Customer Service: An Odyssey

By on 25 April, 2019 in Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Before the storm

This story has a happy ending. Eventually, a combination of corporations and insurance paid for our historic Midtown home to have nearly $15,000 worth of unintended kitchen repairs. But it took hundreds of hours and considerable dedicated effort to get these various entities to make good on their promises. We’re here to offer some advice in the event you need to joust with this kind of bureaucracy and, in part 2, navigate the confusing world of home renovation.

A Bit of Back Story

We did not want or need to remodel our kitchen. We gave it a nice little facelift in 2015 – painted the cabinets white, put in a new slate countertop. This was just fine, and we really didn’t want to change anything at all. Even the dated ’80s parquet floor could stay. Nonetheless, around the start of this year, we did replace our deeply dysfunctional stacked washer-dryer and at the same time, we swapped out the refrigerator we inherited when we purchased the place over a decade ago. The new year was brimming with possibility — or at least clean clothes and iced drinks.

The new fridge came on January 1, when the world was bright and full of a surprisingly awesome University of Texas performance at the Sugar Bowl. Then, after the new appliances arrived, there were some … difficulties. It’s now late April as of this writing, and we’ve been without the use of our kitchen for almost 7 weeks. That shiny fridge? It’s in the hallway on a drop cloth, so bulky that you have to turn sideways to get past it. The washer/dryer? It’s now blocking the use of our built-in bookcase, not hooked up to any water or electricity. The oven is also out of commission and a strange piece of furniture in a room where it doesn’t belong. It turns out that although you can cook a surprisingly diverse group of things using only a toaster oven and crock pot, this is not an especially rewarding long-term culinary strategy.

Floors coming up looking for damage

There was a leak – faulty fridge installation. Another leak – shoddy repair of the faulty installation. Then, tearing out the wet subfloor, discovery of some rot. Then, of course, it turned out there was extensive underlying damage. We had protection from all of these things in some way: the delivery company warrantied its installation; the refrigerator company certified the repair guy, and all of our various protective paperwork and bonds were up-to-date and in order. 

“It’s going to be fine,” we told ourselves and each other. “Surely these responsible corporate citizens will be more than happy to make us whole within the terms of our good-faith agreements.”

Readers, we’ve spent the first quarter of 2019 jousting with all kinds of corporate support entities and interacting with our home insurance agency. We have some advice for you. First: You can do it. You can deal with these people and get them to pay you what you’re owed. And second: It’s may take some time, but it will be worth it.

I should note that I’m not going to name any corporate names here except for our awesome insurance company. These lessons can apply anywhere, but they are especially helpful if you love historic Midtown homes as much as we do. We view ourselves as caretakers of our home (which was built in 1930) and hopefully one day, many, many years from now, it will be owned by people who love it as much as we do. So here’s some advice on going toe-to-toe with frequently-faceless entities as you try to get to a best possible result:

1. Keep detailed records. When you call the store and speak with the manager, write their name down. Same with the people on the customer service helplines. As you get escalated up their ladders, it really pays to be able to say when you last called and who you spoke with. Be aware that some companies don’t let their phone reps give you their last names, but those people all have ID numbers. We ended up using more than one Excel spreadsheet to keep up with timelines and financial data. Eventually, when we turned the process over to our insurance company, they were very grateful for our records.

2. You will probably have to interact with a lot of different companies. I was really surprised at how many layers of businesses were involved in the claims process with each company. Many places don’t do their own delivery, and they don’t take responsibility for the delivery services provided by their subcontractors. And most don’t even handle their own claims anymore. Many companies will employ these intermediary companies for that, who in turn contract out to yet other companies for services like repair estimates and such.

3. Use your homeowner’s insurance. Really, we probably should have called the insurance company right away, but I vainly thought I could bend these various corporations to my will – or at least hold them accountable according to the terms of the various contracts and purchase agreements. But my mother in law is wiser than me, and on her suggestion I initiated proceedings with USAA that took all the endless waiting on hold music out of my hands. They were fast, thorough, and generous – and having their app on the phone for uploading pictures and such was really very convenient.

4. Be nice to people. Most of the folks you’ll interact with are just regular people doing a regular day job. They almost certainly don’t have the authority to give you any compensation, so there’s no reason to get frustrated with them or be angry about the situation. Plus, if you’re nice, they’re more likely to give you their names (see above) and then let you talk to their manager.

5. Be patient. There’s generally a mechanism in place for dealing with the true emergencies. When the fridge is spraying water down your walls and across your cabinets and into your floor, there are plumbers that can sprint to your house and help. But dealing with the consequences requires hopping through a lot of hurdles, and that can take some time. These companies have a methodical investigatory process for a reason. They want to be assured that your claims are legitimate and that responsibility is placed with the appropriate parties. Bureaucracies are cumbersome and require perseverance.

The cat is interested in the floor removal

There’s no denying that we have a lot of privilege we were able to leverage in this situation – I work at home, so I was able (for example) to endure endless hold times during the day. Many people who clock traditional day jobs might not have this luxury. This also meant that I was able to be home when various inspectors and contractors needed to come by. For people that are often juggling child care and errands and the other scheduling hazards of daily life, these kinds of time hurdles can seem daunting, if not insurmountable.

But that’s how they get you. The large companies looking to deny your claims are just waiting for you to miss a call, or an appointment. These corporations are not your friends. They are happy to welcome you into their stores and sell you things, but giving away lots of money — even when they make mistakes — isn’t exactly a strategy for pleasing the shareholders. So it’s important to be scrupulous in avoiding giving them any ammunition to use against you in denying your claim.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, eight fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.
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