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What a snow storm taught me about customer service

Much like a website, house maintenance is always an ongoing project. It's never going to be perfect, it's never going to be "done", and there's never a shortage of things you can do to make it better. Over the past couple of months, we've noticed two areas of our house that were going to need some attention:

  1. The humidity is really low (and leading to nose bleeds, cracked/dry/itchy skin, temperature irregularities throughout the house, etc). After struggling with small humidifiers we settled on the idea of getting a centrally-installed, whole-house humidifier put in.
  2. Our basement sewage system seemed like it needed cleaned out. Toilets flushed slowly, and the drain in the utility room began to get standing water in it (that rose and fell as we used any of the basement facilities).

Getting started

After putting these tasks off for a couple of months we finally decided it was time to get them checked off the list. So, a few weeks ago, I began the saga of finding decently-priced, reputable businesses to handle the work.

I wanted to tackle the sewer first, since that had the potential to be a big mess if the situation got much worse. Working off of a recommendation, I called the first plumber. A guy answered, took my info, and said he'd have someone call me back to discuss an estimate over the phone.

Never heard back from him.

While I was waiting for his call back, I did get one or two ballpark estimates over the phone from other local businesses. A couple of others wanted to come out to estimate the job, and I set up appointments for the following Wednesday.

Snowpocalypse 2011

As luck would have it, a blizzard settled in over Springfield on Tuesday, one day before the appointments. We got so much snow that the mall and many other businesses closed early that night and didn't open on time (or at all) on Wednesday. It was obvious our appointments would be cancelled, and I waited by the phone to get the call.

Only it never came. No word from either place. Didn't hear anything on Thursday, and by Friday we had decided that it didn't really matter if they did call, we weren't going to have someone with so little respect for their customers doing any work for us.

Moving on

On Monday, Melissa set up an appointment with one last place to see if we could get someone to look at it in person. Since we already had a few ballpark estimates over the phone we knew that the price should be about $150-200 to clean out the main sewer drain. We just wanted at least one plumber to actually see it in person and tell us for sure what the problem was.

Well, Friday morning rolls around, and 9am (the appointment time) comes and goes. Finally, at 10:45am, a rep from the company calls and says they've got a technician ready to come to our house. As we were running out of local plumbers, I reluctantly told her to go ahead and send him. She said he'd be there in 30 minutes. 

At 11:45am (1 hour later), the company vehicle finally rolled into our driveway. A tall, long haired man resembling Big Kenny greeted me at the front door. He was quite knowledgeable about his trade (as he should be, but judging by my experiences so far I have to say I wasn't expecting it) and immediately pinpointed what he thought the problem was: the sewage pump. He spent the next half hour running tests to prove his theory, and settled on this: the pump wasn't completely shot, but the float was sticking and the pump wasn't turning on as it should be, which resulted in the backup in the drain. It's no emergency, but probably needs to be replaced in the near future.

Now I had a new problem: I had several estimates, but only one for replacing the sewage pump. Also, although "Big Kenny" was pretty awesome, I wasn't thrilled with the service the company itself had provided. I had no doubts that he would be able to come back out and successfully complete the job, but I went ahead and called one last plumber to see if I could get them to take a look at it and give me their opinion on what was wrong.

My experience with this final company stood in stark contrast to the rest of this saga: they immediately diagnosed the problem over the phone (again, arriving at the conclusion of a bad sewage pump), gave me an estimate, and said they'd be out within the hour. A half-hour later they were here, verified the problem, and replaced the pump. Total time: less than and hour and a half from when I called them to when they finished the job and pulled out of my driveway.

The lesson

Being a small, freelance business, I completely understand the challenges that come with managing requests and responding to clients. But being on the client end of the relationship really opened my eyes to how important a simple phone call or e-mail can be. I would've gladly rescheduled any of the appointments to better accommodate any of the businesses' schedules, had they simply called me back. In the end, it was their loss. What they thought would be a simple $150 job ended up being a $600 pump replacement.

If you're from the Springfield area you might be wondering who the plumbers in this story were. It's not my intention to publicly condemn anyone for poor business practices, but I will tell you that Illini Septic & Sewer was the business we chose in the end.

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