The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

From Financing to Flooring, Customer Service is Lacking

At a recent business dinner in New York City, Rosalie Berg said she was wondering what had become of service in the mortgage sector. Seemed like too many loan officers had forgotten what the word meant.

Berg, who runs Stategic Vantage, a housing finance-centric public relations and advertising firm, had cold-called five lenders when she wanted to refinance her South Florida home. She was shocked at the response -- or worse yet, the lack thereof.

Of the five, three never returned her call, and the other two took more than a day to reply.

“People were not very responsive,” Berg told me. “It really surprised me.”

Our dinner host was Sue Woodard, chief customer officer at Total Expert, a marketing and sales software system for lenders. And she had had a similar experience. When she called to close out her equity line of credit, the lender’s representative didn’t ask why; he just said he’d send over the paperwork without any follow-up at all.

That, says Woodard, who has been in the mortgage business for 30 years, was a “big opportunity missed in a very competitive market.”

Worse, perhaps, she says she has a thousand similar stories. Most recently, her lawn service canceled her contract because it wants to focus solely on commercial work. So she called eight other services that do work in her neighborhood. Not one called back.

“I guess the economy is doing too well,” she commented. “No one seems to want more business.”

Also at dinner was Woodard’s colleague at Total Expert, Brett Cadogan, the firm’s director of strategic alliances. He had his own story about a lack of service. He had listed his house for sale with the wife of the guy who was building his new house. But after five months, he cut her loose, along with her builder-husband, calling the whole thing “a terrible experience.”

When he attempted to start the process all over again a few months later, Cadogan called five agents. Two were “very responsive,” he said. But of the other three, one never returned his call and two didn’t get back to him for a week to 10 days.

Noting that listings are “the lifeblood” of realty agents -- “That’s how they get paid,” he said -- he was really surprised by the response rate. “The level of urgency was pretty much nonexistent.”

The fourth at this dinner was yours truly, and boy, did I have a few stories of my own. Most recently, I have been going round and round with a home warranty company I won’t name directly -- it used to have a fellow named Roebuck in its handle -- but with which I will not do business again. Ever!

When our double oven stopped working, I called this company to repair it, not knowing that it no longer has its own crews, but farms the work out. After several attempts to fix my machine, I still don’t have an oven. But finally, some four months later, the warranty company has agreed to replace it. After all the stalling so far, though, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Then there’s my experience with an insurance company in Florida after Hurricane Irma, as well as my dealings with a big-box retailer that sells all kinds of home-related materials. To this day, the insurance company has yet to return my phone calls, even though I explain in my message that I have letters from two different roofers saying that I have enough damage from the big storm to warrant an entirely new roof.

The company has already closed out my claim, something I didn’t think it would until someone called to say they had received some information from one of the aforementioned roofers. They sent out an engineer weeks ago and I have heard nothing since.

I suppose the next step is to call the insurance commissioner in Florida to complain. I am told that insurers don’t want to be on the bad side of the Florida regulator, so we will see.

The big-box store where I bought new flooring was very slow on the uptake -- that is, once it had my money and the floor was installed. I called several times to complain that the installer had used someone else’s materials, even though they were told not to, and that my contractor was back-charging me.

I wanted the store to cover the charge, which was the installer’s fault, not mine. Once I was actually able to talk with a human being, that person said she would get back to me. Two weeks later, nothing. So I called again and spoke with her associate, who told me he would check it out. Two more weeks, and nothing.

Finally, a month or so later, a representative called to say they would be processing my refund. That’s great, but it shouldn’t have taken so long and so many calls. It has left nothing but a bad taste in my mouth, so much so that I don’t think I will ever buy another thing at this chain, even if I have to drive out of my way to go elsewhere.

Spending your money with a competitor is certainly one way to fight back. But it’s better to keep copious notes about your conversations with customer service people, including their names, identification numbers, the date and the time of day. Never, ever be nasty. Always remain calm. You can express your anger or disappointment without cursing or screaming.

If you get no satisfaction, escalate your beef to a supervisor or manager, either on the phone, in writing or directly at the store or office in question. And if that doesn’t work, take your issue higher and higher up the corporate ladder.

Twice I’ve written a letter to the chairman of Comcast, and both times, the response was swift and favorable.