May 19, 2018: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Astro Customer Service

Happy Royal Wedding Day!  (If you care about such things.  Otherwise, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, wah wah wah.)  A recent post on one of the Facebook astronomy pages got me to wondering about who does what when it comes to customer service in the astronomy biz.  Particularly, what are the heavy hitters doing – Celestron, Meade, Skywatcher, Orion, Explore Scientific.

Before I go on, while some of the “information” here is based on actual reports from others, some of it is gossip and rumor, and yeah, note the scare quotes there.  These are just various anecdotes from various astropeeps across the internet.  But remember, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.  In other words, anecdotal evidence is not enough to prove anything.  However, regardless, these anecdotes do work together to form a company’s reputation, whether for good or ill.  So take this post with a grain of salt.

The good

Let’s begin with Explore Scientific.  First of all, let’s start with their warranty.  It is a lifetime transferable warranty.  That means that no matter where you got it from, if you bought it directly from ES, if you bought it indirectly from an astroshop, if you bought it from some guy on the internet, or even if you bought it off of the back of a truck, as long as it has Explore Scientific stamped on it, they will stand behind and service their product.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Their customer service is considered the ne plus ultra of the astronomy world.  For example, someone I know ordered one of their FirstLight series scopes – a 5-inch Mak.  This is a regular Mak, the normal OTA, on an EQ-3 mount, for a very inexpensive price.  The counterweight that Explore Scientific sent didn’t completely balance out the scope.  A quick call to ES resulted in another counterweight being shipped out tout de suite at no cost.  Explore Scientific will take care of you.

Next up are Celestron and Skywatcher.  My understanding is that both of these companies are owned by Synta, the mainland Chinese telescope manufacturer, who also makes scopes for Orion as well.  These two have CS that isn’t quite as good as ES, but still pretty dang good.

Celestron’s very short warranty says two things related to customer service.  First, it specifically states that the customer is “responsible for all costs of transportation and insurance, both to and from the factory of Celestron, and shall be required to prepay such costs. ”  In other words, if there’s a problem, you gotta pay for the shipping to get it fixed.  Hmmm, really?

I posted and asked specifically about this payment policy all over the place – on a couple of FB astropages, on Cloudy Nights, at Astronomy Connect – and everyone said that regardless of the wording of the warranty, Celestron just never charges to perform warranty service.  (EDIT – but see Jim Bakic’s comment, below.)

That was my experience as well.  A coupla years ago, I had a problem with my mount.  You can read the summary at that link, or you can read the full blow-by-blow description over at my post at Cloudy Nights, which includes quotes from emails from Celestron.

If you don’t feel like reading either of those, and I don’t blame you, the tl;dr version is that I was having a problem with my mount that I couldn’t fix – a non-responsive handset, OTA drooping in altitude for no apparent reason.  I contacted Celestron CS to send the mount back in.  Eventually (ahem) they emailed me a pre-paid UPS label so that I didn’t have to pay a dime for warranty repairs of their problem.

Which is exactly as it should be.  I fervently disagree with any vendor’s policy whereby the customer has to pay for the vendor’s problem.  It’s their product; and if it fails, then they have to pay whatever costs – including shipping and insurance if need be – to make it right again.  In this era of free shipping on everything, this is how it’s supposed to work.  Otherwise, what’s the point of a warranty?

The other part of the Celestron warranty that applies to customer service is where it says, “Celestron shall use reasonable efforts to repair or replace any product covered by this warranty within thirty days of receipt. In the event repair or replacement shall require more than thirty days, Celestron shall notify the customer accordingly.”

And this is what really chapped my ass about my warranty repairs from them 3 years ago.  They exceeded the thirty days by almost another thirty days.  Plus, they didn’t notify me that that was happening, and when they finally did, they flat out lied to me.  In response to that CN post about my Celestron travails, great astronomical lights such as Uncle Rod excoriated me for expecting “concierge service”.

No, I don’t consider it concierge service to expect them to simply live up to their own service claims.  If it’s going to take 60 days instead of 30, then just say that.  If you’re not going to contact me, then just say that, too.  Don’t make promises that you know you won’t keep.  Don’t create unrealistic expectations in the customer.

But Celestron has made up for things since then.  This past winter, I emailed them wondering how much new leg spreaders for my SLT mount would cost, and then they just up and sent them to me free.  Yeah, it’s two bucks worth of plastic, and I’d bet that the shipping cost more than the cost of the part.  But it was very good customer service to do this – and to do it twice, because I screwed up telling them what part I needed the first time.

Others have chimed in on Celestron, and down to a person, all have said that their service is good.  Fewer have discussed Skywatcher, but those that have have also said that their service is also good.  This includes replacing a clearly defective mount that could not be made to work, without cost.  In other words, these companies are doing right by their customers.

The bad

In this category, we’ve got Orion.  They have an insanely stupid policy.  If you did not buy from them, they will not lift a finger to help you.  In other words, if you buy something used that says “Orion” on it, Orion doesn’t know you.  They only service their own customers.

This would be exactly like if you bought a used Ford, and you needed, say, new shocks, and Ford refused to sell them to you . . . and the marketplace for replacement shocks was extremely limited.  Where would you get these new shocks you need, if not from Ford itself?  (Yes, I know there are replacement parts makers for cars, but there aren’t any for scopes.)

How do I know this?  Well, beyond learning about this over at the CN boards a few years back, I tried this myself.  I emailed Orion and told them that the plastic focusing knob on my used Orion scope had broken.  I asked them if they would sell me a new one.  In no uncertain terms, they told me to, um, go fudge myself.  Only they didn’t say fudge.  Okay, okay, so they didn’t really say anything like that.  But they abjectly refused to help me, telling me that they only helped their own customers.  They wouldn’t even direct me to someone else who did sell parts; they told me to google it instead.  Gee, thanks.  This is basically the opposite of what Explore Scientific does.

Whenever I see someone looking to buy a used Orion anything, I remind them of this policy.  This is a known “thing” that Orion has – even though not many people know it.  In fact, it should negatively affect resale values of used Orion scopes – especially those with computers and motors.  It basically does not, simply because most people don’t know about this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad policy.

Other than this abject stupidity, Orion’s reputation among its actual customers is that their CS is pretty good.  If you buy directly from Orion, you’re in good shape – they will take care of you.  There are technical people who will help work you through a problem before needing to send the product back to them.  But if you don’t buy Orion from Orion, you’re on your own.

The ugly

Finally, we reach the bottom of the barrel:  Meade.  The reason I started this post in the first place was because one of the administrators of one of the FB astro sites posted Meade’s CS policy:  if you want us to fix it, you’ve gotta pay to ship it to us, and pay to insure what you’re shipping.

Now, note that this is exactly the same policy that Celestron has in their warranty.  Except Meade has decided to go whole hog and actually enforce the policy.  For this administrator, those shipping costs were $300.  Another person who had the same problem with Meade said the same thing, and for them it was $280.

In both cases, it was to fix a goto mount.  And this is simply unacceptable.  For $300, you could buy a whole new telescope – albeit a small one, on a manual mount.  But on a mount that costs, say, $1500 or so to begin with, an expense like this (20%!) is ridiculous.  It’s their problem!  They need to stand behind their product and fix it, like their warranty says.

Others chimed in on Meade as well, and the reporting on them was uniformly negative, with an exception here or there.  Yes, their optics are good – nothing wrong with their product.  Well, except when there’s something wrong with their product.  At which point, regardless of the above pre-pay policy, Meade CS was flat out unhelpful to people asking for help, suggesting that the customer just go out and buy a brand new scope instead.  Wow, really, Chuckles?  Thanks for the tip.

As a result of the original FB admin’s post, a number of people came out and declared that they would never buy a Meade product ever again.  I can’t say I blame them.

EDIT – the above-mentioned issue is still not resolved, four months later.  Meade is now ignoring the person whose mount was giving him problems.  We are about to start an anti-Meade whisper campaign.  Well, not a whisper campaign, actually.  This Facebook thread has over 70 posts of people vowing NEVER to buy Meade products ever again.  Ouch, man; ouch.

The lesson learned

Wherever possible, always buy “indirectly” from an astroshop, not directly from the named source (Celestron, Meade, etc.) itself.  In case there’s ever a problem needing warranty repairs, the astroshop will act as an intermediary between you and the source and will be your advocate in terms of getting your warranty enforced and your gear fixed.  This is precisely what happened with the FB admin mentioned above – the astroshop stepped in for him and convinced Meade not to pursue collecting the outrageous shipping costs.

Note that this post did not mention the other heavy hitter out there – GSO.  GSO is the Taiwanese manufacturer of a lot of the other astrogear out there.  Where Synta makes the very good Orion dobs, GSO makes the superior Zhumell and Apertura dobs.  GSO also makes a lot of house-branded eyepieces, like Agena’s Starguider or Astronomics’ Astro-Tech Paradigm, which look like clones of each other because they are.  They’re literally the same eyepiece with different labels on them.

The reason I haven’t mentioned GSO is because GSO stuff is always sold by an astroshop – there is no GSO store where you can buy GSO stuff from GSO directly.  So you’ll always be dealing with the astroshop and their policies when you buy GSO.  Be sure to read the shop’s return and service policies carefully!

In terms of GSO telescopes, there were two flavors – Zhumell and Apertura.  These are exactly the same scopes with different stickers on them.  Unfortunately, Zhumell went belly-up last fall and no longer sells anything.  The website still exists, but the stuff is perpetually “out of stock”.

As for the Apertura, these dobs used to be sold by an astroshop in Oklahoma called Opticsmart.  At some point about 3 years ago, they decided to get completely out of the telescope biz.  Just last year, High Point Scientific picked up and revived the Apertura scope, which is great because the GSO dobs are the best out there.  See?  It is possible for me to like a dob.  🙂

Do you have any customer service experiences you’d care to share?  Please do so in the comments, below.


5 thoughts on “May 19, 2018: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Astro Customer Service

  1. I just had the tripod on my Celestron NExstar 5SE break and they made me pay to ship it back to them before they would send a replacement. $40 to ship for a $600 scope.


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