The Retail Service Industry.

I’ve been in the IT service industry for 15 years, officially. I’ve worked for the Red Scourge (CompUSA) as a service writer, a service technician and a service manager. I’ve seen the ins and outs of the retail service industry and I can tell you it is easily built on margins. HUGE margins. Your average retail service technician makes $11/hr. When I was working as a service technician back in 2003, I was making $10/hr and I was one of the top earners for the company. When I moved up to part-time service manager I made a whopping $11/hr. Compare that to what we were charging people for their repairs. It was all flat rate, so it made sense for us to flip the work over as quick as possible to get more money out of your technicians.

After this comic, we made a Customer Appreciation Bat… with this comic taped to it.

During my tenure at CompUSA (1999-2006) it cost $99 for desktop repairs and $129 for laptop repairs. I always thought this was weird because I can understand that repairing laptops is a little more fiddly, but the majority of the cases were simply a matter of software repair and it was always easier to do software repair on a laptop because it took up less workspace. I would generally work on 4 laptops at a time while working on 2 desktops. This would take up my 4 workspaces and I’d have $456 worth of service working. I am all about efficiency. When I’m working, I don’t like to wait. The biggest issue with software is updates. Updates take a while to run and at one point, CompUSA made running updates and stuff a ‘tune up’ charge of $10. On top of that they eventually added a service called a ‘Power Clean’ for another $10. The Power Clean was a HUGE margin maker. It literally meant that we blew the dust out of your computer with compressed air (from an air compressor we paid like $100 for). It was an upsell we were practically forced to make and we got kickbacks on them.

We also charged $70 for virus removal. This was another issue. If you brought your PC in for ‘virus removal’ and it required a complete rebuild (as most viruses did back in the day) you’d be charged an additional $99 or $129 for desktop or laptop repair, respectively. So, we fail to remove the virus and now we’re not refunding you the $70 and then charging you ANOTHER $100-130? As a manager I waived the virus fee and worked as an upcharge to the appropriate level of desktop/laptop repair. Data backups were $60 on top of any work and your data was not always ensured. And let me tell you about your data: techs look through your stuff… not all of them, but in my time in IT, I’ve met a lot of slimeballs. Sometimes it was simple stuff: copying your music and videos for our own use or sharing (most of this was before DRM and during the heyday of Napster). Sometimes it was really awful stuff: one guy I worked with used to sift through photos, occasionally finding explicit material which he would then share with all the others in the company. You have to remember, most of these guys are under the age of 25. I never personally saw anyone digging through things like documents for your financial stuff, but I figure those guys were smart enough not to brag about it. I also know that I caught two of our managers running bad checks through the company and pocketing the money. These managers fired me before I caught them (they were running bogus service charges through my shops and I couldn’t account for the missing money) then they were caught and I was rehired.

And let’s talk about the technicians as a whole. Most of the technicians I worked with were book techs. These are the guys that crammed for their A+ and Network+ certs to get moved up to $10/hr but had no actual repair or troubleshooting skills. These are also guys that have no ‘feel’ for the art of repair. When I talk of ‘the feel’, some of you will know what I’m talking about but others will need an explanation. When I’m working on a computer (especially when working on a physical part) I give each part a touch to understand how it works, how it comes apart and how it goes back together. Simply feeling your way into the machine is an important troubleshooting step. When working with the physical, it’s important to have ‘the touch': the ability to take things apart without breaking them and to put them back together WITHOUT BREAKING IT! Common mistakes I would see would be losing screws, breaking plastic bits, overtightening screws, stripping screw heads out or not tracking where all your pieces go. Sometimes this can be attributed to experience, rushing through the job and sometimes just general laziness. I’m not perfect. I’ve stripped a screw, I’ve overtightened a screw and broken a fastener and I’ve had ‘leftovers’ upon completion, but I always went back and fixed it or admitted fault to the customer. I rarely make these mistakes now as I’ve been building and repairing computers since 1988 starting with a Commodore 1541 floppy drive. Confidence is another thing I find lacking at the retail level. Most of these guys are afraid to stray from the book and try things on their own. They’re not confident in their abilities yet. I wasn’t confident at first either. I broke a LOT of things before I got good. I broke a lot of my own stuff. I took chances with my own gear for years before working on others things. Retail techs tend to be first timers. There’s also a distinct lack of upper level techs in retail, and for good reason: it’s not sustainable. If you’re a good technician, you move on to better paying gigs for private companies or you start your own shop (or, in my case… both). There’s the occasional grizzled veteran at these shops, but most that I’ve worked with weren’t that much better than the freshmen techs. There’s a ‘feel’ for software too. It take a lot of practice to get that and it takes some tools (mostly available free) like the resource monitor in Windows 7. It takes some research and understanding of how processes, services, handles and modules work together, but a little Googling is all you need to learn that. I’ll go over this more in a future post.

Now, to those that work in the retail service industry: all is not lost! This is a GREAT learning experience for you. You get paid to learn things that you wouldn’t learn in school thanks to the variable that is a true user problem. Push yourself to be better and be a true technician. I work with another CompUSA guy here in my job and we’re both high level engineers now (and both in our early 30s). But for those that utilize the retail service industry, know this: you’re paying FAR too much for inexperienced hands to work on your problem. Geeksquad is the primary company I find now that does repairs. I think I’ve seen some Staples with tech repair centers as well. Geeksquad is very wishy washy about their pricing. I found this rates list from 2011. I’m floored by the costs of something as simple as a virus removal. $200!?¬†Hardware repairs ‘vary’. Now granted, parts cost is a big issue. Parts can be cheap, parts can be REALLY expensive. But the labor rate should remain the same, in my opinion. I can completely disassemble and reassemble an entire desktop in less than an hour. I can do the same for a laptop in the same amount of time. In fact, I prefer working on laptops because it takes up less work space and there’s no cable management to deal with. FACT: Anytime you can buy the item in the same place you can get it serviced is simply a means for an upsell to buy a new one. It goes for cars and it goes for technology. Best Buy wants you to see that it’s $200-300 to fix your computer so that you spend $200-300 more to just get something new. If you decide to get it repaired, it’s an even bigger win for them because the margins for the repair are so high. Assuming you’re paying your service tech $11/hr, it would take him 18 hours of work to get to $200. The average repair time for a novice is 2 hours. That means it was $22 of technician time. $178 goes to Best Buy. Parts are always extra and always marked up (normally at 8%). I’m going to charge you a lot less because I have no overhead and all that money goes into my pocket. Most jobs are done within a day and I stand by my work.

Having never worked for GeekSquad I can’t say exactly what they do, but this guy can. They are sending your computer out for depot repairs (off site) for most anything beyond simple repairs. Turnaround time at depots is HORRIBLE. There’s little to no communication with the depot until the company gets your laptop back or is sent a tracking number. Depot repairs happen mostly when items are under warranty. At CompUSA we had to send things out to the HP or Compaq depot for repairs (at no charge to you). We would then charge back HP or Compaq for our diagnostic time, but it would be 7-10 days before we had ANYTHING to tell you. We’d take the brunt of the customer dissatisfaction when it was 2 months along and we have no word from the depot and then suddenly we’d get your laptop back with no warning and call you to tell you ‘they fixed it’ and struggle to explain what happened because the depot techs notes were HORRIBLE. The unfortunate thing is that I cannot repair your computer for free under warranty. I no longer keep credentials with HP or IBM or Apple to be reimbursed for warranty work. I can assist you with getting your laptop properly diagnosed for warranty depot repairs for a small fee (or some bacon or cider or something).

Diagnostics are a key component that is overcharged for or simply charged the full repair price whether you want to go forward with it. For a long time, CompUSA had no diagnostics charge. It was $100 to look at your desktop. If you didn’t want to pay for parts, here’s your busted computer back… no refund. When I became manager I instituted a diagnostics fee of $25 (by charging 2 power cleans @ $12.50 each). If you wanted to get the full service of repair, we’d charge you the $100 and do a power clean AND a tune up afterwards. If you didn’t want it, you were only out $25 but you were given a FULL written report of what the problem is, the parts required and the cost of those parts. I still offer this same service. $25 gets you a full report of what’s wrong with your computer. Also, if during the time I’m diagnosing it I find that it’s something EXTREMELY simple that takes me less than a half hour to fix, that’s your cost for repair: $25. I don’t see charging my clients a full $100 just because I fixed a tiny thing. Another thing I will always do as part of your repair or diagnostics is run updates and do a general ‘tune up’. This normally involves installing, updating and running MalwareBytes Anti-Malware,¬†installing Microsoft Security Essentials if you have no virus protection program (it’s free) and seeing if there’s anything causing your computer to run slower than normal.

I haven’t seen what other local shops are charging, but I’ve seen some of the Yelp reviews and people complain of overcharging, poor service and lack of communication with some of them. I’m hoping to remedy this. I hate to see someone fleeced over at a shop and bring it to me and tell them they were ripped off. I’d like to help you get back in order as soon as possible and I appreciate your feedback to what you want from your service provider. Let me know in the comments below. I could keep going but I’m up ¬†over 2000 words and I figure some of you may have tapped out by now.

Next time I’ll discuss bits of the corporate industry.