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Out of Tune

Q: In April, I called Sears to schedule a yearly tune-up of our garden tractor. A week later, the repairman arrived but would not do the tune-up since his work order stated he was there to fix a “cooling problem.”  The trouble was that our tractor never had a cooling problem. Ten minutes later, he left without fixing anything—but still charged us $99.99 for the visit.

Since the failed appointment wasn’t our fault, I don’t think we should have to pay for it. However, repeated calls to Sears’ customer service brought no resolution.

Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated. We would like a refund or at least a credit toward the cost of a tune-up. Thank you. —David A. Burnet and Britta Hugoson-Burnet, Fawn Grove, Pa.

A: Sometimes it seems that consumers never get a break. If we mess up an appointment, we get charged. Now it seems, if the company botches the engagement, we still pay.

My initial calls to Sears’ customer service were as unproductive as yours.  Twice I left my name and number and was promised a call back by a supervisor. None came. On the third call, I unmasked myself as an AARP columnist and was immediately shuttled to media relations. (That’s not encouraging for the average customer, but at least I was getting somewhere).  I shared your tale of woe with Larry Costello of the Sears press office. Larry was able to reach into the machinery of the gargantuan retailer and come up with a refund of your $99.99.

However, I still didn’t have an answer to the underlying question. Why were you charged in the first place for the botched service call? My next communication gave me great hope for the future of customer relations.

Two days later, I received a call from Shirley Bicknell, who has to be one of the most capable customer service people I’ve run across in 20 years of consumer reporting. She was able to dig into their customer database to confirm that the report of a “cooling problem” was most likely a data entry error by the person who first took your call. She apologized for the error and to help compensate you for your trouble, will be sending you a $50 gift card for your next visit to Sears.

What made Bicknell exceptional was that rather than brushing off situations such as yours as “rare,” she took a keen interest in uncovering what had caused the error in the first place—with a goal to make sure that it didn’t happen again. In my experience, that kind of proactive customer service is rare.  I’m sure she has defused many difficult situations over the years and saved her company lots of money and put smiles back on the faces of many loyal customers.  (She is a great representative of her company; I hope they give her a raise.)

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