I was having not too bad of a day last Thursday until I came home from work and discovered that my refrigerator wasn’t running. It reminded me of juvenile jokes: Is your refrigerator running? Well, you’d better catch it.

The light came on when I opened the door, but the temperature was not what it should have been relative to the air temperature in the kitchen; light’s on, no one’s home. The milk also was starting to smell rather peculiar, and there was another odor I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

I grabbed the phone book and started looking under “Appliance Repair.”

Where’s The Cheese?

I could have been a study in purchasing trends that day, like a mouse in a consumer maze. The company I selected was listed in the “A” section of the Appliance Repair listings. They claimed a certain number of years in business and promised “reliable service.”

(I know there are some very good companies listed in the A’s; but this is one of those marketing “strategies” that is the reason behind all the A-1, A-2, AA, AAAA, and A10 companies in the phone book. Panicky consumers don’t look much further than this section. I fit the profile that day.)

My selection process wasn’t intentionally shallow. I tried to get a referral, but my neighbors couldn’t recommend anyone, nor could my parents. My brother-in-law knows somebody who does this sort of work on weekends, when he has time.

Um, no thanks.

To make matters worse, it wasn’t just a matter of milk going bad and chicken defrosting. Thanks to the modern-day miracle of getting three months’ worth of medication at one time, I had roughly a down payment for a new car’s worth of medication that has to be refrigerated, in my refrigerator. (That’s a cheap new car’s worth, but still a substantial amount.) This is what prompted me to a level of panic that made me call a company listed on the very first page of the phone book Appliance Repair ads — that and the comforting wording.

I packed the medicine in a cooler, surrounded by ice packs. The repairman, I was assured, would arrive the next morning. I was ready and waiting by 8:30 a.m.

The Next Day

I’m sure that just about any HVACR contractor who readsThe Newscould tell me why you shouldn’t leave a customer waiting around for service, with no other contact from the company except that which I sought on my own. (The person answering the phone was sympathetic about my problems, but my urgency must not have been brought home to her with conviction — either that or she hears this type of panicky customer all the time.)

Regarding my situation, let’s just say that daytime TV offers little consolation when you’re waiting for a repair person who is late. I had time to clean out the refrigerator and plan what to do with food defrosting from the freezer. I had time to make a shopping list. I had way too much time to think.

Bob Wilkins, president of Wilkins Mechanical Services in Bedford, N.H., and Contractor of the Year Under $3 Million for contractor group International Service Leadership (ISL), explained that where service is concerned, “There’s no way to guarantee a specific time, except for the first call of the morning.” Too many variables can throw off a service timetable.

Even offering a time frame for a service person to arrive in, like noon to 5 p.m., is too much waiting to ask a customer to do, he stated. “I just know I would be the call they made at 3:30,” Wilkins joked.

“We used to give four-hour windows like [a major retailer] does,” he said, “but having people sit around all day just doesn’t cut it.

“We give a very broad window for when we will get there,” he said.

Last January, for instance, there was a very big demand for heating service. “We try to be really honest with our customers,” he said. “We told them we would get there that day.”

The best thing a company can do, Wilkins said, is to get a phone number and call the customer when the technician is finishing up the preceding customer. The customer can meet the technician at the house.

The repair guy arrived in the afternoon. He did seem to be having a bad day. Almost immediately he pinpointed the problem: motor burnout. (That was the other smell I couldn’t quite pinpoint. I felt stupid for not recognizing it earlier, but there you are; the result of panic.)

One New Motor Later

I can’t imagine what companies like this one think. Is it that they’re probably never going to see me again? After all, the next step for me is to buy a new refrigerator.

Or, are companies like this one trying so hard to offer “reliable service,” they are setting standards that they can’t possibly meet? Are they trying to offer service like the big retailers do — when in fact they can probably do a lot better by acting like a smaller company?

Are they over-promising and under-delivering? Shoot yeah.

Jim Clemmer is an author and speaker on leadership, change, and customer focus, based in Kitchener, Ontario (www.clemmer.net). In an article titled, “Don’t Promise Too Much,” he writes, “This is important to understanding what causes poor customer service. It is not always a question of performance; it can be about expectations as well.

“To attract new customers, many organizations promise great service, display their service or quality awards, or show survey data that put them at the top of their industry. But those higher expectations raise the bar. It becomes difficult to meet them, let alone exceed them.”

In any case, the experience made me appreciate my air conditioning contractor even more. When he’s coming over, he calls first. He once told me it’s their standard practice; it saves them from showing up and not finding anyone at home.

However you look at it, it means people aren’t wasting their time. To the customer, that translates into a feeling of respect that is reciprocated.

Barb Checket-Hanks is service/maintenance and troubleshooting editor. She can be reached at 248-244-6467; 248-362-0317 (fax); barbarachecket-hanks@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 04/07/2003