Customer complaints highlight poor service

Customer complaints highlight poor service

Even as the NSW Attorney-General's department prepares to release the findings of its inquiry into the computer retail trade during the next fortnight, allegations about shady dealings within the industry continue to emerge.

And it is the majority of operators who do behave ethically that are being left to salvage the industry's reputation and pacify disgruntled customers.

One organisation that continues to garner ill feeling despite going bankrupt in March this year is Fairstar Computers.

Since January 1992, the NSW Department of Fair Trading has received in excess of 210 complaints about Fairstar, according to Paul Childs, press secretary to the NSW Attorney-General, Jeff Shaw.

Childs told ARN the complaints against Fairstar relate to a number of issues including the sale of products not of merchantable quality, poor after-sales service, lengthy delays in warranty repairs, poor quality control, and failure to return telephone calls.

One of the customers who contacted the department to voice her grievances about the Fairstar operation is Dianne, a resident of the NSW suburb of St Clair.

Having initially purchased a $3000 system from Fairstar's Penrith store in November 1996, Dianne claims she subsequently only had use of the product for about six months over the following two years because it was constantly under repair.

"Every time I took it back that would say they had fixed it. Or they'd say it was my fault because I had an 'environmental problem' in my house or I had power surges," Dianne told ARN. "But I don't give a damn what they told me -- they didn't even touch it."

Despite her persistence, the only information Dianne could obtain from the management of the store was that the systems were sent away for repair and that there was nothing further that could be done because they were "under orders" from Fairstar itself.

But trying to escalate her complaints to Fairstar's head office also proved futile for Dianne. After being repeatedly transferred to the internal technical support departments of various stores, she was finally informed that there was "no such thing as Fairstar" and "the company didn't exist", and therefore no central organisation was taking responsibility for the business.

Finally, in frustration, Dianne contacted another local computer retailer to see if they could fix the system she had purchased from Fairstar.

"I paid $200 to get [the other retailer] to come out to reinstall Microsoft Windows to see if that would work," Dianne said. "But their technician found that it actually had second-hand and out-of-warranty parts in it so he wrote a letter to Fairstar telling them what he'd found and I got another service from Fairstar."

But still Dianne's computer remained on repair for weeks, until the day the store closed down earlier this year. Even then, she claims she actually had to refuse to leave the store before the system was returned to her.

Dianne said the whole experience has made her suspicious of computer retailers in general and she is now hesitant to even purchase the scanner her children are requesting because of it.

And apparently Dianne is not alone. A spokesperson for the local retailer where Dianne received assistance confirmed that he had received similar complaints to hers from other customers about Fairstar.

"We had a number of customers come from Fairstar with systems that had cheap components," the spokesperson said. "And some mentioned that they had tried to take them back and were unable to get their warranties honoured."

His and Dianne's allegations against Fairstar show strong correlation with the claims of several anonymous ex-employees spoken to by ARN.

One former Fairstar technician alleges that because the company's directors determined all complaints were to be handled exclusively by the technical departments within each store, problems such as those Dianne experienced occurred frequently.

"We'd try to help them the best we could but as the technical people, we could only do so much, and sometimes that meant repairs would stay for a month or we would lose machines.

"Management also told us to tell customers it was their fault [that systems broke down] even though we knew they had dodgy parts in them."

However, Wally Muhieddine, one of the former directors of Fairstar Computers and its public face for several years before selling out in September last year, denies that these practices were commonplace during his tenure with the company.

"I'm sure incidents like these would have happened [occasionally] but I don't believe it was rampant," Muhieddine told ARN. "If it was, the Department of Fair Trading would have had thousands and thousands of complaints instead of the 240 I was told it had received by July last year.

"That percentage of complaints is small when compared to the number of products we delivered in seven years."

But despite Muhieddine's assurances, the department is still "monitoring the [Fairstar] situation", according to a spokesperson.

And Childs maintains Fairstar was a key catalyst for the NSW Government taking a closer look at the entire computer retail industry.

"The Minister of Fair Trading called the computer inquiry to investigate the whole industry based on a number of companies including Fairstar," Childs said.

The fact that Fairstar is not the only target of allegations is what threatens to continue damaging the computer retail trade.

Certainly, the retailer who helped uncover the truth about Dianne's faulty machine believes Fairstar is not a unique case.

"Fairstar were trying to sell a very low-cost product and were forced into using cheap components," he warns. "But it's not only a Fairstar problem -- it's common with a lot of cut price dealers."

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