For Whom the Freezer Alarm Tolls

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Imagine you’re lucky enough to own one of those big, modern Thermador refrigerators, maybe the T36IB800SP, with its 19.4 cubic feet of storage — including a huge roll-out freezer below the fridge section. It’s not computerized to the degree that modern cars or televisions are, but it has a digital panel that tells you, for instance, when you need a new filter. And if you leave either of the doors open for more than a few minutes, an unpleasant digital alarm starts to beep.

Now imagine it’s 8 one night. Your young son wants dessert before going to bed. You open the freezer and hand him a carton of chocolate ice cream.  (As everyone knows, ice cream tastes better straight from the box.) When you try to close the door, it won’t shut all the way. When you try to force it shut, it pops back out after about 15 seconds.

This presents several obvious problems. If the door won’t close, the freezer won’t work, and eventually the frozen food will spoil. There’s a more immediate issue as well: The open door triggers the alarm. Pressing the “alarm off” button offers only fleeting relief; the shrill beeping starts up again after a few minutes.

Your son needs to go to bed. In a few hours, you and your wife will want to do the same. But if the alarm won’t stop no one is going to be able to fall asleep. The answer seems simple: You have to temporarily disable the alarm. I mean, how hard can that be?

*****

This was the situation my family and I found ourselves in on a recent February evening. My first move after realizing the “alarm off” button wasn’t going to help was to pull out the manual. Alas, the alarm instruction didn’t mention disabling it. What about the door itself? Could the manual tell me how to close a door that didn’t want to close? It could not. I realize this was probably not the most common problem with the T36IB800SP, but still. I was annoyed that Thermador had failed to anticipate the issue I was suddenly facing.

This being the 21st century, I headed next to the internet and typed “How to disable the door alarm on a Thermador freezer” into my search engine. The Thermador customer service site (“We’re ready to help”) wasn’t much help; it suggested that if the alarm goes on, I should shut the door. A site called Hunker offered possibilities: It promised to show me how to disable “a built-in Frigidaire Freezer Alarm.” Maybe whatever worked for Frigidaire would work for Thermador, too. Alas, once I got to the site, I quickly realized it showed no such thing.

Then, a ray of hope: As I scrolled down the Google rankings, I came across a headline that read, “Ask A Thermador Tech.” I clicked through to a site called Justanswer.com. It promised that I would be chatting “with Thermador Technicians in minutes.”

At this point, I was game for anything that might help. An “Appliance Technician’s Assistant” was standing by to chat. “Three Thermador technicians” were supposedly online.

“Describe your issue,” typed the tech assistant. I did. She asked for the make and model, and then added a few inconsequential questions before sending me — uh-oh! — to a page asking for credit card information. I would need to pay $5 to “secure your Expert” with $31 more due “after chat resumes.”

Normally, this is the point when I would have run in the other direction. But partly because the amount was small, and partly because my journalistic curiosity was aroused — and partly because I still really needed the answer — I plugged in my credit card number and hit a button that read: “Get An Answer.”

First, though, I had to become a Justanswer.com member, which meant giving the company my email and phone number. Then I was offered the “opportunity” to get faster answers with premium services that topped out at $66 a month. After avoiding several efforts to get me to download the justanswer.com app, I was finally taken to a page that concluded that my “issue was not yet resolved.” Which, of course, I already knew. Meanwhile, I received an email informing me that technicians were reviewing my question and would respond shortly. Sigh.

Finally, I picked up the phone and called Thermador’s customer service number. Thermador is based in Irvine, California, so it was closing time when I called around 9 p.m. in New York. The woman who answered the phone could not have been nicer, but she said there weren’t any technicians who would be able to speak to me. She did, however, have one crucial piece of information. The door alarm couldn’t be disabled. We were getting very grumpy in the Nocera household.

*****

For all the benefits the digital age has brought, customer service is one sphere of commercial life that is demonstrably worse than it once was. Many of the early internet companies didn’t really want to interact with their customers, and made it nearly impossible to find a phone number on their websites.

If your Dell computer broke down, the company’s 800 number would route you to a technician who would talk you through the repairs — which you did yourself, on your hands and knees, under your desk. Or how about a malfunctioning iPod? Apple used to charge so much to repair the device that it made most sense just to buy a new one (which was probably the point). Customer service was expensive, and most tech companies didn’t want to spend the money. As I once put it, “Customer service is the ugly stepchild of the consumer electronics business.”

One result was that companies that did provide good service were richly rewarded by consumers. (See: Amazon.com Inc.) Another is that some companies found profits in setting up sidelines to fix what they sold. (See: Best Buy Co. and its Geek Squad.) Yet a third was the proliferation of opportunistic companies like Justanswer.com, which cashed in on the difficulty people had in finding good customer service.

But the fourth result is that companies like appliance manufacturers have adopted some of the attitudes of the tech companies, and made customer service both more expensive and more difficult to get. If you’ve ever tried to get your $2,000 smart TV repaired when the screen suddenly goes blank, you know what I mean.

Thermador, at least, is trying, as I discovered when I spoke to Dominick Giorgianni, the company’s vice president for customer service. Before the computer age, Thermador relied on authorized repairmen who made house calls. (Of course, prior to computerization, a digital alarm wouldn’t beep all night.) But I got the strong sense that the company customer service approach was still very much a work in progress.

Major repairs on Thermador’s products are done by a subcontractor trained by Thermador. The company’s website has a service area, but it is pretty bare-bones. Giorgianni told me that the company was not happy about Justanswer.com and others of its ilk using the Thermador name to troll for customers needing help. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there is a lot of that out there.” It occurred to me that if Thermador’s own website offered more and better help, fewer people would be sucked in by Justanswer.com.

Finally, Giorgianni told me that on Feb. 1, Thermador had established “true 24/7” service so that you could get technical support whenever you needed it. When I noted that I had called well after Feb. 1, but had not gotten that level of support, Giorgianni sounded dismayed.

“I would have expected better results,” he said. “We are going to learn from this and improve.”

*****

I finally solved our problem before the night was over, or rather my wife did. She likes to get to know the people who come to repair things in our apartment, and as it turns out, she knew who our local Thermador-authorized repairman was. Not only that, she had his cell phone number.

When she called him, he was relaxing on his couch, watching TV and babysitting. When she explained the situation, he confirmed that the alarm couldn’t be disabled.  Then he asked her to FaceTime him so he could see the fridge himself.

As soon as he saw the tilt of the door, he knew what the problem was. He had me reach down under the door, and pull up a lever and drop it down. Sure enough, that did the trick: The door clicked into place, and the noise stopped. It took all of five minutes.

All of which is to say, websites and 800 numbers are all well and good, but even in the modern age, if you really need to get an appliance fixed, be sure have the repairman’s cell phone number in your pocket.

Yes, the kid can fall asleep even after eating chocolate ice cream. Please no tweets.

I never did get an answer to the question of why the manufacturer won’t allow the door alarms to be disabled. I asked several people, and no one had a clue.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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