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My Little ThinkPad Power Cord Problem

There are a few premium brands I buy, which have determined themselves to be “premium”. It has nothing to do with advertising or marketing, user testimonials or price. They are premium because of performance, under the real-world test of my ownership. One of them is the IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad notebook.

In the final year of my 3 year “limited warranty” from IBM/Lenovo, the insulation on a wire in the power cord connecting the wall outlet to my AC adapter brick separated. While I don’t mind the exposed copper wires, the strain relief function of the insulation has failed, so it is simply a matter of time before those wires break, voltage levels drop, and problems ensue. So I called IBM service. I got processed in about 5 minutes, and got a new cord shipped to me next-day-delivery, for free.

I estimate the power cord cost IBM about $0.50 including shipping in bulk from China (when I was a systems integrator I bought hundreds of similar power cords for $0.50 each down at the Brooklyn piers). Processing me for the warranty replacement (with shipping and tracking) probably brought that total cost up to $40 (I am including the capitalized costs of the entire inventory, claim support system, call center, etc). That’s a $40 transaction for the cord replacement: a $0.50 part.

Let’s look at how other “major companies” might handle a similar transaction. I’ll use examples from my own experiences, without naming actual companies since I am not going to verify facts adequately to defend against claims of inaccuracy. I have never processed this exact transaction with any of them. Let’s just say Verizon is one company where I have experienced relatively terrible customer service, BestBuy is another, and Dell is another (although it has been some times since I have dealt with some of those). So here’s how it *might* have gone:

  • Make it inconvenient: You need to replace something as small as a power cord? It’s less than $15 at a retail computer store, so make the replacement process inconvenient enough that the end user will decides it’s not worth pursuing through warranty service. How to make it inconvenient? Long hold times on the phone is a start. For many people who buy expensive laptop computers, $15 is not worth 30 minutes on the phone. For the rest, assign a second, forward number for small parts like power cords, and set that number to even longer hold times. If the customer stays long enough to get forwarded, they may still go away when they have to hold yet again. Play the numbers game, based on bean-counter math. Kind of like the way Best Buy handles “rebates”.
  • Disallow the claim: Power cords can break because they user wraps them tightly around the AC power brick, so why not tell the user that the part is not covered under the “limited warranty” because it is wear and tear? After all, 2.5 years of use and the insulation separates at a stress point… sounds reasonable, no? Most people would accept it. And why not offer a new one at say $8 plus shipping, via a special coupon code for the online shop? At least that way you don’t lose much money on the service call, and the customer gets a deal compared to the alternative full-retail replacement.
  • Hold the customer accountable for the process : Since the warranty is for “depot service”, technically the user has to get an authorization number, send in the bad part, and wait for a determination of the warranty status. That could take two business days. If granted a replacement part, the customer has to wait for the return shipping of that part. Another 3 business days. This could easily take a week or so, which would deter many people from processing the warranty claim. Or, maybe offer an “expedited replacement” for $20, which covers the direct costs of replacement? Again, since it’s only $15 in the local stores, they can either buy a new one themselves or, if they are afraid of picking out the right one, pay the $20 fee and get it settled?

But that’s not how it went with IBM/Lenovo. How did it go? They knew my machine, because of the online auto-detect active-X control (which produced the serial number and model). They knew me because I purchased it online. They immediately noted it was an easy replacement with no need for following the formal “depot service” return rules; they’ll just send me a new part. They put in for a next-day delivery (afternoon service), and told me to expect the part in 1-2 days. Done.

Now was it worth the estimated $40 cost? Absolutely. As we come up on 3 years of ownership, this 1GB/160GB/PentiumM laptop still works great, but I am ready to replace it with something faster/smaller/with better audio and DVD writer.  I have already been shopping, but haven’t found anything obviously superior overall. The one unknown that stands out for me as I compare features, portability, and performance is reliability. I don’t want to replace a perfectly good, reliable system with something flashier or more modern, if it won’t be as reliable. Based on this warranty experience (something as trivial as a frayed power cord), I’m going with a new IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad. I’m likely to extend the warranty on this one and move it to a second use in my business, and get a lighter/faster/newer one for daily use. All because of the respectful service I received from IBM/Lenovo.

This is not my first experience with Thinkpad depot service on this t42p. It’s not my first laptop (I’ve purchased dozens and personally used about a dozen of those myself, including Dell, Gateway, Toshiba, Panasonic, Acer, IBM, and some others). It’s not my first Thinkpad, and my first Thinkpad was of terrible quality (Thinkpad 300 series, back in the day of cracking cases and poor video connections). In the here and now, in the context of a consumer shopping evaluation of current notebook computer options, this little power cord thing made all the difference.

Take care of your customers at every turn, as best you can. It pays.


  1. Merrick wrote:

    Not sure if you have considered it, but a MacBook Pro will do everything you can do on your Lenovo and much more. I run Windows XP on it too, simultaneously, for those Windows only programs.

    Email me if you are curious.


    John replies: thanks for the suggestion. Honestly, every time I use a Mac I am reminded how my hardware needs are largely futuristic. I need to be able to run what I need, not just run what I have now. Every time I start using a Mac, it’s because it runs every thing I need. But once I am set up, I discover barriers as things come up and I can’t run them. Eventually, I return to the PC. After one of those 6 month experiences with Mac, I have a new perspective for the various Mac discussions I read. It seems Mac users live in the here and now, and deal with the limitations, while PC users try and take everything that comes along and make it work.

    I don’t mean to sound anti-Mac. It’s just my experience. If it’s true that Mac Book pro can be running Windows etc… then I suppose once that is mature enough I’ll be there. But, based on past experiences, I wil not be one of the people pioneering in that direction.

    Friday, March 16, 2007 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Mark wrote:


    Thanks for the kind words, and the fact that you used a positive experience to make your point, and then went on to contrast how in the ever cost competitive environment, the experience might not have gone as well. I think there are some well worn market damage statistics that say a customer with a bad experience is about 10 times more likely to actively share it by word of mouth (or by blog these days) than one with a positive story.

    Thanks again for being one to buck the statistic.

    Monday, March 19, 2007 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  3. Otto wrote:


    I was happy to read this post, as, the respect for our return service sometimes makes me want to give up.

    We get give an on-site replacement service with paid-for collection for our projection screens, which have been sold through our dealer network. The state in which some products are returned is sometimes awfull. The pinnacle was a 6 meter screen (yes, that’s about 20 ft in length) (replaced for a small problem with the screen fabric), shipped back without packaging, ruining a $8000 screen through additional damage. (Of course the forwarder should never have accepted it, but what are you thinking when you send something back without packaging (which was available))

    While indeed manufacturers make mistakes and sometimes have low service levels, I can understand some want to give up on excellent service, if you get these things too often.
    Luckily, there are the occasional signs of appreciation, such as yours, which help you keep the faith…



    Wednesday, March 28, 2007 at 11:26 pm | Permalink
  4. john andrews wrote:

    Hi Otto and thanks for stopping by. Your story reminded me of one time I witnessed something similar. As I talked with a client outside his office building, a truck pulled up for a delivery. The driver pulled out a $100,000 clinical instrument that had been sent back for warranty service by a customer, unpackaged. It was loosly wrapped in a piece of plastic, and otherwise exactly as you would expect to see it in use on a hospital room floor… wheels unlocked, extended arms and control panels and such all flailing around. Banged up to death by the ride with the shipper. Another case of the costs being absorbed by all of us, I am sure.

    Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 1:21 am | Permalink