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House moving, horror stories and customer service

December 20, 2011 3 comments

The new wood-burning stove

The picture doesn’t look much, I know, because it was shot on a cheap mobile phone. But it has some personal significance, because it shows the symbolic heart of our new residence.

That’s why I’ve been quiet for so long. We’ve moved house. Just a few miles down the road, and into a slightly older property of around the same size but with a much larger garden.

The moving process was interesting, though not in the ways I’d expected. Mainly, it’s been interesting in relation to something that’s been preoccupying me because I’ve been writing about it for a while – customer service. An organisation asked me to write a suite of training modules on the subject, so I’ve been doing that, and it’s gelled with a lot of my own recent experiences. There’s some excellent customer service out there, but also a huge amount of astonishingly poor service and some lessons.

First, the good stories.

The house is around 75 years old and had been vacant for a while, so it had a bunch of problems.

This being the UK, the Gas Safe Register (http://www.gassaferegister.co.uk/) gave me the name of a small independent gas engineer apparently 0.18 miles from me. He turned up the same day, tested the gas system, got the central heating system to work, and didn’t even charge us for doing so. He came back the following week to service the system and do some modifications to it, for an eminently reasonable price.

Google found me a roofer who came round the same day to inspect the roof and gutters. Basically the guttering was almost completely rotten and we had some missing tiles, flashings that needed repair, a chimney that needed capping and some other bits and pieces. He couldn’t work on it for a couple of days (we had storms) but he called to let us know anyway, and on the third day, he was there – we woke up to find him already on a ladder, replacing lengths of guttering.

We wanted a wood-burning stove in the living room. The chimney sweep answered the phone, agreed to come a couple of days later and extracted a jackdaw’s nest from the chimney along with the wire cage that at one time had been on top of the chimneypot, rather than about five feet down it having presumably been pushed there by the jackdaws.

The guy who installed the stove (which also meant replacing the fire surround, mantelpiece and fitting a vent in the room to ensure airflow) did the work over two days, exactly when he said he would and without any problems. He wasn’t particularly chatty or social but he did exactly what he said he’d do, when he said he’d do it, to a high standard.

Even the local water company, which has an atrocious customer service record, reminded us that recent legislation means they have to fit a water meter to every property in this area on change of occupier. The guy turned up exactly on time and did the work without a fuss.

Conclusion – by and large, small local independent companies who rely on local business and word of mouth advertising have pretty good customer service. They don’t offer knobs, bells and whistles on service, and at a personal level they have their idiosyncrasies. As we all do. But turning up quickly to inspect and give a quote, offering to do the work that week or the following week, and turning up when they say they will and delivering high quality workmanship is in my book good service. Along with keeping in contact about delays, even if I only needed to look out of the window to know the roofers wouldn’t be turning up because it wouldn’t be safe to be on a roof due to wind, rain, sleet and snow.

Now for the bad stories.

The solicitors we used for the purchase came as part of a bundled service from a national chain of estate agents – you get advertising, premium position on their website, a few other things and your conveyancing done as an all-on-one package. As it happened, we didn’t actually sell through them anyway; we told them from the start that we also had the house listed for auction, because we wanted this move to happen in a defined timeframe. They took that seriously and got a whole bunch of people to look at our house, though in the event we didn’t get a serious offer prior to the auction date. But that’s by the way.

In England, when you buy a house at auction you have up to 28 days to complete the purchase. That gives you a clear date by which completion must, legally, happen. The implication is that the completion on the purchase of our new house needed to happen on the same day. A series of phone calls and emails with our solicitor, 100 or so miles away, clarified, confirmed and reconfirmed that date.

As a result of which we didn’t expect to have handed over the keys to our old house, with all our worldly possessions waiting in a removal lorry outside the new one, and then phone our solicitor to pull her out of meeting and hear the words ‘Oh, you mean it was today you wanted to complete?’

Turned out, after a bunch of fluff, misdirection and excuses, that she hadn’t even started the process.

Now, I don’t have any precedent for this. It shouldn’t happen, and solicitors have diaries and suchlike that enable them to keep track of conveyancing. But under the circumstances what would constitute good customer service recovery? A couple of nights in a top class hotel, perhaps, with a specialist service to look after critical issues like a tankful of tropical fish that need to be kept warm? Flowers and chocolates sent to the new address for when we move in? You tell me. Nothing like that happened, at any rate. We had a night in a cheap local motel and our stuff in storage for several days until the removal company had a timeslot when they could deliver.

Telecoms was the next horror story. There hasn’t been a phone line in the new house for about a decade, apparently. I suspect, from the fixtures and fittings around the place, the previous owners had satellite TV and relied on mobile phones instead. The phone line was to have been installed on 17 November. When I called the week before we moved, to reconfirm the date, it had mysteriously not been entered into the system. They offered us 1 December. As it happened we wouldn’t have been in the property on 17 November, though I didn’t know that at the time. OK, I thought, so there’s been some miscommunication and maybe someone didn’t put something on the database they should have. A two week delay is annoying but not the end of the world.

Then no one turned up on 1 December. A phone call revealed the order had been cancelled and a new one set up for 2 December. That was news to me and they couldn’t explain it – no details on the system as to who’d cancelled it or why. OK, so it’ll happen tomorrow. But then no one turns up on 2 December, and when I phone up it appears that too has been cancelled overnight on their system apparently through a computer error. In that case, I suggest, the next working day is Monday 5 December, so get someone here then. Can’t do that, I’m afraid, the customer services person says. We don’t install our own lines. All the telecoms companies have pooled their installation staff into a combined company, OpenReach. We can only book slots they tell us are available and the next one’s 28 December. And no, we don’t have any way to tell them we screwed up and want a faster service; or any way to slot you into a cancelled or moved appointment.

Long story short: quick conversations with 4 other telecoms providers informed me that 3 of them could fix a line faster than 28 December. I escalated this very quickly by a couple of levels to someone who had the authority to talk with OpenReach – something the lower-level customer service person said was ‘against OfCom regulations’ – and got my phone line, albeit nearly a week later. Plus compensation in the form of credit against future telecoms charges.

Internet has been another one. The service was to have been transferred from the old house to the new one, albeit with a delay because they use the telecoms line. In the interim I was supposed to have dialup access via the dongle I use anyway for my laptop when I’m away from home. And the new router (technically I could use any router but the contract entitles me to a free, preconfigured one) would be sent out the day I could give them the landline number.

First issue – it took about a week to make the dialup connection work, because it hadn’t been configured properly. And second issue, the router was apparently sent to a completely different address and returned as undeliverable. Which they didn’t pick up on; it was down to me to get the parcel tracking number and do the checking. Then when I called to tell them this, they just sent it out again with the same courier company rather than using a guaranteed overnight delivery. The online tracking said ‘delivery expected 19 December’. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t happen.

Some detective work resulted in the discoveries that (a) the courier company don’t actually deliver it to the door, but contract Royal Mail to do the ‘last mile’ (keeps costs down because the courier is simply delivering everything to one address per town) and (b) the ‘But it’s Christmas’ joker means that turnaround times for packages in the local Royal Mail sorting office are currently around five days.

In one sense, the delivery cost for overnight in itself is a substantial fraction of the wholesale cost of the router and they were supposed to be providing it for free anyway. But the router is just the bit of hardware I need to keep a service contract going that I’ve had since 1994 and through five different addresses, with no problems at any time previously. So in terms of the overall value to them of keeping my continued custom and keeping their good rep, I’d have thought it was worth it.

Again, I got a lot of fluff and excuses. And escalated the complaint until, by the time I phoned again yesterday evening, it turned out it had been the subject of a meeting between the head of customer services of the ISP and the head of customer services at the courier company.

Result: this morning, two routers turn up in the post.

The morals of these stories are, I think:

- if at all possible, do business with a local independent supplier whose business comes from word of mouth and relies on local customers. That doesn’t cover all scenarios because some services just aren’t supplied that way any more. But where you can get what you need from the company that’s based around the corner, you’ll probably get better service than you will from a conglomerate.

- large companies seem to have structured processes and procedures that aren’t good at dealing with problems and delays.

- customer service staff in large companies are often personable, good-mannered and try to please but they don’t have any authority to actually make anything happen outside the structured process. In particular, they don’t have the authority to deal with problems. They do, however, try to offer excuses that may or may not be what they’ve been trained to say, may or may not be the received wisdom in the customer service department, but basically are rubbish.

- at the first hint that you’re not getting what you want, escalate. Don’t, like I did, start by accepting that the first person you talk to in a large company can and will make something happen to solve your problem. Make sure a manager, the more senior the better, makes it happen for you.

- by the way, there’s no point in blowing a fuse at the front line customer service people. Like you, they’re only doing their job at the level of responsibility they’re given, and probably on a minimum wage. They don’t deserve to be ranted at. Just be insistent that, from the first contact onwards, you get through to someone whose paygrade gives them the authority to deal with your problem. If the managers wind up handling half the complaints that come in, that’s fine: they’ll just have to delegate authority so front-line staff can actually solve problems.

- at one level, in solving problems, you need a sense of reality. Dealing with delays in house purchases, phone lines, other connections, or pretty much anything else means that it will unavoidably be a day or two before the problem is resolved. In which case, the killer question is ‘what can you do to make life easier while I’m waiting?’. There may be workarounds; you may be entitled to compensation. In an ideal world you’d be entitled to an overnight stay at a spa hotel, free meals, free drinks and a full-body massage while your tropical fish are cared for and pampered by a local aquarium. Well, probably not. But ask the question anyway.

-strangely enough, the big company with the worst customer service record turned out to be the only one that did what they said they’d do, when they said they’d do it. I confess it was a surprise, and a pleasant one.

- finally, as an aside, what the hell is OpenReach for? The logic of it was to pool resources among telecoms companies so they could be more flexible and responsive to customer needs. Have they become an inflexible bureaucracy or is that just the way customer service people see them, because they don’t have a way to pick up the phone and sort out a problem?

So that’s the end of the rant. I’ll go and enjoy my wood-burning stove now. And maybe, following my other interest, write a horror story about customer service…

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