so.

With mea culpas flung about and dollars set aside, the company has hunkered down, knowing full well that industry press will (has, actually) tire of the story. For a couple really rough weeks, the coverage was brutal, but the furor predictably died. Throughout the firestorm, Microsoft made a point to promise a painless, smooth warranty/repair experience for anyone whose console heads for the red.

Despite word from Redmond, though, the 360 recycling process is anything but painless. According to customers going through it now, it’s getting worse every day. Not only does Microsoft still send refurbished consoles as warranty replacements – consoles that may have already failed once and, often, fail again – but aside from apologizing profusely over the telephone, the company flatly refuses to take any action to reduce the inconvenience or delay for the end user. Turnaround time is increasing, too, and worse, many customers hook up their returned consoles only to see the same sullen red glare.

Kotaku editor Brian Ashcraft’s 360 returned from triage and failed within five minutes. “I turned it on, fired up Gears of War and it died again.” Subsequent to his post on the subject at the gaming news site, Ashcraft heard from Microsoft PR, “who asked me if I had a working console and said it was attempting to get Elites to all journalists.” Shortly thereafter a new 360 Elite materialized on his doorstep.

While it’s hardly shocking that Microsoft is eager to appease a Kotaku editor – the influential site receives over 20 million visits a month – regular customers don’t enjoy the same treatment.

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Harry Reimer, a 360 owner since launch, is on his sixth console. “They are now beginning to question my [home] environment. … They had no response when I informed them that my PS3 is on the same circuit without issue.”

Though Microsoft dismisses customers with multiple failures as merely a “vocal minority,” the stories are common. And even if they represent only a fraction of users, that response ignores a crucial fact: One failure is too many. Two is unbelievable; by the third, Bill Gates himself should hand-deliver a replacement. The company should hire the Dead or Alive girls to play strip Halo with you for a weekend. And yet stories of as many as a dozen returns do surface, turning an annoyance into a disaster with repercussions that may outlast the life of the console.

Severe Days
Returns have spiked since Microsoft’s July warranty extension announcement, and the once super-efficient service center is groaning under the strain, which translates into ever-longer wait times.

“It took about six weeks to get a new 360 back,” says Eduardo Gabrieloff, “and when it arrived it was broken. It took another six weeks to get another machine, and I spent hours on the phone with support. … Finally I wrote an email to Steve Ballmer. … The next day I got a call from an escalation representative.” Getting “escalated” in 360 support means you get a special code and a direct-dial number to a service rep who is supposed to personally shepherd you through the process, and possibly offer recompense for your troubles, though whether or not you get it appears exactly proportional to how much you complain. Emailing the Microsoft CEO is the ultimate escalation, and Gabrieloff isn’t the only gamer to have done so. Others are stuck waiting.

“They told me to expect six to eight weeks,” says Phil Callihan, a customer on his first 360 repair. “Christmas is coming. I’ve already bought games for my kids. They’re going to be under the tree with no system to play them on. I asked the rep for a loaner, but she wouldn’t provide a replacement until mine is in their possession. What am I going to do? Sneak off to the South Seas with their broken Xbox? They have my credit card number, my name, my Live ID. The lady apologized about 40 times. It didn’t make me feel better.”

No one’s immune; I myself was finally escalated at my fourth 360. Like everyone else in the service chain, Andrew, my personal representative, was extremely polite, patient and apologetic to the point of personal contrition. He vaguely alluded to compensation for the inconvenience, which I never got; he offered to expedite both the “shipback box” (you have to put your broken 360 into a specific shipping box, which Microsoft provides) and the repaired 360 to overnight service; each later arrived by UPS 3-day. I remarked that he appeared to have no more authority than the regular service reps at technical support, a claim he vehemently denied. But throughout the process I was the one kept waiting. “Due to Microsoft policy,” he was unable to do much other than say he was sorry.

Other customers with recently failed 360s and I made some specific requests – Zephyr hardware (the newly released chipset without a bad reputation), brand new system, replacement cabling, loaner console – during support calls. Technician responses to identical queries exhibited astonishing variety, and no one seemed to be reading from the same script. Some seemed unsure what they could and could not offer, some didn’t understand what we were asking for, some apologized and said that all they could do was send a box.

One common thread did bind the responses: In the end, the answer was always no. It would seem that the only standard policy is that it is the customer, not the company, who is inconvenienced.

Red Alert
“I know the refurbished ones are a crapshoot,” Callihan says, “so I asked if I could pay extra for one with the updated hardware. They said it was against policy.”

Presumably Microsoft has no idea what’s causing the problem, or no idea how to fix it on the pre-Zephyr hardware, and is unwilling to scrap the entire batch. There is no benefit to infuriating customers by perennially shipping failure-prone refurbished consoles. But Microsoft has proven hesitant to adopt an ultimate solution: To play the E.T. cartridges card and bury the flawed consoles far out in the wastes, to be unearthed by future generations of archaeologists. This would be wasteful, of course, and expensive – more than $1 billion set aside could cover – but it would get rid of any failure-prone consoles remaining in the wild.

But while that may be the most surefire way to deal with the problem, a global recall and desert entombment isn’t actually necessary. There’s a much better solution, one that would please customers and allow Microsoft to continue cheerfully shipping broken consoles. It’s low-price, it’s obvious and it can be deployed now, today. It’ll solve the problem in a single stroke.

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When a customer calls support with a failure that cannot be corrected over the phone, send them a replacement. Right then. Right there. Tell him to ship the broken one back in the same box. He’ll never see it again. This way, even refurbished replacements with multiple failures – though annoying – won’t be nearly as maddening for customers. In fact, it’ll make people feel warm and fuzzy toward a company that’s clearly trying to make things right and minimize customer inconvenience. When there’s only a three- or four-day space between reporting the problem and getting a replacement, it’s just not a big deal. The real question is why Microsoft isn’t doing this.

A Microsoft spokesperson responded: “It is standard procedure that customer service first try to repair an original console, and Microsoft’s customer service team is well equipped to ensure that the repair process goes smoothly.” While I agree that getting your original console back might be preferable, it’s also a lot slower. And the repeated failures experienced by many users suggest that the repair process isn’t nearly so smooth as Microsoft indicates.

Flavors of the month being what they are, 360 failures don’t get much coverage anymore. But that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. For many customers, the approaching holiday season is going to be one of frustration and delay. As loudly and often as Microsoft has claimed that the 360 return process is customer-centric, the opposite is increasingly true. The greatest frustration of all is that the solution is obvious and affordable.

If only it weren’t against policy.

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