Yes, this is a vent. It is also the tale of an experience that I suspect many people will go through themselves at some point, so it's always a good thing to be forewarned and forearmed. It's long, but so detailed because I want to be as objective as possible and completely fair in the telling.
A couple months ago, after my father passed away, I shipped some furniture back from Chicago across country to my home. It wasn't what one would traditionally think of as antique, but at 50 years ago and from Europe, it was not off-the-rack. And it certainly has family meaning.
When it finally arrived, five pieces were damaged. Some of the damage minor, most more than that, and one chair was, to put it bluntly, demolished. I remember one of the movers starting to unpack the chair, scrunching up his face and asking, "Did you ship it this way??" Er, no, I said.
As you might imagine, I was not a happy camper. That's the polite term. Hey, five pieces of family furniture had been damaged, some of it badly. I filed a claim with the company, United Van Lines, through one of their local subsidiaries, Hollander Moving. And from our first communication, it seemed like it would be a less than ideal experience ahead.
The problem was that they recommended one particular furniture repairman. My initial concern was that someone like that had a first loyalty to the moving company, making sure their price was low enough to get repeat business, rather than having their interest being with the client and repair. (Indeed, the claims adjuster noted how good the fellow's prices were. That was wonderful to know -- for the company. It was of little concern to me.) The other problem was that I searched everywhere online and could find zero customer reviews for him. Not on Yelp, not on Angie's list, not even on his own website. None.
The claims adjuster said not to worry, people only post negative reviews anyway. Actually...no, that's not even remotely true, I explained, from my 18 years writing about technology and the Internet. And from reading websites. And from doing product searches for years. And from reading comments on my own Amazon pages for my books, full of praise (happily). The claims adjuster also said how impressive it was that the vendor listed companies on his personal site that he did business with over 30 years. Actually...no, I said, there were only six listed. And as good as the names were -- they were just names. No indication of if the work was done 25 years ago, or if the client liked the work and gave repeat business. Or used the person once, was unhappy and stopped. Just names, a list. And only six in 30 years.
Still, I agreed to let him come and do an estimate. He seemed knowledgeable, noted how bad the damage was and thought he could fix it all. I still wanted some customer comments though -- as I would for any service I used, especially of this importance -- and asked if he could send any testimonials he had in his files. Surely he had a lot over 30 years. He said he would.
Later, when I traded emails with the claims adjuster, she said she'd spoken with the vendor, and he wasn't going to be sending me any of the "private information" I was asking for. Say what?? I didn't ask for any "private information." I wasn't even asking for any critical comments. I asked him to send me testimonials (of his own choosing) which he had in in files, which most certainly would only be positive. And he wouldn't send anything?? And claimed I was asking for "private information?" Perhaps he thought I wanted to call his clients -- I wasn't, though that's hardly unheard of. He could have even blocked out the names, for all I cared. I only wanted a paragraph from a happy customer saying how great he was.
I had another option. I could track down a furniture repairman on my own. I would have to submit an invoice, and United/Hollander would pay whatever they chose to cover. You took your chance that they would cover everything. I suspected that the vendor they used was good, maybe even very good. Even though he likely got United Hollander's repeat business because of good prices, if he generated a lot of complaints they probably wouldn't have kept using him. And the before/after photos he put on his website looked good. Certainly they were his best samples, but I still felt he was probably fine.
But -- I was still bothered by him having zero customer comments online, and him being unwilling to send any testimonials from 30 years of work. And I especially was bothered by having the company that damaged five pieces of furniture say "Trust us" and try to force a repairman of their choice on me. He might be wonderful. I didn't know, and they had not remotely earned my trust. Their damage is why I was looking for a repairman in the first place.
I checked out a few places online from various sources, and particularly loved what I read about the Rene Guzman Studio, which had one of the highest A-ratings on Angie's List from over 100 reviews. (Gee, apparently people do leave comments of praise online. Go figure...) My concern was that because the quality of his work was so high, his prices be, as well. But it turned out to be very fair, much less than I thought. I passed along his estimate to the United/Hollander claims adjuster.
In fact she knew of Rene Guzman, which I can only attribute to his reputation for such good work. Alas, the amount she offered to pay for the claim was an amount about $450 less than his estimate. (Keep in mind that there was a lot of work to do, so the repair was expensive, even for the person they themselves recommended. Therefore, this difference in actual cost and offered settlement was not great, though it would have been out of my own pocket, for damage they caused.)
A slight, but related digression.
During this process, I received a form letter from Hollander asking about my experience with the move. But it was unlike any such customer service letter I've ever received. All it asked for -- literally, the only thing -- was a push to tell them how incredibly great they were. And no, I am not exaggerating. One typical paragraph read: "So, if we have met your expectations and if we deserve your trust, please do us this one kindness: Just Say Yes by clicking the following link YES in your e-mail now or email us at Yes@HollanderMoving.com." Now, of course, it's fine to ask for praise, as aggressive as that drive for a YES was -- the problem was...there was no "NO" link in the email. Only requests for praise, even subtly-guilting you by making it personal, like, "If you would like to mention any of our Hollander staff members by name that went beyond the call, we would love to hear that from you, too!" Nothing anywhere about wanting to hear of any problems. Not one word. (The closest the letter came to not asking for raves and backslaps was when the last paragraph noted I was free to send "any feedback.") As you might imagine, I wrote back to explain that my move was not as gloriously positive as their letter was soliciting. The point here is how telling it is that this was hardly a way to get an honest, full-rounded reaction about the customer experience.
Back to our tale.
I decided to go with the highly-rated repairman I had found, Rene Guzman Studios. His work was backed by significant, objective letters of experiences, and he was a pleasure to deal with. I knew it would be an uphill battle to get United/Hollander to pay the $450 difference, but I made my case to the claims adjuster why their initial refusal was such a shortsighted decision, and hoped she'd reconsider for the reasons I gave. I also wrote a letter to the woman at Hollander who had set up the move and had said initially how distraught she was at all the damage and would help out.
To condense what took place over the next couple weeks, the short version of what I expressed over several exchanges was --
Though all my emails had been pointed but very polite, I said she must not take the politeness as something to dismiss and must understand how truly angry I was that five pieces of family furniture had been damaged.
I also thought it was inappropriate for them to rely on a single estimate from a vendor whose best-interest was to keep his prices low as a "favored nation" to get repeat business from the moving company, and not have United/Hollander provide other vendors for me to consider for comparison.
And though all the furniture could ultimately be repaired, even their own chosen-repairman asked if I wanted that demolished chair (and a couple other items) to be fully-replaced. It was in that bad shape. And had I chosen to replace it, the cost for that one item alone would have far-exceeded the $450 difference.
But mostly...I wrote that for such a small difference -- given how much I paid in the first place to move all the furniture halfway across the country, and how much was being approved to repair some of it -- it would seem to me that the company would WANT to make good, would WANT to make the client happy from a very bad experience that they themselves caused. And it was incredibly shortsighted not to do that. Indeed, as I explained: I was very upset at this old family furniture being damaged. Allowing me to select who I personally wanted to repair it at least would give me some solace. And if it turned out there’s a problem with the repair…the problem would be on me, because I selected who to do the repair. On the other hand, forcing me to either use someone I didn't want or accept less money needed for the repair to pay myself out of pocket would only reinforce my highly-disappointed reaction to the experience. And if it turned out that the work by their suggested repairman wasn’t done well, then the responsibility would be on United/Hollander, only increasing my displeasure. And causing additional problems. And all that could be resolved for only $450.
In fact, I even suggested splitting the difference. For just over $200, they could address the problem and satisfy the customer.
Instead, United/Hollander stood their ground, and didn't pay enough to cover the repair of their damage. Nor split the difference. Nor did I ever heard back from the first person at Hollander Moving who had expressed such sadness at all the damage and had offered help. It left a terrible residue of feeling for dealing with United/Hollander. The company was looking at saving $450, rather than making an extremely-upset customer happy after the company itself caused so much damage to five pieces of valuable family furniture.
During the exchange of emails, I got a short note suggesting I could arbitrate this if I was unhappy. But I had no intention of arbitrating it. The amount was certainly meaningful, but the hours spent arbitrating $450 was hardly worth my time. And it just reinforced how short-sighted the decision was for United/Hollander not to make up or even split that comparatively small difference (given how much had been spent on the very move itself) and actually make a customer happy. For damage the company caused.
In the end, I understand a company wanting to save $450. Or even $225. What I don’t understand is a company not wanting to “make whole” the actual damage it caused that would satisfy a customer on so many levels — and all for such a reasonable amount, especially with an offered-compromise and most-especially after having been paid so much already. Instead of creating long-term good will over damage it caused, and turning a bad situation into a positive, the company exacerbated the problem by counting its pennies.
What I suppose is that the company, perhaps like many that are short-sighted and not as focused on customer service as they like to present, wanting instead to push how "YES" great they are, figures the job is done, the customer isn't likely to need a cross-country move again, they have their money, here's our offer to settle, take it or leave it -- and most people take it. Or take the repair service the company offers. But then most people don't type for a living, have a website, a column on the Huffington Post, and Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote them -- and follow-up with the organization that recommended them which provides so much business.
Happily, there's a good addendum to all this.
The work by the Rene Guzman Studio was tremendous. And well-worth paying the extra amount to get old family furniture back in wonderful condition. His price was not cheap but extremely fair. But then he even refinished a table on his own for no charge. Most importantly, his work was a gem. It took longer than expected because he had a couple of emergency jobs -- and I was in no rush and told him I was fine with the delays -- and also I was so pleased with his early work that I added a couple of pieces which could use refurbishing. Through it all, he continued to be a pleasure to work with. If I had one quibble with him, which I did politely chide him about, it's that he's not great about answering emails. He acknowledged that this wasn't his strong point and said he would work on getting better at it. A small quibble for such impressive work.
Remember that picture above of my demolished chair? (Scroll back up to remind yourself, if necessary.) Here's how it ended up and looks now.
Rene Guzman Studios, at the very least, is highly recommended for those who live in Los Angeles. You can find the company here.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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