Why So Many Customers Are Getting the Runaround

Last Updated Jun 23, 2011 11:39 AM EDT

Everywhere you look, it seems someone's trying to pass the buck.

The City of San Francisco is playing pass the buck over trees. America is passing the buck on healthcare. Even NATO is trying to pass the buck in Libya.

But where does the buck stop?

I ask because I recently helped mediate Kathleen Pierz' case against Sears, which had sold her a new Whirlpool refrigerator from its Bloomfield Hills, Mich., outlet store.

The refrigerator didn't meet her expectations.

Only hours after technicians installed it, the kitchen appliance started to leak. Pierz found a large puddle of water "extending out past the refrigerator into my kitchen."

She adds,

I threw towels on the water and raced to the basement to turn off valve for the water to the refrigerator.

I found a puddle of water on the floor about 10 feet across, water running down the wall; three ceiling tiles broken, falling and hanging down with two more tiles with water stains.

Sears promised to not only fix the refrigerator that they delivered damaged, but also pay for all of the damage to my home.

That was in February. Since then, Sears repaired the refrigerator, as promised.

Pierz sent all the documentation Sears requested, but the company dragged its feet on paying for the damage, deferring her to â€" I'm not making this up â€" a Mexican valve manufacturer for a resolution.

I contacted Sears on her behalf, inquiring about the delay. It responded to her quickly, promising to get to the bottom of the issue. But instead of paying up, she received yet another letter from a claims management service in early June, asking her about the status.

Actually, they re-sent a letter from March. It said:

Please let us know if you have not received a call or letter concerning your claim.

If not, we will correspond with the third party again and request that they contact you concerning your claim as soon as possible.

If we do not hear from you within 14 days, we will assume that you have been contacted and that the business partner is handling your claim.

(Parenthetically, there's an unwritten rule among consumer advocates that we are not allowed to invoke Franz Kafka. I'm thinking of breaking it.)

Pierz sent a polite but firm response to the claims adjuster, saying that Sears had promised to fix the damage to her home. Not Whirlpool or some Mexican valve manufacturer â€" Sears.

Late yesterday, a Sears representative responded with an offer of $1,669, which covered the damage to her kitchen.

"At this point it makes me whole again on the damage," she told me.

But Pierz is frustrated. She had to wait almost six months for a resolution that should have taken days. Will she every buy another Whirlpool refrigerator from Sears? What do you think?

So, should Sears have passed this case along to a third party claims agency, as it did? Should it have bothered troubling her with claims forms from its insurance company and the valve manufacturer?

In a word: no.

Here's something companies absolutely fail to grasp when they're dealing with customer grievances. Customers don't care who cuts the check, does the repair job, or processes the paperwork.

They gave the company their money. The buck stops there.

This happens time and again, and it just drives an otherwise level-headed customer to the brink of insanity. Whether it's a travel agency that has to ask an airline for a refund (and forces a person to wait four months) or a PC manufacturer that transfers tech support calls to an outsourced call center, where the representatives just don't seem to care, customers are fed up with companies passing the buck.

I understand why companies outsource certain operations, like insurance claims and support calls. But customers don't draw a distinction, nor should they be bothered by the inner workings of corporate America.

Simply put, passing the buck is almost always bad for business.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: Mario Spann/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.