The Value Of Customer Service In An Emergency


Around 3:00pm Saturday afternoon we discovered that our washing machine had been leaking for about an hour. And by leaking I mean wide open. I immediately shut off the water valve to the washing machine while my wife was busily putting down every towel we could find on the floor (and she’s almost eight months pregnant). I run downstairs to the basement to shut off the main water valve, because I wasn’t sure where the leak was coming from yet, to discover that our basement was the primary recipient of the water. Luckily it’s an unfinished basement. Regardless there is almost a quarter inch of water covering about a third of the basement.

So now the real fun begins. What do we do first? My wife grabbed the phone book and began flipping through the Yellow Pages to find a plumber. After about three calls ending in voicemail, she finally was able to talk to a live person. After telling him about our problem as quickly as she could, he said “it’s an appliance issue, I can’t help you.” Lovely. Now here’s the real issue. Even though he was right, it was obvious that we were in emergency mode. Instead of telling us to call a water extraction company (which I didn’t even know existed until about 4:00pm on Saturday), he just left us hanging in the wind.

Our insurance agency wasn’t much better. Usually they are right on the ball but this time we talked to a bad phone rep. He was very laissez-faire about the entire situation – and he was speaking so softly I could barely make out what he was saying. I finally had to stop his phone-based paper work routine and ask if we were covered so that I could get the right people on site as quickly as possible. He said yes. I hung up.

Back to the Yellow Pages. Now I’m in the “water” section. Then it hits me like a ton of bricks. I’m going to pick a water extraction company to come in and save what they can of our valuables based on their ad!! I know nothing about these companies at all. Some ads are very flashy, some use cheap clipart, some are very well designed but nondescript, and most have no ad at all – they just have a listing and a phone number. So I do what probably 90% of people do in an emergency – call the company with the biggest ad on the page. Luckily they were very helpful. And even though they didn’t have a crew available until Monday morning, he gave me some advice on what to look for.

My next criteria was a company that advertised 24 hour availability (significantly less than 10% of the listings by the way). This is when I started to get angry. I called four different 24 hour companies before I was able to talk to a live human. The first firm to pick up the phone started asking me marketing questions (how did you hear about us, have you used us before, etc…). Wrong part of the sales process my friend. The next rep was terrible on the phone, but he said he had a crew available. So I said come on out. Fifteen minutes later he called back to tell me that no one was available until Sunday morning. I was shocked. When I questioned him on our earlier conversation, he simply said “I thought I could get someone”. Wow, talk about a promise to a customer. When you have a quarter inch of standing water in your basement, you do not have time for broken promises.

Oddly enough, as soon as I hung up the phone with him one of the other companies in which I left a message called back. I never expected that. But it turns out that the rep was simply away from his cell phone when I called. He was already in his truck back to their offices to pick up the necessary equipment and would be at my house within an hour. This company had the second largest ad in the section and is a national provider of cleaning services.

In the meantime, I was hunched over a wet/dry vac sucking up all of the standing water that I could. By the time they arrived, I had removed almost all of the water from the basement and our first floor was pretty much dry – except for a small section of carpet. Two guys show up, one introduces himself and mentions that he is a certified water removal expert. I’m feeling better already. They inspect the house for moisture, set up dryers and dehumidifiers and let me know that they will be back on Monday to check on the progress.

So enough of my weekend; time to wrap this up. If you provide emergency services you need to realize what your customers are going through when they call you. Even though you may deal with these situations all of the time, we do not. It is your responsibility to ensure that I understand what’s going on, how you can help, and how quickly you can help. And if you cannot provide the service I need, point me in the right direction. This is not the same as buying clothes at your favorite retailer. They have their own customer service challenges, but you need to be on an entirely different level. You need to understand our though process when we pick up the phone book. And typically I think advertising in the Yellow Pages is a waste of time. But it’s the first place I went to and I had nothing to evaluate your business on beside your ad. Your advertising needs to be professional, clean, and project an image that says “we’ll take care of you”. Color is better than black and white. It needs to be at least a quarter page to get my attention. If you can provide a few customer testimonials, even better. If you have an emergency off-hours phone number, please list it in your advertising. I don’t know how many companies made me write down another number to call because my washer broke on a Saturday instead of a weekday. It’s really frustrating to know that I could talk to a human immediately if this was during “normal business hours”. Unfortunately emergencies and accidents can’t be scheduled Monday through Friday.

There are only two companies I’ll ever call back after this incident. The first company because they offered sound advice even though they couldn’t be onsite – and they didn’t make me feel bad for wanting to call someone else who could be there quicker. And the company that called me back. Both of these companies understood what I was going through. They had big color ads with prominent phone numbers. Their phone representatives were the actual workers, not some answering service. They could help me immediately when we spoke; not just pass my information along.

Customer service is paramount – especially in an emergency. If you’re not easily recognized as competent, available, and dependable; I’m not sure how you’ve stayed in business this long. Enough of my ranting, I have boxes of stuff to salvage.

PS. I know that the web has the potential to take care of a lot of these problems. Ideally something like Craig’s List would be available to show providers with customer ratings, five stars for instance. It’s not unreasonable to think the web could even display crew availability in the future. I just don’t trust that the internet has all of the local information yet to make it a viable solution – not that the Yellow Pages are much better. They are outdated as soon as they’re published. But old habits are hard to break. I did get online to find a replacement part of our washing machine.

Nick Rice

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  1. Nick,

    Great post, sorry about the situation but it certainly gave you great material for one of the best article I have ever read on service.

  2. It’s amazing that a company that often deals with emergency situations doesnt, over time, become MORE efficient in their operations. Sometimes you just get the vibe that they are being put out of their way to be blessed with your business. How maddening is that?!

    Any service company that doesn’t evolve, with experience, is just plain lazy and doesn’t deserve to be in business. It’s crazy to think that even some of the big and “reputable” companies often operate in such a manner.

    Brad Williamson

  3. P.S. Good post Nick!

  4. Maria, I was just about to forward you my post here. I knew you would appreciate it. I love the blogosphere. It’s amazing that you found another article from me on the Two Maids blog – a great read by the way!

    On the water emergency front, we finally have everything dried out and are in the process of having our AC duct work replaced. Crossing my fingers and knocking on wood, everything seems to be going ok….

  5. Great article! Nothing secures business faster (for me anyway) than instantaneous assurance. I’ve gone with more expensive service providers on many occasions simply for the emergency availability factor. On the flipside, I know organizations with incredibly talented staff who simply refuse to answer emails in a timely fashion, and when you’re paying someone to watch your moneymaker, well, you better be available and accessible to address concerns! Good grief, Charlie Brown!

  6. Luke, you are absolutely right. One thing I should’ve mentioned in the post was the fact that price did not factor into this situation AT ALL. I didn’t even ask – as crazy as that may be. I know that not everyone will have the financial luxury to do so, but it’s not like we’re loaded. I was much more concerned about getting it taken care of as quickly as possible and I’ll find a way to pay for it. The longer I waited, the more I would’ve pay in the end. Great comment.