SEATTLE – John Kreis thought he was lucky when he scored Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox video game console the day it came out.
But the $300 system stopped working almost immediately. The 31-year-old Chicago man said it took a month of aggravation with Xbox's customer service line before he got a replacement.
He loves the new game system but won't soon forget the experience.
"The whole thing that was so frustrating (was) just the fact that still to this day I'm waiting for a call back just to explain to me what happened," he said.
Across the country, a small number of Xbox users complain of a similar problem — a game system that never worked or worked for a few hours or days before freezing up. About a dozen talked with The Associated Press.
Some, such as Kreis, Paul Adams and Debbie Mason, complain of enduring poor customer service as they waited for a resolution.
"I'm taking my Christmas decorations down and (my son) hasn't gotten to play with his Christmas toys yet," said Mason, of Uniontown, Pa. She had just been told in her ninth call to customer service that, despite an earlier promise that the system would be sent back that day, it turned out to be broken again.
But others, such as 49-year-old Marc Patri, say they had their Xboxes repaired and returned within five days — about the time Microsoft sales and marketing director John O'Rourke says it should take to get a unit repaired.
"Even though I was a little upset with the unit breaking down in two days after I got it, (Xbox) made up for that in the great service," Patri said in an e-mail interview. He's been playing Xbox four or five hours a day ever since.
Microsoft said it uses outside companies, including San Antonio, Texas-based Harte-Hanks Inc. and Sykes Enterprises in Tampa, Fla., to handle its Xbox customer service. Harte-Hanks has worked with Microsoft on other projects, and Sykes handles customer service for Microsoft's MSN Internet division as well.
Xbox repairs are handled by Solectron Corp. of Milpitas, Calif. A spokesman for Harte-Hanks declined to comment. The other companies did not respond to calls seeking comment.
O'Rourke said fewer than 1 percent of the Microsoft units have proved faulty. The company has seen no pattern of specific problems, he said, and heard of no major delays with repairs.
"Overall the performance of the system and the quality has been great, exceeding what our expectations were," he said.
Analyst Rob Enderle of Giga Information Systems said a failure rate of less than 1 percent — or about 10,000 units — can be considered a success, but he warns that a company's response to those few customers who do have problems often is more important than how many units actually break.
"If 200 people have a really bad experience and they're vocal, then the impression is the product's bad," he said.
During the Christmas season, he added, any return that takes more than a week is "a horribly long time."
For Microsoft, the stakes are high. The Redmond software company made its first real foray into hardware with Xbox, and its highly regarded new system is battling with Sony and Nintendo in the hyper-competitive game console market.
Microsoft already has been plagued with rumors of problems at its Mexican production plant after it delayed its U.S. launch date by a week — to Nov. 15 — and pushed back its Japan launch as well. The company has denied any major problems.
Kreis said it took nearly two weeks before he even received an empty box to send his faulty Xbox back for repair.
And he got conflicting answers: At one point, customer service couldn't find his records. Another time, he was told he would get a new unit rather than having his old one repaired, but later another person told him they'd never do that. Still later, someone called him and asked him how he was enjoying his new Xbox — which he'd never received.
Finally, on Dec. 10, the repaired Xbox came back.
"I'll be loyal for a while," he said. "But I'm hoping I never have to call support again, that's for sure."
When Debbie Mason's Xbox didn't work on Christmas morning, she was impressed someone answered the customer service phone and promised her a new one.
"I thought they really must care about the customers," Mason said.
Later, they said the unit would actually be repaired but promised to return it by New Year's Day. Mason said she's since been told more than once that her Xbox would be delivered — but it hasn't.
Most recently, she was told it was broken again and it could take another five to seven days. She said her e-mail complaints have gone unanswered.
Paul Adams was among those who braved release-day crowds to get an Xbox for his son, Jay. But the system soon stopped working. It took about four weeks for the Xbox to get repaired and returned, Adams said, but the customer service representatives were helpful.
Most people who told The Associated Press about faulty units said they had no problems after their new unit arrived.
Others were more creative. When his Xbox started freezing up, Paul Barrett suspected it was overheating. Instead of sending his unit back, he attached a small fan. It's worked ever since.
O'Rourke, the Microsoft executive, said the company would investigate the problems.
"When we hear something like that I jump right out of my meeting to sit down and talk about this as it's something I want to understand," O'Rourke said.