Sears on my mind

I see in today's paper that Sears lost money in the third quarter:

Sears Holdings Corp. swung to a fiscal third-quarter loss on falling sales and margins, notably at namesake domestic stores, as the sales woes worsened the past two months and prompted the company to pull its earnings forecast for the year. . .

Many retailers have struggled for some time, but Sears's challenges go beyond the economic environment as the retailer's namesake and Kmart stores have been plagued by a reputation for shoddy customer service, high out-of-stock levels and poor presentation. Those factors in recent years have made it hard for the company to stem customer losses to more focused rivals.

Sears has also seen significant turnover in its executive ranks and is still looking for a replacement for its interim chief executive, W. Bruce Johnson.

This resonates particularly with me because today is a very special day.  Today is the day when a private company actually succeeded in giving me customer service as bad as that of a government agency.  And not just any government agency.  I'm talking about TSA-levels of sophistication*.  I used to think that only the government was able to achieve the soul-crushing indifference to human suffering with which Tamerlane's smiling hordes piled the skulls of their victims outside the gates of broken cities.  Surely it must have taken the kind of massive research program that only a government could afford to have utterly perfected that exact combination of witless and ironclad which could neatly, and perfectly, frustrate all normal human desire.  No, thought I, the market would not permit it.  If you want customers to keep enduring that kind of towering ineptitude, that kind of pointless proceduralism, that smugly bovine disinterest in their simplest rights, you have to have recourse to violence.  Otherwise, if you can't shoot them, they'll just up and walk away.

As we round the corner into my second month of dealing with Sears customer service, I can only conclude that the company has some secret strategy.  Either it is refocusing on the presumably profitable "retired masochist" segment.  Or they are waiting for the guns to arm their staff to work their way through the company's byzantine parts ordering system.  Perhaps both.  I just don't know.

I invite you to guess how many days I have now spent at home waiting for the man from Sears customer service to come fix my washer.  Answer below the fold, for anyone who is willing to wade into yet another rant about the appalling state of American corporate relations.

The answer, my little chickadees, is "eight".  But I am accepting nine.  Or ten.  Thats' because I lost count.  I have waited at home for Sears for so many days that I actually cannot remember how many times I have pined out the window for the heroic, nay, mythic figure, who never materialized.

People with a mechanical background may well be surprised at this figure.  Eight trips is a lot to fix one problem with a washing machine, which after all, does not have so very many moving parts.  Even allowing for an initial service call and one bout with the wrong parts, surely it should be fixed by now?  What sort of mechanics is Sears hiring these days?

This is far too hard on them.  Of those eight scheduled calls, I have only seen a technician three times, for a total of perhaps twenty minutes.  The other five or more were simply days when I waited at home for a Sears repairman who didn't come.

Once could be forgiven; accidents do happen.  Twice is embarassing.  But somewhere around the fifth time, you begin to sense a trend.

The first time, the Sears chap ran so late that I had to leave.  Apparently, Sears regards scheduling appointments for an 8am-12pm window as a sort of empty formality, like telling your Great Aunt you're glad to see her.  I have now scheduled, as I believe I just mentioned, at least eight appointments with Sears.  I have not once had the glad surprise of having a technician show up during that window.  Indeed, I started to believe that my apartment had been stealthily relocated to one of those tropical climes where showing up sooner than two hours after the scheduled time is regarded as gauche.  The closest any Sears technician has been able to get to this much vaunted window is the bonny chap who actually did show up at 2:30 for his 8-12 appointment.

That accounts for two or three of the missed calls:  I had unwisely scheduled other events within six hours of the time Sears quoted me, and was forced to leave my apartment.  Now I know to clear at least one day on either side.   And I no longer watch television and work, as an amateur does.  If you have CSPAN on, you might not hear the phone ring.  And if you miss the repairman's call, he will cancel your appointment.  That accounts for another few days of my life.  I now carry my cell phone into the bathroom.

But do not think that just because you have called several times to confirm, taken a week's vacation, and planted yourself firmly in the living room with some very quiet knitting and the phone on loud, you will be able to just have some repairman come and fix your washing machine.  On the second visit, a repairman inspected the machine and ordered a part.  On the fifth visit, another repairman replaced it.  The machine made if through two loads before halting in the middle of the rinse cycle with no warning but a burning smell.  I called Sears that night and scheduled another appointment for two days later.  Gamely, I chose a 1-5 window and cleared my evening calendar.  At four, having heard nothing from the technician, I called Sears customer service to inquire as to whether he was still coming.  The nice woman in what sounded like Guatamala promised to message him right away and have him call me.  I agreed and hung up the phone.

But this was visit six.  And by visit six, I knew that inquiries about late repairmen were always met with promises to message him, and have him call you, and that this never, ever actually resulted in the repairman calling.  I had come to believe that this was just something that the call center people said to pacify you, like telling an irate two year old that you'll take them to Disneyland.  So I called them every ten minutes until five, receiving each time the same placatory promise.  At 5:05 a horrified call center operator in what sounded like India informed me that the technician had cancelled my appointment much earlier in the day, on the grounds that it was a "duplicate".  Apparently, it had not occurred to him that his very own sterling work might have broken down.

Visit seven did result in an actual visit, albeit a week later, since I had to go to New York (and to spend about $100 on laundry that had not been done in the past month and a half).  Of course, it almost didn't, because I had been forced, by necessity, to schedule an 8-12 on a day when I had a 4:00 doctor's appointment.  The technician called at perhaps 2:00 to inform me that he was running somewhat late.  I went . . . well, the only word that really does it justice is "berserk".  He rearranged his appointments, showed up half an hour later, and let me out just in time to dash down to George Washington Hospital.

That visit, of course, resulted in ordering yet another part.  Which was supposed to be installed today.  You can guess where this is going, can't you?  My cell phone glitched when he called.  I called him back immediately to tell him I was home.  He called back two minutes after that.  Before I could get to the phone, he left me a message indicating that despite the message I'd left not two minutes earlier, he couldn't confirm that I was there, and was therefore cancelling the call.

Well, it was only 12:40.  (As predicted, Sears had once again not made its window).  Perhaps he could be rerouted.  No, said the computer operator; once he had cancelled the call, it was not possible to put me back in his queue.  Or anyone else's queue.  But as a very special favor, they would let me stay home from work again tomorrow and wait.

Now, at this point, I have no furniture, so waiting is not very comfortable, even though I can work.  After yelling quite a bit, and pointing out that after eight attempts and five fails it behooved them to try a little harder, I was redirected to a supervisor.  After putting me on hold for half an hour, she reported that it was not possible to get through to dispatch.  This is not the first time I've heard that excuse, either.  Apparently, dispatch consists of one man with prostate problems located a very long hallway away from the nearest bathroom.

I gave up.  My landlord will have to deal with this.  But this experience was so extraordinary that I had to blog it.  The amazing thing was not the serial screw ups.  The amazing thing was that Sears has set up its service program so that, first, you have to wait at home on a work day; second, the technicians, probably because they are overbooked, are actively looking for any excuse at all to cancel their service visits; and third, the people who take your call cannot in any way expedite your service after you have been left sitting at home for the sixth time.  On the contrary, the people I talked to after today's visit were every bit as bored by my stupid complaints as the ones I encountered when scheduling my very first Sears Service No-Show.

I understand why computer companies work this way; most of them don't expect much in the way of repeat business.  But Sears isn't selling a cheap commodity with razor thin margins that can be fedexed to tech support or thrown away.  It's selling very big ticket items with 20 year potential lifespans, and also, purchases for which no good substitute is available--your mother probably cannot let you borrow an extra refrigerator.  The quality of the repair service is actually something upon which people base their purchase decisions.

Obviously, they have lost a customer in me.  Though I have reluctantly agreed that if my car breaks down in a remote northern town where Sears is the only repair vendor, they can fix it, they'll be holding ice festivals in Beelzebub's back garden before I will voluntarily purchase so much as a $1.59 box of nails from them.  I am also making sure to tell as many of my loved ones as possible so that they do not make the mistake of lashing themselves to a company that thinks a good way to save money is to use customer vacation days to backstop overbooking.  And, of course, since I love all of my readers, I made sure to tell you.

The best part in all of this is that I wanted to offer Sears an opportunity to respond, to explain how this had happened and why my experience was sadly unique. (It isn't, but what else are they going to say?)  So I called their press office.  Sears is the only company I have ever heard of that has its media relations people on a voicemail tree--Press 1 if you want to talk about new products, and so forth.  Most companies rightly believe that if you are trying to convince the world that yours is a good and competent company, the last thing you want to do is send the reporters who write about you through 20 minutes of transfers to get them to the right person.  They pay some 22 year old straight out of college $25K to tell you to whom you should speak.  Sears may find it hard to believe, but in the long run, it's a savings not to leave reporters with a vague impression that you are both incompetent, and do not really care what people think.

There was no option to press if you wanted to ask how they had come to design a customer service program with seemingly only one purpose:  to thwart.  I tried to bypass the tree, but the electronic voice informed me, somehow managing to sound annoyed, that I was calling outside of business hours.  This seemed odd, given that it was about 3:00 in the afternoon.  But on further reflection, this made perfect sense.  How many times has one heard a company say that customer service is not an afterthought, but part of a holistic whole?  (Well, plenty . . . if you're a business journalist).

Eventually, I chose option three, "talk about other products and services", which seemed the closest to the questions I wanted to ask.  This put me through instantly to . . . the voicemail of Larry.  The message informed me that Larry is out in the field on Friday, and cannot be reached at this number.  I am pleased, of course, to know that Larry has the opportunity to get out from behind the desk every once in a while and see Sears operations firsthand.  But I am slightly concerned that it is Tuesday and he is still not back.  I am afraid he may not be coming back.  I am afraid that while he was in the field, some errant Sears employee mistook him for a customer.

So I'm afraid that Sears was, as we say in the trade, "unavailable for comment".  There's a 50% chance that in the next few weeks someone at Sears will discover this post and send me an email explaining just why their customer service was so horrifying.  If they do, I'll post it as a follow up.  Otherwise, that's all she wrote.

Except this:  I actually feel sorry for Sears management.  When your company hits a slump, there are a lot of ways to cut corners, almost all of them bad.  Once you've fired some management layers, you're still stuck witha  lot of real estate, and a lot of store employees.  Do you lay some off, keeping the stores dirtier and less well stocked?  Do you skimp on the quality of your goods? How about pissing off big real estate developers by breaking leases at major malls?  Customer service is a tempting target; it's a cost center, not a profit center.

And if you're just in a temporary slump, it's probably a good target; you can save more money than you lose in customers, even future revenue streams.  Unfortunately, if the slump continues, it's lethal.  I suppose it's conceivably possible that in twenty years, if Sears has consistently been touted for its outstanding customer service, I might buy something from them again, but it's not exactly likely--and now they need to provide substantially BETTER service than their competitors to win me back.  Even computer companies have had to up the quality of their outsourcing, because customers were starting to make this a major factor in their purchasing decisions.

GM made similar sorts of decisions.  Labor costs were strangling the company, but instead of going to the mat with the unions, or finding some innovative way to make a better car, they cut costs on inputs.  That's why American cars have a reputation for crappy quality; they used cheaper parts and materials and gave the surplus to the unions, so that a $24,000 Buick was, even before you talk about styling or features, going to be an objectively worse car than a $24,000 Toyota.

Management had terrible choices to make.  It's all very well to talk about finding "innovative ways to make a better car", but what that ultimately means is "finding a way to make cars with fewer people", which was exactly what Gettlefinger et. al. were trying to prevent.  They were hamstrung by state legislatures from finding innovative ways to distribute a better car, and they couldn't even get very far on purchasing, because there was the UAW at their parts suppliers, resisting any price pressure that threatened their jobs or wages.

Management took the easy short term path of cutting corners rather than take ugly and radical action that would have resulted in a strike and a major one-time loss.  And now they want $34 billion for a do-over.  I don't want to give them one. And I'm sure as hell not planning to give Sears another opportunity to cost me 8 work days, nearly $200 in laundry charges, and my temper.