Memo to Sears: Work on the service team, will ya?

BIZ SEARS-AMAZON TB
With Sears selling its Kenmore appliances on Amazon.com, the company needs to have better service.

Two months deprived of your refrigerator and stuck in service-call hell can really get to a family.

How much takeout pizza and lukewarm beverages can one crew stand? How many “can you be home between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.?” days must be suffered, waiting for a repairman who then doesn’t show up or can’t complete the fridge fix?

At least Hope Horwitz had the good sense to precisely chronicle her stupefyingly drawn-out negotiations with various factions at Sears Holding Corp. to get her 4½-year-old Kenmore side-by-side refrigerator-freezer repaired under a $500, five-year Sears extended warranty.

It took a total of eight scheduled house calls, with four “hands-on” repair attempts required under her contract’s lemon law clause, before the unit was finally hauled away on Thursday. And even after four strikes, a Sears Home Services representative still wanted to send out one more repairman (for old times’ sake?) to verify that her freezer wasn’t freezing and her fridge not chillin’ the way that it should.

That’s when her detailed documentation was pushed in front of sympathetic corporate eyes who gave her a $2,000 credit, more than her original purchase price, and fast-tracked the swap-out of the fridge for the new one she deserved and already loves.

Given what rough waters Sears has been sailing lately, shutting down stores and selling off prized assets, it’s no wonder that its extended warranty contracts for repairs are being worked (and maybe dragged out) to the very last letter of the law. The good news? Warranty terms have actually improved of late. For Sears appliance purchases made after June 28, 2015, it’s now just three strikes and the product’s out, theoretically.

Also unavoidable is a sense that the long-vaunted Sears repair brigade is now understaffed and overwhelmed. And that makes me fret. How will they cope if that newly struck deal to sell and service Sears’ Kenmore brand appliances through Amazon is really successful?

A recently posted Sears document bragged of its 6,000 repair personnel handling almost 11 million service calls a year. A mission that also includes, I’ve heard, handling some Home Depot and Lowe’s repair calls, which probably pay better and so might get faster attention than an under-warranty visit would.

Let us presume those 6K people are on the job five days a week for 49 weeks a year (three off for vacation/holidays). To hit the 11 million visit mark, they’re each being asked to make 7.48 house calls a day. No wonder, as Horwitz discovered, the service guys who came to her door sometimes seemed weary, a couple times were downright snide, and were often outtathere as fast as their work boots could take them.

On the fifth visit and third repair (the two other visits had been just for “diagnostics”), the repair guy who replaced the compressor didn’t bother to refill the Freon, then got huffy when Hope asked, “Is it good now?” The fridge was actually five pounds short on refrigerant, as the next scheduled repair guy found after proper gauges were, belatedly, attached. And even that “sure fix” didn’t rouse this dud of a box. “The next morning, the ice cream was like pudding, and you could bend the frozen waffles,” said the ever-optimistic Hope.

And talk about bad attitude: On two of the eventually six house visits the Sears team made to the Horwitz house in Marlton, the repair person didn’t create a computer-linked ticket that recorded his visit — a wacky move if it meant he wouldn’t get credit for the service call, and a mean-spirited one if it meant that the repair attempt didn’t count toward Hope’s “four strikes and it’s out” guarantee for replacement. “When I called in after the third … and then the fourth repairs hadn’t fixed things, the customer rep insisted ‘but our records only show two … or three visits.’ ”

Worst of all, those far away call-center folks refused to fast-track follow-ups for the unresolved issue. One suggested a return 17 days later “when we’ll next be in your neighborhood.” Another time, after nobody showed up for a scheduled appointment, the first “make-good” offer was 27 days later.

Although Hope found some Sears customer support staffers almost comedically clueless (think Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic”), others were kind and sympathetic. A guy in warranty service and a local store manager offered her cash to replace melted/moldy groceries, to rent another big refrigerator (but where would she put it?), or to buy a compact fridge (with a freezer compartment big enough to hold a pound of meat and a box of popsicles).

A company rep even agreed to pay for an outside service company to make a house call. “But when the guy from Appliance Rescue in Deptford came in, he said I had ‘a dual-evaporator fridge with a complex internal system that breaks and then nothing can be done,’ ” Hope wrote in her notes. “He walked out without charging me.” Sadly, there’s been a lot of that added complexity, and shorter life-spans, going around in major appliances of late.

One last consumer hint: It was Hope’s cries for help on Sears’ Facebook home page that brought a local store manager to her aid. A public relations professional, she also found that tweeting complaints with the hashtag string @sears #nofridgeALLsummer #enoughisenough #sears drew a fast response from a @searscares team member. Just not much actual help.