As we know, vendors sometimes make mistakes. But while few vendors demonstrate creativity in solving their customers' problems, they are often wonderfully imaginative in the excuses they give for not solving them.
We've heard some pretty good excuses recently from vendors, such as Computer Associates International's culture gap with Cheyenne Software (see page 28 for details) or Western Digital's new computer system eating its return merchant authorisations. But these are fairly mediocre attempts compared to some excuses readers report they hear from vendors to explain a product's bugs, lack of support, or missing features.
One of the best excuses is to blame the problem on somebody else, particularly someone who is too powerful for the customer to tackle. On several occasions back in IBM's glory days, I heard of competitors' customers being told the product they were impatiently awaiting had been the victim of some evil Big Blue machinations. And IBM was so notorious for its quite real FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) tactics that some people would believe almost anything about it.
Today, people will believe almost anything about Microsoft, so Redmond is now the favourite place to point to when casting blame.
"It's a Windows problem - call Microsoft," is the way many tech-support calls terminate.
The fact that it might well be a Windows problem makes it hard for the user to argue.
Some will stretch the bounds of credulity though, as in the case one reader reported to me about a software vendor who provides only paid support.
"I asked them how they had the gall to charge $US25 per call, and this guy tried to tell me that Microsoft makes all Windows developers charge for support," the reader said.
But blame doesn't always have to be cast at the big guys.
"The graphics card vendor blamed it on the mouse," he related in an IDG reader forum about vendor excuses. He switched to another mouse and still had the problem.
"They said I had two faulty mice. I grabbed a third (all different brands) and it still didn't work. They were in shock that I'd have three faulty mice."
When a product does not work the way it should, the unimaginative vendor may try to fix it, but the more creative excuse is to blame the documentation for telling you how it was supposed to work. The publisher of a development application took this tack.
"They determined the documentation was incorrect and resolved the problem by changing the documentation," he wrote.
A recent excuse that really impressed me was offered by an ISP to a customer who had asked to change the credit card on which his account was billed.
When the ISP mishandled his request and the charges kept coming to the credit card he'd cancelled, he incurred several penalties from the bank for which he felt the ISP should be responsible. The ISP's billing department replied that "unfortunately by law we cannot credit an account for any monies not directly billed by the ISP itself, ie telephone bills, overdraft charges, etc. I am very sorry but I cannot offer you a credit for your overdraft fees. I sincerely hope that this information has been helpful to you."
The ISP eventually agreed to reimburse the reader after I wrote to enquire whether that law was the Bumbling Fools Protection Act.
Creative excuses are nice in their place, but that certainly does not mean vendors have abandoned the old favourites.
"It's fixed in the next release" never seems to lose its appeal, and what forum participants dubbed the WAD statement (as in "that's no bug, it's Working As Designed") is as ubiquitous as ever. With such tried and true standard responses to rely upon, any vendor caught without an answer has no excuse.