WASHINGTON -- Call me an early adopter. I bought the 892nd Tesla roadster to come off the assembly line in 2010. There were problems. The motor had to be replaced three times.
So, what did I do? I bought a second Tesla, and then a third, both top-of-the-line Model S sedans.
We’re talking almost $400,000 worth of the sleek, futuristic automobiles. At first blush, given my experiences with the first model, you might think it odd I would come back for two more. I even encouraged my brother to buy two Tesla sedans.
It is also not out of the question I would buy a fourth Tesla, though under improved circumstances. I love the idea of the car -- but I’ve stopped loving the company.
The fact is this: Through hubris, loss of focus, or simply ignorance of its consumer mission, Tesla has lost its way.
For me personally, after a myriad of product issues, the damage Tesla did to my car, and mounting frustration over Tesla’s lack of responsiveness, I had no choice but to sue the company (see attached lawsuit) in state court in Fairfax County, Va. This action came after they refused to even return my phone calls or answer my emails.
That’s no way for a company that wants to be an American trailblazer to treat those who supported them from the beginning.
Let’s get one thing straight: I believe in Tesla’s clean energy mission, and the vision of its head, Elon Musk, to combat global warming. As a tech entrepreneur and engineer myself with several dozen patents, I understand and admire his passion.
Musk deserves the accolades he receives for successes after failures and for that indomitable spirit of try and try again. I have always aspired to have that same verve and vision with the technology companies I have launched.
Getting it right
I simply want Tesla to get it right and not to all but abandon early and loyal consumers. If they do, -- and in my experience they have -- this does not bode well for future purchasers, including those who order the lower-priced Model 3 sedans.
The third and most recent Tesla I purchased had some annoying noise problems. I took it to the Tesla service center for repair, and in the process, the company tore a hole in the leather seat. They were honest and admitted what happened. It seemed like a minor fix and the company said it would replace the seat at its own cost.
However, even after making the promise in writing, they stalled, and then went completely silent over the last 11 months. Tesla didn’t explicitly refuse to fix the problem. Instead, they turned a blind eye to my many inquiries, and their own documented evidence of the problem.
This is not simply the pique of a grouchy customer upset over a minor issue. In fact, my lawsuit will likely cost me much more than I stand to gain, but it’s not about the money. It is really not even about me. It’s about the future of Tesla and other companies promising innovative products, and how they treat customers.
In Tesla’s case, I fear the appropriate focus is missing. It must remember it is not just a research lab but also a product company. After giving admirable attention to problems with my first roadster, the company appears to have directed its full attention to challenges other than customer service.
In the early days, providing good service was necessary for the fledgling company to consolidate support and not endanger its reputation. Now, it appears Tesla is still riding on its old reputation.
Perhaps self-driving cars are cooler and sexier than taking care of current customers, but that’s not the way to become a great American company. Being highly innovative shouldn’t earn you a “pass” on being responsive to your customers.
I want the company to meet its responsibility to its customers, whether they are early purchasers such as me, or first time buyers. But, for now, it is buyer beware:
A litany of other problems I have had include the following:
- The Bluetooth system malfunctioned in multiple ways when used with iPhone and Android phones. Among the many problems I reported, conversations inside the car can be heard loudly outside the car. This can be embarrassing or even dangerous. Tesla acknowledged this does in fact happen, and then responded: “It’s operating as designed.”
- A faulty sensor caused the car to think it was minus 40 degrees, and it just decided to have an immediate “powertrain shutdown” while driving on a city street. I was lucky I was not on the highway. Tesla’s response: “It’s ok for the car’s software to shut off all power. All cars shut down at times.”
- The car frequently needs to be “rebooted” -- that’s what Tesla service calls it. The car’s computer gets into a bad state and many random malfunctions occur. The standard remedy is to reboot it, just like when your laptop goes haywire.
- After a late evening, I tried for 30 minutes to start the car. The car controls were completely dark and inoperable. It turns out, the car was updating its software, but it displayed no indication of any kind. Tesla’s response: “we’ll look into it” But, as usual, I didn’t hear back.
Innovative companies are to be commended, and growing pains are bound to be felt by early adopters. But, poor customer service and faulty design can cripple demand. In such a case, a promising company -- even one as well capitalized as Tesla -- can falter.
My friends have asked me what I really want from Tesla. They want to understand my tenacity in taking this to court. In short, what I want is for Tesla to find its way back to caring about consumer satisfaction.
If that happens, there’s a good chance I would buy another Tesla and this early adopter -- Tesla owner No. 892 -- would congratulate the company for winning back one of its first customers.
Editor's note: Tesla issued this statement in response to Cohen's blog/lawsuit:
Tesla consistently achieves the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any auto manufacturer because we do everything we can to ensure owners have the best possible experience. Our philosophy is to work closely with a customer to resolve issues if they are encountered, however we will also strongly defend ourselves against claims that are unjust or lack merit. We have this same philosophy for every customer because we believe that all customers should be treated equally well. This is a matter of basic fairness.
All of the issues mentioned by this customer have long ago been fixed under warranty, at no expense to the customer, to the extent that repairs have been requested and are appropriate. The only exceptions are the seat, which we have been trying to install for many months, but the customer has chosen not to bring in the car to have it replaced, and the Bluetooth, which we have confirmed is operating correctly. Even though there are no remaining issues with his car, the customer has demanded a new vehicle, plus an additional cash payment. These demands are simply unreasonable.
Alain Cohen is a successful entrepreneur and engineer in the Washington, D.C., area. Cohen was co-founder and president of OPNET Technologies, a Nasdaq traded company until it was sold for $1 billion in 2012. He is co-founder and CEO of internet startup Bublup, Inc., as well as Cobro Ventures, Inc., a venture company in the tech and biotech sectors.