December 4, 2020

The Haggler: A Whirlpool Microwave and a Customer-Service Problem

SOME companies resolve consumer complaints in ways that are both efficient and empathetic, demonstrating not just a grasp of what defines good service but also the ways that brand loyalty is nurtured. Then there is Whirlpool.

Q. We bought a Whirlpool microwave oven online last summer. It worked for four of the six months we’ve owned it, and it has been visited five times by repairmen from Whirlpool-authorized service companies. Four parts have been replaced. During the most recent visit, the repairman informed us that many of the parts that had been replaced needed to be replaced again. Those parts are currently on back order.

It will be mid-March, we were told in mid-February, before any further repairs occur. After scheduling service call No. 5, I contacted Whirlpool directly by phone to discuss our continuing problem. I was hoping that we could trade in this lemon for another microwave. No chance. I was told that not only did I need to wait for the one-year warranty to expire, but that even then, Whirlpool can choose to take an additional six months to consider an exchange — and only after yet another repairman has verified the issue.

I’ve had enough. Can you help?



A. Before we hear from Whirlpool, the Haggler would like to cite a few numbers to provide a bit of context. The first is $216.25. That is the price of the microwave bought by Ms. Vintilla and her husband, Joe Sirott. The second is $869 million, which is the amount of operating profit that Whirlpool earned last year, on sales of $18 billion.

Got it? Good.

After being contacted by the Haggler, a member of Whirlpool’s executive staff e-mailed to Ms. Vintilla a document called a “Product Scrap Agreement.” In it, the company offered to send a check to refund the cost of the microwave — but with two stipulations. First, Ms. Vintilla would have to cover the expense of disposing of the microwave. It turns out that you don’t just toss a contraption like this in the garbage. You need someone to haul it away, for a fee of about $75.

Second, Ms. Vintilla would have to agree to a confidentiality clause. The Haggler knows that this sounds like an absurd joke, so let us quote directly from the document: “The undersigned further agrees that they will not communicate to any third party (other than their lawyers) or otherwise publicize, by any method whatsoever, any terms of this agreement.”

Naturally, Ms. Vintilla refused to sign this document and immediately forwarded it to the Haggler. But let us pause a moment and consider what Whirlpool did here. Not only did it try to stick its customer with a fee to dispose of the carcass of an appliance that produced more agita than hot food. It also decided that the customer would be privileged with these stinting terms only if she agreed not to discuss them with anyone, the media included.

It’s tempting to call this ham-handed, but that seems unfair to ham. The agreement closes with one last burst of lunacy: “It is also agreed that the payment is being made for customer loyalty, and is not to be construed as an admission of any kind on the part of Whirlpool.”

That’s right: To get this not-very-sweet deal, Ms. Vintilla has to agree to the fiction that she accepted these terms in the name of customer loyalty. After Ms. Vintilla declined this offer, a rep from Whirlpool sweetened the deal. Just a bit. The company could pick up the microwave, but would then need to subtract $75 from the refund.

“A check in the amount of $141.25 ($216.25 minus $75) would be sent to a local service agent,” wrote Alicia Harris, of the company’s executive staff.  “The service agent would then contact you to schedule a time to pick up the microwave and deliver the check. This process can take up to 21 business days.”

Seventy-five dollars? Twenty-one days? Keep in mind, dear readers, that this is the response of Whirlpool’s platinum-level customer service crew. This is Whirlpool in charm mode. The Haggler, at least at first, was unable to learn much about this mini-debacle. The company sent an e-mail from an outside P.R. firm, quoting a Whirlpool executive with words so bland and beside the point that they shall not be excerpted here.

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Digital Domain: Consumer Complaints Made Easy. Maybe Too Easy.

But today unhappy consumers have Facebook and Twitter on their side. The new social media provide free megaphones that carry a customer’s complaint around the world. Perhaps a little too easily.

Gripe, a company that describes itself as a “better Better Business Bureau for the Twitter age,” is devoted to spreading word of a problem quickly. It provides a mobile app for iPhone and Android that makes posting a complaint simultaneously to one’s Facebook friends and Twitter followers effortless.

“The B.B.B. has a bureaucracy in the middle,” says Farhad Mohit, the company’s chief executive. You have to fill out a form, you have to put up with some hassle. “There’s a high degree of friction,” he says.

Gripe, which was started last year, removes the friction. With a little typing, its users can send off a gripe, which goes to Facebook, Twitter and the named company’s customer service department. The company is invited to remedy the problem and remove the stain of the publicized gripe, earning a “cheer.” Users can also send out a “cheer” in the first place, to applaud customer service well done.

Sending Gripes to one’s Facebook friends solves the problem of frivolous complaints, Mr. Mohit argues. “You don’t want to be viewed as a jerk by your friends and family,” he says. (I don’t know; how self-aware are jerks?)

Mr. Mohit sees the service as helpful to businesses because it gives them an opportunity to resolve the complaints posted through the service.

Gripe attempts to give all of its users a powerful persona by displaying the user’s “word of mouth” power. Mr. Mohit’s personal word-of-mouth power, as of last week, was “1,644,483 people.” This number is displayed prominently by the app and can be shown to recalcitrant store owners.

It turns out, however, that Gripe arrives at word-of-mouth power by adding together the friends of one’s Facebook friends and the followers of one’s Twitter followers. This greatly inflates the actual number of people who are likely to see a gripe or a cheer, which by default goes out only to one’s immediate friends and followers.

From the vendor’s perspective, a small number of complaining customers who use social media receive disproportionate attention. This is “social bullying,” in the opinion of Ashutosh Roy, the chief executive of eGain, which provides customer service products for its corporate clients. He observes that his clients determine their response to complaints registered by a given customer “not just by how much business you do with the company but also by how much pain you inflict on the company in social channels.”

One person who used the power of Twitter to inflict great pain upon one particular company is Heather P. Armstrong, the proprietress of Dooce, a widely read blog. Her story, from 2009, seems at first glance like an example of the individual bullying a company. It circulated widely and you may have already heard it: Exasperated with Maytag’s inability to provide her family with a functioning washing machine despite many calls and several visits by a repair person, Ms. Armstrong recounted in her blog what she told a Maytag customer service representative: “Do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter do you think someone will help me?” She was told, “Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter.”

Ms. Armstrong proceeded to post comments like this on Twitter: “So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE.” Shortly thereafter, Ms. Armstrong heard from an executive at Whirlpool, the parent company of the Maytag brand, and her machine was soon fixed.

This is a shortened version of Ms. Armstrong’s account of what happened. The full version runs almost 6,000 words: To my mind, the literary expression of her misadventures gives legitimacy to her complaint. She did not use an app like Gripe to frictionlessly send out a complaint to her million Twitter followers at the first twinge of irritation. She endured much and then invested the time to compose a long cri de coeur.

Without any hesitation, Brian P. Snyder, Whirlpool’s senior manager of social and emerging media, owns up to Whirlpool’s providing Ms. Armstrong in 2009 with “an unsatisfactory customer service experience.”

I think Whirlpool does deserve a “cheer,” however, for subsequently setting up Facebook pages for its Maytag, KitchenAid, and Whirlpool brands, in which visitors are permitted to let loose.

Mr. Snyder says that “patently offensive” items or spam are deleted, but negative feedback stays. He says Whirlpool is following advice provided by Intel at a conference about social media: “Keep the bad.” His company allows discussion threads like “Failed Dishwasher” and “Defective Dishwashers” in full public view.

IN the old days of Yellow Pages and rotary phones, filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau entailed a small hassle. But that was good: it increased the likelihood that a fellow consumer had endured considerable frustration before going to the trouble of registering a complaint. With services like Gripe, a few seconds’ investment is all you need.

Nothing seems to prevent all of that word-of-mouth power from creating a din of complaints.

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail:

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Bucks: Figuring Out Your Consumer Rights

What are your rights when a saleswoman tells you a pair of boots is not on sale but a sign nearby says, “All footwear half off”?

Alina Tugend, in her Shortcuts column this week, tries to sort out her rights under consumer laws. What she found was a mass of rules and laws overseen by a variety of government agencies.

She concludes that the best strategy for someone with a consumer complaint is to first go to the company. Then, file complaints with local and state consumer protection agencies as well as the federal ones.

What has been your experience with consumer complaints? Have you had luck in resolving your complaints with a particular retailer or company? Do you have advice for other Bucks readers?

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