Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Fall of An American Icon

If there’s a poster child for what’s wrong with American business, it must be Eddie Lampert, the CEO of Sears Holding Company, based on my recent experience and Lampert’s own history as the head of the company. To review, I first contacted Sears to repair my washing machine 17 days ago. It took a week for the repairman to show up, and when he did he still couldn’t fix it because he needed to order a part. I paid for the part and a package from Sears arrived six days later, only it was the wrong part. Fortunately—I mistakenly thought—I had the foresight to open the package immediately and inform Sears of its error that Monday. I told them if they overnighted me the correct part I could still have it in time for the next appointment on Friday when the repairman was scheduled to return.

But on Thursday I received an automated call (because nothing soothes an aggrieved customer better than a robo-call) informing me I had to call Sears back to reschedule the appointment. Obviously, the part would not arrive on time and I’d have to readjust my own schedule (nothing says “You are a valued customer” like wasting two entire afternoons of your customer’s time). I dialed the number given to me by the robo-call and got a recording telling me this Sears phone number was no longer in service.

I called the Sears Home Repair phone number I had used in the past and was connected to a call center in the Philippines (because nothing says “We care about our customers” more than hiring people who don’t even live in the same country to speak to them). It was a difficult conversation because the heavy accent of the Filipino Sears representative made it hard to understand what he was saying. I would think corporate phone etiquette would include representatives who could enunciate clearly in English, but perhaps that was the whole point of hiring someone who couldn’t. He pulled up my record on the computer and told me what I had already guessed: they did not have the part yet. However he offered to schedule a new appointment for the following Wednesday.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You don’t know where the part is. You don’t know if it’s in transit, in your warehouse, or possibly even out of stock, and yet you want me to block off an entire afternoon on Wednesday to wait for the Sears repairman when you have no idea if the part will have arrived by then?”

I asked to speak to a supervisor. Naturally, I was placed on hold. Ten minutes later, I was speaking to a Filipino woman with an equally thick accent. For all I know, she was another rep sitting in the next cubicle. She had no idea when I might receive the part, either. She suggested I call back in two days. I explained I had already been waiting 17 days. That was when I called Eddie Lampert.

I assumed no matter how messed up a business may be, the executive at the top would be a capable businessman eager to set things right. But I didn’t get to speak to Eddie Lampert. I didn’t even get to speak to Eddie Lampert’s secretary. I got a recording. That’s right; the CEO of Sears, an iconic American company with $25 billion in annual revenue and $11 billion in assets, and whose personal compensation package runs between $4-and $6-million per year apparently can’t afford a receptionist. Maybe Eddie doesn’t get a lot of calls; there may not be many people who want to speak to him. One business article’s headline reads “Sears’ Edward Lampert Is the Most Hated CEO in America.”  Based on CEO ratings and employee satisfaction reviews from Glassdoor, 24/7 Wall St. found only 19 percent of Sears employees approved of Lampert. Sears’ shareholders probably aren’t too fond of Eddie either, since its stock price has plummeted 80 percent during his tenure. Gee, I wonder if that might be because my experience with Sears is not the exception but the rule. Forbes describes Sears as “bleeding cash”. Ironically, Eddie Lampert writes a blog about how to improve the ailing Sears business he’s running.

I called Sears Home Repair again. Sure enough, the call was routed to the Philippines again. A different woman told me the part was in stock and had been reordered for me the previous day. I asked why the part had only been reordered on Wednesday when I’d inform Sears of its error on Monday. “What did the Sears employee I spoke to do for 48 hours before logging onto her computer and ordering the part?” I asked. I guess she wasn’t in any hurry; she wasn’t the one with nearly three weeks of unwashed clothes accumulating. But at least I knew the part would now be on its way.

“When will I receive it?” I asked, naïvely assuming Sears might wish to overnight the part to make up for its error. She told me it would take at least seven days from the time the order was placed. I pointed out the previous Sears representative I had spoken with minutes earlier tried to make a new repair appointment for six days from now. Had I not called back, I would have wasted a second afternoon. “What’s the point in scheduling an appointment the day before the part arrives?” I asked.

She recognized the logical fallacy and said rather than make a new appointment I should call back when I received the part. The problem, of course, is that when I do call back a week later they’ll tell me it will be another seven-to-10 days before they can fit me in on their calendar. So I suggested she email me the tracking number of the package as soon as it became available. She said she couldn’t do that, and I’d have to call back over the next two days. Why? How am I supposed to know when they receive the tracking number? Once again, rather than offering customer service, the Sears representative wanted me to waste my time making a series of hit or miss phone calls over several days when it would’ve been much more logical for them to send one email when they received the tracking number. The message is clear: Sears does not value its customers’ time any more than it values its customers.

Tomorrow will be Day 18 without a working washing machine. I know from the above conversation my washing machine will not be repaired before Day 25 at the earliest. The repair saga may continue into the next month. Ironically, on the first day I contacted Sears the employee tried to sell me a Sears warranty to cover all of my appliances for $600 a year. If this is an example of what a Sears customer has to go through to get a single appliance repaired, I’m glad I didn’t purchase the Sears warranty for all of them.

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