Tesla Really Has the Worst Customer Service

I’ve held off writing this for a long time because it seems self-indulgent to blog about my personal problems. But I recently had a door handle break down after being fixed less than three weeks ago, and I couldn’t even schedule an appointment because of Tesla’s miserable app … so more on that below.

There was actually a brief window of time, probably around 2018, when Tesla actually had the best customer service in the auto industry. At first, when I bought my car in 2015, the main problem was that you had to drive your car all the way to one of their service centers. Living in Western Massachusetts, the closest one to me was (and still is) in Watertown, a suburb of Boston. Driving four hours round-trip for any kind of service on your car is not ideal.

And, to be clear, Teslas break down a lot. In the six years that I’ve had my Model S, these are the things that have needed to be fixed (not counting tires, alignments, and periodic maintenance):

  • February 2016: Seatbelt pre-tensioner recall
  • August 2016: Broken USB charge port
  • January 2017: Leaking coolant valve
  • May 2018: Missing anti-rattle clip
  • July 2018: Right rear door handle failed
  • October 2018: Steering bolt recall
  • January 2019: Left rear window stuck outside of frame
  • March 2019: Left rear door handle failed
  • June 2019: Key fob failed (not just a new battery)
  • August 2019: Airbag recall
  • February 2020: Right front door handle failed
  • February 2020: Front right bumper sensor misaligned and causing false positives
  • February 2021: Right front door handle failed again
  • February 2021: 12V battery failing
  • July 2021: Processor recall
  • December 2021: Right front door handle failed again again
  • December 2021: Right front door handle failed again again again

Some of this is just over-engineering. Do we really need door handles that automatically appear and retract and fail six times in less than seven years? (When I say “fail,” usually the handle is unusable from the outside; on a couple of occasions, the door would unlatch every time you tried to close it unless you locked the car first.) And some of it is a company that puts new sales over manufacturing quality.

Around 2017 or 2018, however, Tesla introduced mobile service. It was great. You could call or email someone and schedule an appointment within a few weeks, and the technician would show up and fix your car. It was everything you would want.

Then things started to go downhill. The first symptom was that technicians would have to cancel appointments because they were overscheduled. Multiple people told me that Tesla’s scheduling algorithms assumed they could finish jobs faster than they actually could, which meant that customers at the end of the day were getting bumped.

But the bigger problems started when Tesla eliminated the ability to contact human beings either by phone or email. Now everything has to go through the Tesla app (which, for the product of a so-called technology company, is a really crappy piece of software) and it is virtually impossible to communicate with a person via any other channel. Sometimes in the past when you tried to schedule an appointment in the app it would let you select from different days; sometimes it wouldn’t. Sometimes you schedule a mobile service appointment in the app (the only kind you can schedule) and then the appointment gets switched to a service center, invariably on a different day. (This just happened to me, not for the first time.) Sometimes you schedule an appointment in the app and it gets rescheduled without any notification except in the app itself; my wife, who does not keep the Tesla app running, didn’t realize one appointment had been rescheduled until after no one showed up. Sometimes you schedule an appointment, it doesn’t get rescheduled, and then still no one shows up because the technician was too busy. In that case, you don’t get any notification until your appointment is magically rescheduled to a date not of your choosing. Sometimes things fail that could cause the car to stop working at all (like the 12V battery telling you it’s about to die) and you can’t get an appointment for three weeks—and there’s no way to communicate to Tesla that you really need service soon.

Obviously, there are a couple of things going on here. One is that Tesla, like most recent technology companies, has focused on market share growth at the expense of things like product quality and after-sales service. As hundreds of thousands of people have bought Model 3’s and now Model Y’s in recent years, the company simply hasn’t expanded its service operations enough to keep up. One thing about Tesla is that the cars are so good (when they are working) that people tend to overlook the minor flaws and the hassles that come with owning one, which means the company can continue to grow while providing shoddy service. Right now, the earliest I can get an appointment in Massachusetts or Connecticut that isn’t on Christmas Eve is on January 13 (twenty-two days from now).

The other is that Tesla, like many other companies, has become too enamored of the fantasy that customer service should be delivered by software. A few days ago I had to call Verizon Wireless because its billing system was offering me a discount if I signed up for automatic payment from my checking account—but I had already signed up, and I wasn’t getting the discount. First, I had to fend off the Verizon voice assistant that was cheerfully insistent that, despite all evidence to the contrary, it could solve my problem for me. The automated assistant kept offering to do things that I could have done online. Don’t these companies realize that most people only call if they can’t fix their problems themselves online? This infatuation with AI can border on the absurd. I had to cancel a hotel reservation on Expedia. Ten years ago I could click a button. Now, in 2021, I have to have a virtual chat session with a robot to do the same thing.

Tesla doesn’t rely on AI (very much), but some genius had the idea that it would be good to channel all customer communication through a phone app that doesn’t even have a browser version. Among other things, this means that you have to describe your car’s problems with a phone keyboard. This might be OK, however, if the app weren’t horrifyingly bad. There are text boxes that are covered by the onscreen keyboard, so you can’t see what you are typing. It only allows one service appointment at a time. This means that when my door handle broke just weeks after being fixed, I couldn’t schedule a service appointment because the overworked Tesla back office staff hadn’t finished processing my previous appointment, so I had to enter a message on the old appointment asking them to close it. As mentioned above, in the past you couldn’t even choose a date and time for your appointment, although that has been fixed. There is now way to communicate with anyone except by leaving messages on the service appointment. As a result, no one tries to figure out what’s wrong with your car until the technician shows up. This would be OK at a service center, where they have all the equipment and parts they might need. With mobile service visits, however, it often means you have to reschedule because the technician doesn’t have everything they need.

This is what happens when the technology startup mentality takes over the economy. Technology companies are notorious for overpromising, underdelivering, and scrambling to keep customers just barely satisfied enough (read: not actively suing them) to avoid undermining future sales. Bad publicity can be swamped by clever search engine optimization (or by ridiculous tweets by the company’s CEO). And software is notorious for, well, being bad.

Perhaps the end result is worth it. After all, Tesla has probably done more for the replacement of gasoline by electricity than every other company put together. But it does make life a lot more frustrating.

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