Apple Doesn’t Want $2,000 From Euroweenie

John Brownlee here, slipping outside of the XXL Threadless brand ‘Royal We’ t-shirt I flabbily cohabitate with life partner Ben Popken.

I, a lifetime PC user, just bought myself a Macbook Pro. It’s so strange and beautiful. I feel like a subaquatic explorer who discovers a luminescent fish flittering through the Mediterranean coral and the cream blue seal. Not that I have it yet — I’m going home to the States for a few weeks and it will be waiting for me upon arrival next Wednesday.

I haven’t really made a significant computer purchase in five years. Almost half of The Consumerist’s posts are composed on a chunky Hewlett-Packerd 1ghz machine with 512mb of RAM that I inherited from an Irish company that went insolvent largely through my own lack of competency. Still, I’m a full-time blogger now; I travel quite a bit. So I needed a really good work machine with great WiFi, so I can continue to pen stories of consumer petulance for you, my dear readers, no matter what Greek slum I’m sotting opium in. So I managed to justify to myself quite a large chunk of money in pursuit of a decent laptop. After all, it was a business expense.

Nevertheless, buying a computer from Apple wasn’t easy for me.

For one thing, there’s was the Windows hump for me to get over. Although I am intrigued by OSX, I have no real problems with Windows. I don’t loathe it, like many. It’s served me pretty well, some niggles aside. And the self-righteous zealotry of the average Mac pundit really makes me want to start coshing them with my big rubbery one. The ability to dual boot Windows XP made this objection no longer a big deal.

Another issue was some complaints regarding the Macbook Pro on various Apple forums. The ones largely leveled at it are extraordinary heat and a persistent whine from the speakers. These complaints aren’t ubiquitous by any means, but persistent enough to make me pause in giving Apple two grand. Ultimately, I decided to chance it, returning the machine if it was really a huge issue. Like bloggers, fanboys do tend to blow issues out of proportion.

But the largest bar to entry was honestly the price. Unlike Ben, my blow-up dolls are not filled with cocaine. Unlike Gawker overlord Nick Denton, I do not consider a pair of $700 speakers to be a “steal.” I am relatively frugal — I live in a beautiful apartment, but outside of that and airfare, most of my money is spent every month on dates, food, books, booze and fine pipe tobacco. And I live in Europe’s second most expensive city… only narrowly edging out London. Two thousand dollars is more than I have ever spent on a computer purchase in my life. Dropping two grand for a laptop, however pretty, seems like an outrageous extravagance.

But the beauty of the Macbook Pro eventually won me over. The keyboard magically glows in the dark. The screen auto-adjusts its brightness to optimize the display according to the surrounding room’s ambient light. It powers itself by connecting a magic to its sleek, inch-thick aluminum chassis. I wanted one. And I knew if I bought one in the States, I could save about

400 on the price. Not chump change in the slightest. What finally pushed me over was the knowledge that I actually needed a laptop good enough to see me through an upcoming move to Berlin.

So why am I writing this? Well, partly to give props to Apple for, all in all, absolutely amazing customer service. Still, while almost every customer service rep was an absolute delight to work with (god love them, they actually chatted), I was banging my head up against the wall over a period of nearly two hours and four overseas phone calls trying to get Apple to take my fucking money.

I’m a dual citizen. I have both Irish citizenship and American citizenship. I was born in the States but I’ve spent the last four years living in Ireland. Before that, I lived in Brussels for awhile. So needless to say, I don’t really have any American assets anymore — I’ve long confirmed them to European assets. I have a nearly empty bank account, a blank American credit card for emergencies, and that’s it. I’ve established my life over here. So when I called up Apple, I intended on buying with an Irish credit card.

The first customer service representative I got was an enthusiastic guy named Scott. The exuberance he exhibited when I told him he was selling me my first Apple was like swimming down a deja vu vortex to the time my sixteen year old girlfriend let me take her virginity, three months ago. Scott was a really nice if perhaps overzealous Mac freak, raving about how Macs never broke down and never got viruses and never had hardware incompatibilities and that Steve Jobs, Scott and I would all be pissing on Bill Gates’ grave before many moons had passed. I made polite noises of charmed lack of commitment to all of this — I’m not some Luddite and this guy was just spurting the usual propaganda, similar to the time I had an Apple Store employee look me straight in the eye and tell me that a Mac didn’t need a second mouse button because it could psychically detect the context of my clicking. Insane, a pack of bold-faced lies, but somehow charming as opposed to completely alienating. This is the way talking to a cute Hari Krishna sometimes feels.

But as ecstatic as Scott was to sell me my first Apple, the man became audibly discombobulated when I explained to him that I would be paying with an Irish credit card. “Our system just can’t process credit card from overseas,” he apologetically explained.

“How can that be, Scott?” I asked, “I’m shipping to an American address, so there shouldn’t be any export regulations in effect.”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I think it’s a security issue. Look, this is what you should do. Call your credit card company. Ask them to put your shipping address as your secondary billing address. Some hot French-Canadian called once and she ordered an iPod with a Canadian credit card that way. That fools our system.”

So I hung up and did just that. My credit card company was nonplussed and immediately did it. So I called Apple back up and got another great customer service representive, Anthony. I explained the situation to him and asked him to try to put my order through and see what was what. He did. There didn’t appear to be any problems. At this point, I thought I owned a new Macbook Pro.

Of course, I was wrong. A couple hours later, I got an email, saying there was a problem with my order and I needed to call them again. Which I did. At this point, I got a customer sales agent named Lisa. Again, very sweet, but unlike Scott or Anthony, she seemed a bit nervous. She over-apologized to the point of obsequiousness, which annoyed me. Unlike many of our readers, I don’t really care about apologies — my ego isn’t wrapped up in what I purchase. All I expect is resolution.

Lisa explained to me that they couldn’t verify my credit card and basically asked me to give them an American credit card.

“Lisa, look, I appreciate you’re limited in what you personally can do,” I told her. “Nevertheless, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to process this credit card transaction. The credit card’s good, it’s paid up, there’s plenty of credit on it, I’ve given you correct details. Credit cards are made to be used anywhere, not just in the country they were issued — that’s why people recommend bringing them when you travel. So what are our options here?”

“I’m very, VERY sorry…” she mumbled, “But outside of a wire transfer or a direct deposit or an American credit card, there’s nothing I can do.” She was very fragile, dove-like. I carefully worded my next request, lest she fly apart in a poof of downy white feathers under the blow of my dissastisfaction.

“Lisa, look, you’ve been very helpful. But I’d appreciate it if you’d give me your supervisor. I’m completely pleased with your service and I will tell your supervisor as much. But what’s going on here is that your system is limited from making a completely legal and reasonable transaction. This is my third call overseas to resolve what shouldn’t be an issue at all. Being on the phone with you is costing me money. I need to take this up a level at this point… I find it frankly absurd that I’m having so much difficulty giving you guys my money.”

Lisa apologized again and connected me to her supervisor, a woman whose bizarre African name I have no chance of spelling correctly. So she’ll have to remain anonymous…

Ever notice that the higher up you get in customer support, the less helpful people tend to be? When I’m dealing locally on issues I know can be resolved except for one customer service rep’s asshole streak, I tend to just hang up and call back, hoping to get someone a bit more reasonable. No point going to the supervisor: nine times out of ten, they just tow the company line with a smattering of patronizing CSR babble to make sure to infuriate you even more. That’s exactly the kind of supervisor I got. This woman was a pill.

After I explained the issue, she immediately lead with, “Mr. Brownlee, I appreciate your concerns…” I immediately started seeing red.

“Let me interrupt you here. I write for a consumer affairs website, primarily dealing with customer support issues. I’m not saying that to threaten you… even though you haven’t been able to help me yet, your reps have been great. But because I deal with a hell of a lot of customer support horror stories for a living, I damn well know that “I appreciate your concerns” is shorthand in your industry for “We’re not going to help you.” That’s really not satisfactory to me. I expect resolution, not empty apologies.”

“Well, we can resolve the issue with an American credit card,” she responded haughtily.

“You know, that’s not doing it for me either. There’s no reason in the world except for the fact that your system is poorly designed that I shouldn’t be able to make this order. I’m trying to give you guys a lot of money. Not only that, I’m a first-time customer and the tone of this entire experience is going to directly dictate whether I buy from you guys again. What you’re telling me is that because your system is badly designed, without a lot of forethought, you can’t take my money. I really don’t find that acceptable. This is absurd. I’m trying to buy a computer for myself, but you must get people calling in to buy their American grandmother an iPod for her birthday, or whatever. I have never once had this issue with any other merchant, in over five years of living overseas. I really want this resolved, as every minute I spend talking to you (and this is my third call today), I’m spending my money on your problem.”

She hemmed and hawed for awhile, directly parroting back to me the official company line — I could only resolve the issue with an American credit card. She told me the reason I couldn’t pay was because Apple employees weren’t allowed to call overseas to validate details. My fist started closing tighter and tighter around the phone receiver, but I kept my cool and just reiterated what I just said.

Honestly? If the woman hadn’t thrown me a bone in her next sentence, I would have canceled my order completely. But although she said she couldn’t help me, she finally admitted fault:

“You’re right. This is a limitation of our system. I’m sorry, but I can’t actually resolve this issue for you.”

So I decided to admit defeat. “Fine. I’ll call back later to complete the order with an American credit card. But I want you to do something for me: I would cancel my order in a second if it wasn’t for the three customer sales reps I got earlier and just how damned good they were at their jobs. You’re their boss, so I know you will have meetings, asked to raise issues. I want you to raise the issue of just how absurd it is that a European credit card holder can’t purchase something from the American Apple Shop. This was extremely frustrating to me and I bet I’m not the only one — your very first rep told me he’s had this problem before. You told me earlier you can’t validate my card because you can’t call my issuing bank — I’d totally buy that if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re not living in the telephone age, we’re living in the digital age. That’s what the Internet’s been good for for the last five years.”

She promised she would bring it up and I hung up.

Ultimately? My eventual MacBook Pro purchase was rather embarassing — my emergency American credit card has a limit of $1500, so I couldn’t pay with it, so I asked my mother to put it on her card. She did it happily, but you don’t really like being an adult and asking your mother to front you some money, even if it’s only for a couple weeks.

But, you know? Problems with their systems and a by-the-numbers supervisor aside, I really think that Apple’s customer service should be a model to the industry. Their CSRs are human, friendly and enthusiastic. Even when I was being thwarted with my purchase, I was given suggestions each step of the way on how I might be able to resolve my issue. People did actually listen to me, even if they were powerless to help.

And the fantasic epilogue? Today, a day after I placed my order, the Macbooks were announced. When that happened, the refurbished Macbook Pro I bought dropped $100 in price. So I just called them up and asked them if they’d mind refunding me the difference. I didn’t have a leg to stand on, but they did it instantly. Now that’s service.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.