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  • Writer's picturePaul Lell (Engineering Support Lead)

Customer service is not a zero-sum game

“Honey, the water heater is leaking.”

Never before in my life have I thought that such a simple statement would instill such dread, such apprehension, such nearly uncontrollable desire… to bang my head into a desk repeatedly…

You see, it isn’t just about the whole ‘no hot water for three days’, or ‘water loose in the house’ thing; although those are definitely concerns. The real problem is that there seems to be a general lack of concern for customer service these days. I don’t know when it happened, or why, although I have my theories, but I’ve done a handful of major projects around the house the past couple of years, and every one of them has required an inordinate amount of attention.

After a recent hail storm I had to spend about forty hours on the phone talking to the roofers, the insurance agent, the adjuster, and the city permit office, eventually getting them all on my roof at the same time to establish that there was, in fact, real damage to the roof and that it needed to be replaced.

When I had the roof replaced, I had to ask the materials delivery team not to park their 5-ton crane in my driveway, as it would crack the concrete, and tear up the tree in my front yard. They looked at me as if my concerns were some alien concept they had never considered before, then asked where they should put the machine. When I pointed to the gravel drive behind the garage they looked as if they’d just learned their fancy smart-phones could also play music if they wanted.

Then I had to tell the roofing crew to put the conduits for my solar panels back together properly, rather than leaving huge gaps of exposed wire and an express pipe directly to my electrical panel for any rainwater open to the world.

Then I had to track down the skylight crew, because the roofing contractor didn’t know where they were (turns out they went on vacation in the middle of the project and didn’t tell anyone).

Before the roof project, the cable crew that came out to replace my drop was about thirty seconds from cutting all the roots from one side of my twenty year old cottonwood tree so they could bury the line before I caught them and stopped them. When they asked why they couldn’t do that and I explained that it was not only likely to kill the tree, but it could also cause it to fall over without that support on one side, they were pretty confused.

In early 2020 we also replaced our old wooden (rotten to the core, unfortunately) deck with a stamped/stained concrete patio and talked at length with that team about running electricity to the far side of it. They recommended an electrician to me, who I vetted and hired, and who was included in all of the planning conversations with the concrete team. Yet, the concrete team went ahead and poured the patio without waiting for the electricians to run the conduit and set the boxes, then looked at me like I was a raving lunatic when I asked them why they’d done that.

The list goes on, but let’s talk for a moment about the water heater before I get to my point. The unit had a nine-year warranty on it and I bought it seven years ago. I expected there to be labor charges for exercising that warranty. I expected the process to have a few hitches. But I certainly did not expect to get absolutely no help or direction at all.

I went to the website of the big box store I had originally purchased the water heater from and they got me in touch with their preferred plumber. The plumber told me they could sell me a new unit and install it and quoted me a price. But then said if it was under warranty I’d need to deal with other channels to manage that. So I called the appliance manufacturer, who had me on hold for over an hour total, bracketed by two five minute conversations in which both people asked me all of the same questions and both confirmed that it was a warranty situation. Supposedly the first person sent me to the second to set up the warranty authorization, but the second conversation was the same as the first.

They told me to take the unit back to the store from where I purchased it. They gave me a case number and then did everything they could to get off the phone as quickly as possible. I asked how I was supposed to return a water heater that was attached to my house and they suggested that I ‘call a plumber’.

So I called the big box store and spoke to them. They told me to just bring it back. Then went on to explain that the warranty process meant that I would have to come into the store, buy a new unit, have it installed, then return the old unit for the warranty to be paid out in store credit. Once that happened they would refund the purchase price of my new unit, then sell it to me again, using the store credit to reduce the price.

My protestations about the ridiculously complicated procedure duly ignored by the store manager, I headed out to buy a new water heater where the person working that department asked me what I wanted. I told them I needed a fifty gallon gas water heater and they pointed at the display and said ‘there they are’. I asked them what the differences were between the various models on offer and they told me ‘it’s all on the spec sheets.’ They then stood there and watched as I tried to figure out the pros and cons of each of the units on offer, pulled out my phone to look at reviews and features, and eventually decided on one. When I told them which one I had decided on, they told me to just take the label to the register to pay and then go get my truck.

Truck? What truck? I don’t have a truck.

“Oh. So you want it installed?” They blinked at me, looking a bit confused.

“Um. Yes.” I replied, offering a smile that probably revealed more frustration than I’d have liked. “I’m pretty handy, but I try to leave plumbing to the professionals. The installation warranty is a nice piece of mind to have when water is involved in my home.”

“Okay, so take the label to the service desk and they’ll take care of it,” the person shrugged out like an indifferent teenager with the face of a forty-year-old.

“Thank you,” I said, still meaning it despite the person’s lack-luster bedside manner.

At the service desk, it took three people ten minutes to figure out how to take my money, then those three and three more people another twenty minutes to figure out how to set up the installation. They were a little confused about why I was at the service desk to make the purchase and when I explained that I needed it delivered and installed they just nodded and said it would be there at will call for the plumber to pick up. The plumber they had just set me up with, mind you.

They said the plumber should call me that evening, which did not happen, but I wasn’t terribly surprised as it was a Sunday. Still no calls by late afternoon the following day either though, so I called them and asked what next steps were, whereupon they asked if I was okay with the price. I said the price included a new unit but I had already purchased that and it was waiting for them at the store. At which point they told me they don’t do that…

As I know this is getting a bit long in the tooth, I’ll summarize real fast:

  • The plumber will only deliver a unit they sell, even though they buy it from the same store I did.

  • The manufacturer will only honor the warranty through the store from which the unit was originally purchased and they offer zero assistance or direction in the management of the replacement.

  • The store will not talk to the plumber any more than is necessary to give the customer’s name to them, and will only pay out the warranty, even though it is authorized by the manufacturer, as an in-store credit.

It’s as if the entire process has been specifically engineered to be so troublesome that customers just won’t try to work through it.

In my fiction-writer’s brain I imagine a congregation of the heads of all these major companies sitting around a huge wenge table, conspiring on ways they can technically meet whatever legal requirements they must for customer support and consumer protection. But their scheming revolves around how to make it so difficult and contentious that the average person just gives up part way through and buys a new water heater without warranty support, just to be done with it.

By contrast, when I bought this doomed water heater seven years ago, I visited that same store, had a long conversation with an employee about the pros and cons of each unit, and made what felt like a good, informed decision for purchase. The employee then asked me if I wanted it installed or would be doing it myself, and when I asked to have it installed they took me to the service desk, scheduled the installation with their authorized plumber, took my money, and then explained the entire process from that point forward so I’d know what to expect and when.

Now, I told you that story so I could tell you this, much shorter story:

Customer service is near and dear to my heart. Whenever I deal with a customer, whether it is at my table selling books at a convention, or through my work here at Penthera, my entire goal with any customer interaction is that they have no doubts or concerns about what happened, or what happens next. It is my fervent hope that customers always walk away feeling not only satisfied with our interaction, but that I/we have a real, vested interest in their success. I want my customers to feel like we have a partnership. That I want them to be the best they can be, and that there are no pitfalls or niggling little details waiting for them to discover lurking in corners as they proceed.

And my team here at Penthera supports that goal. This team; this family, is all about going the extra mile. Clearing obstacles, providing expertise, sharing points of view. Whatever it takes. We help our customers find problems in their networks and tech stack that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to easily find on their own. We look at and test their apps. We read the reviews of their customers on the app stores. We watch market trends that are important to our customers so we can talk about them when we meet.

We do all of this not because we’re trying to keep tabs on them, or point out what they probably already know. We do this because the success of our customers is important to us. We want to lift them up and help them be the best they can be.


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