Thursday, November 21, 2013


Working for my father's small family business, I've occasionally had to remind myself "The customer is always right, even when he's completely wrong."

Others have joked, "Work would be awesome if it weren't for all the customers."

Jokes about customers aside, I love working with people. There's a lot of satisfaction in doing my work well, especially when the homeowner is watching me like a hawk. Customers call us with a specific need, and our job is meeting those needs as quickly as can be done without breaking the laws of Physics. When I get frustrated and mutter unkind things about customers, I have to take a step back and realize that I myself am a customer.

The amount of shopping I do could be described as "paltry". I don't shop very often, and when I DO need something, I look for it online.
College textbooks?
Computers, electronics, accessories?,
Work clothes? Duluth Trading Company.
Everything else possibly imaginable: Amazon.

Adult-sized footie pajamas?
In stock
Gluten free mac & cheese?
Would you like that by the pallet, or just packs of 12?

Sugar-free gummy bear laxatives?
We've got a 5-pound bag of these little intestinal rockets with your name on it, buddy.

Everything indeed. Lately, I've found myself drawn more and more to Amazon's website.

Amazon's motto is "We're Building Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company", which sounds like something nice and smarmy that any global enterprise would laser-engrave on their building. But Amazon actually backs that up. In fact, I had no idea it was their motto until I saw it in the email they sent me regarding my return.

Oh yeah, I need to back up a little bit.

I bought an iPhone 5c recently. Smartphones are nice, I guess. My wireless carrier shouts how customer-friendly they are in every advertisement and then exert every possible muscle to contradict that statement when you arrive at their store. I called in and asked if I could upgrade my phone on our family plan without making Mom come up and sign a bunch of papers. The helpful employee declared "Yes, that's fine. We'll have to notify her of some changes to the family plan, though." Sure, that's alright. I drive 20 miles to the store only to be told that I can't so much as BREATHE on a new phone, much less put a grubby finger on one until their policy updates get signed IN PERSON by the head of the account. Frustrated, I asked Mom if she'd come up and sign, which she did. She was upset about having to come out, but recalled all the hassles she suffered when Dad was the head of the account and she'd have to make him run out to sign things.

So I got my phone. The helpful staff tried to transfer my 300+ phone contacts and succeeded in transferring about 50 of them, in no particular order. The helpful staff told me something to the effect that "We just don't have the right equipment to work with the new iPhones, sorry." So I had to manually go through my old phone and transfer every number that didn't make it. It only took 12 hours over 2 days, but sakes alive, I got 'er done. (I think. I may be missing your number and ask who you are the next time you call me.) I thought smartphones were supposed to make my life easier!

I drop things frequently, so I set out to purchase a case for my new phone. I didn't even glance at the phone cases available at my wireless provider's store, knowing their markup was astronomical. I rushed home and bought one off Amazon.

Magpul is a company that was previously based in Colorado. They make one of the finest polymer AR-15 magazines in the world, called "PMAG's." Some of you may have no clue what I'm talking about.

This is a PMAG. The standard-capacity PMAG holds 30 rounds of ammunition. Because of the recent school shooting, the media has declared that this chunk of polycarbonate is the REAL heinous criminal, conspiring to harm all innocent human beings. Just look at it sitting there, plotting violence.

Colorado has recently decreed that 30 rounds in one device will be considered "high-capacity" and heretofore completely banned. This questionable process has caused Magpul, a fantastic company that employs 600 and brings in roughly $85 million yearly, to become orphans.

Magpul responded to Colorado's silliness by hosting a Free Magazine giveaway (since the SALE of their magazines were banned, but private possession was not) and offering a new 40-round magazine, just because they can. The 40-round magazine can be purchased where lawful, which excludes places with kangaroo courts like those found in Washington D.C., the State of Colorado, the State of California, the State of New York, and the State of Chicago. The company is currently planning to move the entire operation to a different state, with Texas, Montana, and Florida shouting "pick me, pick me!".

The founder, Richard Fitzpatrick, stated this: “It is heartbreaking to me, my employees, and their families, to think that we will be forced to leave, but if HB13-1224 passes, we will simply have no choice.”

Read more stuff about Magpul here.

Amidst all this, they recently decided to branch out product-wise and make iPhone cases. They come in all sorts of colors and the ribbed design is very similar to their ammunition magazines. I made sure to order their "light blue" case (see above picture) so I wouldn't become confused in the heat of Squirrel War III and try to jam my phone into my rifle.

While I waited for the case to arrive, I protected my phone like a mother hen. I carefully placed it out of harm's way. I went a WHOLE WEEK without incident.

My case arrived, and I tore it out of the packaging. No longer would my phone ride in my pocket naked and defenseless! I slapped my phone into it and, huh, wait. It doesn't quite fit. Did the rubberized shell shrink a little in the cold? I checked the packaging to be sure I bought the right one "FOR iPHONE 5!" it cheerfully shouted. That shouldn't be a problem, after all, all the new iPhones are the same size, right?

After an evening of use, I realized something wasn't quite right with the case. It didn't seat on the phone properly, and the buttons didn't line up with the insets. I hopped on to Google to sort out the conundrum.

"Will iPhone 5 cases fit the iPhone 5c?" I asked innocently.



"Nope." The internet responded.

Left: iPhone 5. Right, iPhone 5c. 
Notice the rounded corners on the 5c that prevent Case Interchangeability.

So I pulled the case off the phone and tossed it back into its packaging. "What's the big deal, I've survived a whole week without a scratch! I can do this."

The very next day, I dropped my phone. I was working on a condensate line and leaned over juuuust enough to let the smooth phone slide out of my shirt pocket and fall 3 feet to the concrete floor.

The phone survived the drop with a small indentation on one corner complete with a matching scuff-mark.

I survived a major heart attack without the use of defibrillator.

In a panic, I called up my wireless provider and asked if they had any available Otterbox phone cases in iPhone 5c. Forget a tiny rubber pad, I needed a bank vault PRONTO. They replied that their stock was limited, they only had one. Well I wasn't looking for four of them, so that suited me just fine. Late for a Lennox training seminar in Des Moines, I stopped in to purchase the overpriced case.

They didn't have it in stock.

I had just called TEN MINUTES AGO HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?! The employee that answers the calls at [Wireless Provider name redacted] frequently tells me things that are not true. Twice in one week is pretty frequent. I will allow for the off-chance that a customer snuck in and bought the case in the 10 minutes it took for me to get there, but there's no excuse for the whole account signature snafu I mentioned previously.

It dawned on me that I put my customers in similar situations. I realize that the iPhone 5c is not the only phone my wireless provider sells, nor is it the only phone they carry accessories for. My customers will often display shock and dismay when we tell them it will take 2-3 days to get that obscure part for that one odd furnace model. HOW COULD YOU NOT HAVE IT IN STOCK?? THINK OF THE CHILDREN.

So I left, carefully cradling my phone like Sudden Calamity could visit it at any moment. On the drive up to Des Moines, I was brooding about customer service. Meanwhile, I had the business phones transferred to me. A few customers called to set up a furnace inspection, another customer asked about some estimates he hasn't received yet, and one customer called three. times. to tell me that my father (Barry) had "promised to pick up a giant entertainment cabinet that's in my way and I desperately want to get rid of it and why didn't he pick it up on Monday after all it's in great shape and the new TV stand is coming tomorrow and the movers will take this old stand but I think they'll just destroy it and it's such a nice stand do you want the old 600-lb TV as well?"

Dad had been there earlier this week to check her furnace, and while he was there, she mentioned that she was looking to get rid of a cabinet and TV. Dad said something like "Sure, I could use that cabinet. I'll swing by and pick it up sometime." But what the customer heard was "I WILL MOVE HEAVEN AND EARTH TO PRESERVE YOUR FURNITURE. DON'T BLINK, I'LL BE RIGHT BACK."

I told her the current situation, "Ma'am, I apologize, but we're swamped with work. You know, because some people have no heat and their houses are getting cold. We'll try to pick it up as soon as we can." She responded like I had just yanked her favorite family heirloom rug from underneath her feet while she was standing on the edge of a cliff. "But, I just don't know what to do. This is such a predicament. This furniture is in my way, and my son said he'd come but he has some meetings and Barry said he could come tonight but he'd need help lifting. Can you come?" "No, I'm headed to Des Moines and I won't be back until 8pm or later." I replied, feeling defensive that I'd have to explain my travel plans with a customer. She huffed and said "My son has to go to Des Moines too! You...boys. Isn't there anyone else that can help Barry??" She said "boys" like her son and I were conspiring to develop a new cancer, a specific strain that makes life difficult for mothers and customers. She asked "Isn't there anyone else..." as if she was asking if the sinking ship had any remaining lifeboats.

So let me get this straight. Customer has a cabinet and 32"-screened CRT heavy-as-a-rhino TV. I know how heavy they are, because I own one. She wants them out of her way. The new TV is coming and the deliverymen have offered to take the TV and cabinet for her, but she suspects they will just throw them away. Customer wants to save the cabinet by giving it to us, but now there's a time crunch because the deliverymen are coming in the morning.

Graber Heating, Air Conditioning, and Furniture Saviors, Inc.

I went to the seminar and put that customer out of my mind. I learned all sorts of new things (the future of air conditioning is ridiculously cool), and then returned home. I logged in to Amazon and found the exact case my carrier supposedly had, but for $30 cheaper. Literally half the price. Before I purchased the case, I set about processing a return for the other one. If I got my $12 back for the original case, then I'd essentially have a $18 case that's built like Fort Knox. That is, if Amazon allows returns.

Do they ever! The returns process was the most hassle-free experience I've ever had. They processed my return (mentioning that it would take a day or two for the funds to show in my account), and then said, "There's no need to return the item. You may keep it." On top of that, they refunded me the shipping charge. THE SHIPPING CHARGE. So they sent me $18.18 for a case they paid to ship me, and they're letting me keep it.

Perhaps it's because I've been a customer for many years and I've spent hundreds of dollars purchasing items from them, but I doubt it.

Perhaps there's a catch in the fine print that I've missed, but I doubt that too.

Perhaps they knew I'd write nice things about them? Hmmm, doubtful.

Perhaps Amazon is at the forefront of customer-centered commerce, and they are stinkin' good at it.

With that squared away, I set out to buy the Otterbox. There were additional savings available to Amazon Prime users. One of my friends lets me use his Amazon Prime account occasionally, so I quickly borrowed his username and password, logged in, and bought the case. I have my bank information and shipping address already saved in my friend's Prime account, but I completely forgot to select it. Moments after purchasing, I realized I had used my friend's debit card AND MORE IMPORTANTLY it was going to ship to his house.

Amazon to the rescue, I was able to change the payment type and the shipping address after I bought the item. That's just downright handy.

So when customers frustrate me, I'll keep Amazon as my benchmark of customer service. If they can graciously put up with my erratic shopping, I can handle that one customer that disliked her thermostat and has us change it, only to decide she loved her old thermostat THE MOSTEST and wants it back.

Just so I don't leave you hanging, Dad took my brother Shane to pick up the furniture cabinet last night and totally saved that customer's day.

Occasionally, I get calls from motorists claiming that someone from my company is driving like a maniac, endangering lives. Upon receiving these calls, I'll call up Dad and tell him to slow down.

"Well the guy in front of me was yakking into his phone and wouldn't even go the speed limit!"
"Dad, he was on the phone with me, claiming you were tailgating him."

5 minutes ago, a woman called and roared at me about how dangerous my company is. "I thought companies were all safety-minded!" she shouted. She claimed that she was minding her own business, trying to slow down to turn left on a gravel road, when this horrendous Graber Heating van from the depths of Hades came shooting up behind her and passed her on the right-handed shoulder. It was close enough to cause her to fear for her safety. I thanked her for bringing this to my attention, and of course we don't want anyone to get hurt. She acknowledged my apology and announced she would never use our company. Good grief.  Dad tailgates people occasionally, but today he picked the most outspoken OSHA-promoting driver on the road. I need to remind Father what he once told me, "If you're not going to drive safely and responsibly, then take our company name and number off the vehicle."

After the woman hung up on me, I called Dad. "Oh, she was upset? Well she cut in front of me and then hit the brakes to make her left-hand turn, so I just passed her on the right." I have a few choice words that come to mind when drivers do that to me, so now I'm on Dad's side. But those drivers are potential customers, so that makes them potentially right.

Oh well, "Live and learn." "Another day, another dollar." "[Insert overused homily here]". But now I ask myself, "HWAR?" "How Would Amazon Respond?"

P.S. I have an out-of-the-box-for-one-day blue iPhone 5 case for sale, in case you were in the market. See what I did there?