When Customer Service Becomes Consumer Fraud

Every so often I focus on what seems, from personal experience, to represent “customer support” bordering on consumer fraud. Reasonable customer service is part and parcel of what one is purchasing from our increasingly small number of mammoth retail companies.

As those who read my Forbes columns know, I generally write about issues of general economics and personal finance. But every so often I focus on what seems, from personal experience, to represent “customer support” bordering on consumer fraud. I’m going to relate three recent decidedly unpleasant experiences with three major companies — AJ Madison, Anthropologie, and Apple AAPL +3.1%. Each company strikes me as deserving an undercover investigation by the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Protection Branch.

With AJ Madison, a major U.S. appliance retailer, my wife and I failed to do our homework. Had we gone to this site, full of 1 star reviews of the company’s customer support, we would have steered clear. AJ Madison is, I learned, very quick to answer their sales calls. But they put you on hold for hours when you call for help.

We needed support when their installation team carted off our old oven and left the new oven we’d purchased, inclusive of installation, uninstalled. This was our fault. We needed a different gas hookup, which was completed before 9 AM the very next morning. My wife and I then spent the next five days trying to get AJ Madison support on the phone to get the installers to return. Impossible. What about AM Trucking — the installers? Impossible. Finally, I called AJ Madison’s sales. Instant answer by a real person who connected me with a human voice, not their recording that repeats endlessly.

It took another five days to get the installers back. They arrived, donning no masks (we supplied them), and proceeded to explain that they didn’t know how to install the oven. They called their boss with whom I spoke. Their boss said his installers weren’t authorized to install the oven AJ that had sold us with installation. I then emailed the support person at AJ who said she’d find another company to do the installation. More days passed. Today, roughly two weeks with no oven, I received this email.

Hi Larry,

With our deepest apologies we’re going to have to refund you for the installation charges so you can arrange installation on your own. I hope this is satisfactory to you. Contact me with questions or concerns. Again, we apologize for the inconvenience this has caused.

Cheryl/Customer Service

I wrote Cheryl back asking her for the tenth time to have a supervisor call. Let me hereby ask the company President, Michael Gross, to call. Michael, Cheryl has my number. Don’t worry, Michael, I won’t ask you to provide services you’re selling, but not providing. We’ll find a competent installer. What I’d like to learn is how you intend to fix your customer service. I’ll happily post your answer here on Forbes.

Now onto our saga of the Tanja Trunk, which Anthropologie sold us. It looks terrific on their site, so we were willing to pay almost $1,000 for it. And when it arrived months ago, it looked great except for one problem. The lid is warped so it didn’t close properly. No problem, we’ll ask them to replace it. Weeks later the second trunk arrives. The shippers open it up next to their truck. Deep scratches. Sorry, let’s try again. Weeks later the third trunk arrives. It too is terribly scratched. Weeks later the fourth trunk arrives. Hurray, no scratches. But when the shippers open the lid, the hinges are hanging in the air — ripped out from the wood. Weeks later, the fifth trunk arrives. No scratches, hinges are fine, but the front-facing panel of the lid has come unglued and is sticking out a quarter of an inch. The shippers call their boss. The boss is aghast. “This is the fifth defective trunk they’ve sent you!” “You got it,” I say.

My new friend, of the last three trunks, at Anthropologie, Jessica, in customer support wrote:

Hello Laurence,

My sincerest apologies. I am at a loss as we both reviewed all of the photos that were sent and the item was intact and in 1st quality condition when it shipped out. I have forwarded the photos over to the production team as well as Ryder executives along with the photos of the item at the time of inspection. I will work with those teams to see what suggestions they have for resolution and getting a unit delivered to you in 1st quality. I sincerely apologize again and will be in touch ASAP.

Unlike AJ Madison, my wife and I are long-term customers of Anthropologie. But I have to ask. Can we be the only customer who’s been sold a defective version of this trunk? The probability of that is, as we say in economics, vanishingly small.

I asked Jessica two trunks ago to have her supervisor call. I guess they are too busy. Well, let me invite Tricia Smith, the company’s CEO, to call. Tricia, happy to hear how you are going to fix this problem — not for us, but for your company. You don’t want to end up with AJ’s online rap sheet.

Finally, there’s Apple. I buy lots of Apple products — for personal use and use by my software company. But in recent years, their quality control seems to have broken down. Here’s my story.

Three laptops ago, I had the Macbook Pro with the infamous sticky-key keyboard problem. It hit me twice and cost me twice as I hadn’t purchased Apple Care, stupidly believing that Apple wouldn’t sell something that hadn’t been thoroughly tested. I think Apple paid to fix the keyboard the third time it went into sticky-key mode. But, gee, they never offered to reimburse me for the first two very expensive fixes. But, hey, I love Apple.

Well after three failed keyboards, my under three-year old very pricey Macbook Pro developed a different problem. I’d be editing a doc and the cursor would spontaneously turn into a circling disk. I’d had it. I bought a new Macbook Pro, plus a new Iphone as my two-year old prior Iphone had become inaudible. When I called re the phone, customer support said it would probably wouldn’t pay me to fix it.

Fast forward 18 months. The screen on my new Macbook goes south. There’s no appointment available for weeks. So they sent me to an authorized repair shop a two-hour drive away. A week and two more hours of driving later, it’s fixed. Amen. But two weeks later, the computer crashes. Back to the same shop. “You need a new motherboard. And a new touch bar.” Both are on back order.

I call Apple. “How about just giving me a new machine?” “Can’t do that. Four things need to fail before we replace laptops. You only had three things fail.” “Oh — sorry I asked. Can’t you get the parts from your store and get me rolling?” “No, we can’t send parts from stores to authorized repair shops.” “Why not? Your store is only 3 miles away. I’ll pick up the part and take it to your authorized repair shop.” “Not policy.” “Oh, gee. My bad. Sorry I bothered you.”

Another ten days and two more hours of driving, I had my machine, back in “purrrfect” shape. A week later I have the same problem — the spinning cursor — that I had with my old machine. Hours of fighting with their customer support later, they agree to send a new machine. It arrives three weeks hence. I’m typing on it now holding my breath. Tim, as in Tim Cook, do call. You’ve got a problem if this is how you treat loyal, let alone new customers.

AJ Madison, Anthropologie, Apple, and all our increasingly small number of mammoth retail companies need federal government oversight. Reasonable customer service is part and parcel of what one is purchasing from these companies. If it’s explicitly or implicitly promised and not supplied, we’re talking consumer fraud — something the FTC is well-suited to investigate.

Read the original article on forbes.com