When does terrible customer support turn into consumer fraud subject to FTC review?


Every now and then I focus on what in my personal experience seems to represent “customer support” bordering on consumer fraud. Reasonable customer service is an integral part of what we buy from our ever smaller number of gigantic retail companies.


As those who read my Forbes columns know, I usually write about general economics and personal finance issues. But every now and then I focus on what seems, in my personal experience, to represent “customer support” bordering on consumer fraud. I am going to relate three recent decidedly unpleasant experiences with three large companies – AJ Madison, Anthropologie and Apple.

AAPL
. Every business seems to me to deserve a secret investigation by the Consumer Protection Branch of the Federal Trade Commission.

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

We needed help when their installation team took away our old oven and left the new oven we bought, including the installation, uninstalled. It was our fault. We needed another gas connection, which was done before 9am the next morning. My wife and I then spent the next five days trying to get AJ Madison’s phone support to get the installers feedback. Impossible. What about AM Trucking – the installers? Impossible. Finally, I called AJ Madison sales. Instant response from a real person connecting me with a human voice, not their endlessly repeating recording.

It took another five days to get the installers back. They arrived without wearing masks (we provided them) and explained that they didn’t know how to set up the oven. They called their boss who I spoke with. Their boss said his installers weren’t allowed to install the AJ oven that we sold with installation. I then emailed AJ’s support person who told me they would find another company to do the installation. Other days passed. Today, about two weeks without an oven, I received this email.

Hi Larry,

With our sincere apologies, we will have to reimburse you for the installation costs so that you can arrange the installation yourself. Hope you are satisfied with it. Contact me with any questions or concerns. Once again, we apologize for the inconvenience caused.

Cheryl / Customer Service

I answered Cheryl to ask her for the tenth time to have a supervisor call. Let me hereby ask the president of the company, Michael Gross, to give you a call. Michael, Cheryl has my number. Don’t worry, Michael, I won’t ask you to provide services that you sell, but not to provide. We will find a competent installer. What I would like to know is how you plan to handle your customer service. I’ll gladly post your answer here on Forbes.

Now let’s move on to our saga of Tanja trunk, which Anthropologie sold to us. It looks great on their site, so we were willing to pay almost $ 1000 for it. And when it arrived months ago, it looked good other than a glitch. The cover is warped so it will not close properly. No problem, we’ll ask them to replace it. Weeks later, the second trunk arrives. The loaders open it next to their truck. Deep scratches. Sorry, let’s try again. Weeks later, the third trunk arrives. He is also terribly striped. Weeks later, the fourth trunk arrives. Hooray, no scratches. But when the shippers open the lid, the hinges are suspended in the air – torn from the wood. Weeks later, the fifth trunk arrives. No scratches, the hinges are fine, but the front cover panel has peeled off and protrudes a quarter of an inch. Senders call their boss. The boss is aghast. “This is the fifth defective trunk they are sending you!” “You got it,” I said.

My new friend, from the last three trunks, at Anthropologie, Jessica, from customer service wrote:

Hello Laurence,

My sincere apologies. I’m lost as we both reviewed all of the photos that were sent and the item was intact and in prime condition when shipped. I forwarded the photos to the production team as well as Ryder executives along with the photos of the item at the time of inspection. I will be working with these teams to see what suggestions they have for solving and getting a 1st quality unit. I apologize once again and will get back to you as soon as possible.

Unlike AJ Madison, my wife and I are long-time clients of Anthropology. But I have to ask. Could we be the only customer who sold a faulty version of this trunk? The likelihood of this happening is, as they say in economics, extremely low.

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

Finally, there is Apple. I buy a lot of Apple products – for personal use and for my software publisher. But in recent years, their quality control seems to have collapsed. Here is my story.

Three laptops ago, I had the Macbook Pro with the infamous sticky keyboard issue. It hit me twice and cost me twice as I hadn’t bought Apple Care, foolishly believing 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, damn it, they never offered to reimburse me for the first two really expensive patches. But hey, I love Apple.

Well, after three failed keyboards my very expensive Macbook Pro under three years old developed a different problem. I would edit a document and the cursor would spontaneously turn into a spinning disc. I had it. I bought a new Macbook Pro, as well as a new iPhone, because my previous two-year-old iPhone had become inaudible. When I called on the phone, customer service told me they probably wouldn’t pay me to fix it.

Fast forward 18 months. My new Macbook’s screen is facing south. There are no appointments available for weeks. So they sent me to an authorized repair shop two hours away. A week and two more hours of driving later, it’s settled. Amen. But two weeks later, the computer crashes. Return to the same store. “You need a new motherboard. And a new touch bar.” Both are out of stock.

I call Apple. “How about you give me a new machine?” “I can’t do this. Four things must fail before replacing laptops. You only had three things that fail.” “Oh – sorry I asked. Can’t you get the parts from your store and get me rolling? “No, we cannot send parts from stores to authorized repair shops.” ” Why not ? Your store is only 5 km away. I collect the part and take it to your authorized repair shop. “No policy.” “Oh, gee. My bad. Sorry to bother you.”

Ten more days and two more hours of driving, I found my machine in perfect condition. A week later I have the same problem – the rotary slider – that I had with my old machine. Hours of brawl with their customer support later, they agree to send in a new machine. He’s coming in three weeks. I hit it now, holding my breath. Tim, as in Tim Cook, calls. You have a problem if this is how you treat loyal customers, let alone new customers.

AJ Madison, Anthropologie, Apple, and all of our ever smaller number of gigantic retail companies need federal government oversight. Reasonable customer service is an integral part of what one buys from these companies. If it is explicitly or impliedly promised and not provided, we are talking about consumer fraud – something the FTC is in a good position to investigate.


Joseph P. Harris