Sunday, September 12, 2010

Customer Disservice

I am a frustrated consumer.

I have lived in my home for three and a half years and every single summer have had troubles with my air conditioner. My house is currently 11 years old. It's also the first time I've purchased a home, so this whole experience has been all about learning.

First lesson: the home warranty.

When I was going through the buying process, I was encouraged to get this home warranty thing. The sellers paid the first year and I have paid American Home Shield each year since. I have to say their call takers are always nice and sympathetic, but they can't get their contractors to respond right away. I usually get next-day service, which wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to sweat it out for a night. If you've never had to do that (camping doesn't count), I have to say it is the worst night's sleep you could ever get.

Now, each and every summer I have had multiple service calls for the unit (it's a heat pump - sounds silly to have something with the word "heat" in the title in South Texas, but I have since learned it's cheaper than the traditional system and builders like to save a buck). They've added freon, changed thermostats, changed out parts. Each repairman has said, "The unit really needs to be replaced." I wrote about this my first summer in the house.

And here's where I'm stuck.

I am at the warranty company's mercy. If the unit can be fixed, it will be. But there seems to be no sense of urgency at this warranty company to replace a unit - no matter how many times it breaks down. I'm no HVAC expert, but here's how I compare the situation: last year, when I was not feeling well, not eating regularly and had convinced myself that at worst I had stomach cancer, I went to two doctors before getting x-rays, blood tests and a nuclear scan to learn my gall bladder was the problem. The surgeon said I could put off surgery, but at some point it would burst - a painful thing which would require emergency surgery. I chose to have the surgery sooner rather than wait for the worst case scenario. So why is it that I have dealt with the following problems on a regular basis in my home?
Inside Temperature
Frozen Compressor
I have developed this anxiety every time I open my door. Is it warm? Check the thermostat. OK. It's me. When I wake up and feel hot, I wonder if I'm running a fever. A check of the thermostat will confirm if it's me or the house. I have pets. They pant and hardly move to try to cool off when the house is like an oven. Leaving for work is terrifying to me - I cannot fathom sealing up my house and leaving them to cook while I enjoy the cool air at work. I couldn't concentrate the last time I had to do that. I am afraid I will return to dead pets. Even though I am annoyed by them every now and then, I love them like they're my children. I want them to be happy and comfortable. It's hard for me to do that when I am pissed off and overheated.

I have let the journalist in me take over. I have seen the viewer complaints about this company (and others in the same business). I know how they treat people. They push everything back on the consumer. Don't believe me? A quick Google search turned up more than a quarter of a million complaints about this company alone. I know enough about phone service companies to realize the people taking the calls are not in the same building - and rarely in the same state or even country - as the people who make the actual decisions. I decided I wanted to be heard. I searched for the board of directors or anyone in a position of authority. I wanted no special treatment. I just wanted to make sure someone in a position of authority knew how the company was treating its customers - and that I am not one to sit back and take it. I didn't find those people. However, I did find their media team. I emailed every one of them my complaint. I know that they actually read messages (and had grown tired of the form email response from each online complaint I filed). I didn't hear back from them, but I did get the ear of an executive assistant for one of the higher-ups.

My request of her was simple: is this company willing to fix or replace this unit or not? If the answer is no, then I don't see the need to continue paying them each year. In hindsight, I would have been better off saving my money to buy a new unit on my own than have this constant anxiety. But I am truly hoping that this company can recognize that I have an old unit that needs replacing - not just because I have complained to the right people but because it's the right thing to do. I will continue to be a customer if I can get this resolved. I will sing their praises here and anywhere else people will listen. Otherwise, I have no choice but to strike out on my own. It will cost about $6,000 (donations, anyone?), but would be worth the peace of mind to know that my little family will not be put at risk in this God-awful heat that consumes South Texas for about nine months out of the year.

My problems aren't unique to American Home Shield. It's also not my first time calling out a company on my blog. I have previously written about my horrible customer service experience with Bank of America. This is my rally cry to consumers: you can be mad as hell about something, but you have to take action! Complaining about it doesn't make you feel any better if there's no result! If that means cutting ties with a company, so be it. But never EVER believe that a company is looking out for your best interest. That company is looking out for its bottom line. You can put a dent in that by not doing business - and spreading the word about good and bad experiences - with people who will listen.
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