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Everyone has had a battle with a printer at one point or another. You stand there glaring as it flashes “Jam in compartment C7,” which, of course, would be very helpful if you had a clue where compartment C7 was or how to open it.

Recently, I found that dealing with the customer service department at the company that sold me my printer was just as frustrating as dealing with the printer itself.

A little while after I had put in a new ink cartridge, it stopped working. I had only printed a few pages, and I was pretty sure no one had broken into my house in rural Vermont just to use the printer, so I knew the cartridge couldn’t be empty. When I put in a fresh one, my document printed perfectly. The cartridge was clearly defective.

After I returned to New York, I asked my office assistant, Lucia, to call Hewlett-Packard to request a replacement. I had brought the defective cartridge back with me, so I figured she would have all the information they could possibly need. I was mistaken. According to the representative she spoke with, just having the serial number of the defective product was not enough; they also needed to know the serial number of the printer, which was working fine. Their company policy is to check the history of the machine first and make sure it is compatible with the ink cartridge before offering any actual assistance.

The next time I went to Vermont, I got the serial number and gave it to Lucia. But, when she finally reached a person in the customer service department, he didn’t ask for the serial number at all. Instead, he said that he needed to run some tests on the printer. She told him that was not possible, since the printer was in a different state. But, he told her, the dictates of company policy prevented him from replacing my defective ink cartridge without first performing tests on my non-defective printer.

At that point, I decided to give up. I threw away the defective cartridge that had cost me $39.99, and hoped that I would not have to deal with H.P.’s alleged customer service department again anytime soon.

Printing is big business for H.P., and they need to keep selling ink of all colors to stay in the black. According to the company’s 2008 annual report, its Imaging and Printing Group, which includes sales of scanners, printers, printing software and printing supplies, accounted for about 25 percent of its revenue for the year. Ink is an important part of that. The New York Times reported that printer ink is one of the most expensive liquids on the market, more costly than pricey perfumes. With the growth of a more digitally oriented culture, where people read more on the screen and less on paper, H.P. is getting nervous about how much longer it will be able to market this black (or cyan, or magenta, or yellow) gold.

But that is no excuse to gouge customers. By making so many different cartridges that are not interchangeable, H.P. ensures that customers will have to discard old cartridges and purchase new ones when they upgrade their printers. Some have taken to refilling their own cartridges in order to avoid the expense of buying a new cartridge every time one runs out. H.P. would prefer that customers just send the empties back and keep buying more new cartridges.

My business buys a lot of printers. I have already moved some of that business, mostly for high-end laser printers, to Xerox. My latest experience with H.P. means I probably will give someone else a try the next time I need a new, relatively inexpensive printer-fax-scanner combo.

By making me throw away $40 rather than sending me a replacement that likely costs no more than half that amount to manufacture and deliver, H.P. added a few dollars to this year’s bottom line. But it will cost them much more in the long run.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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