THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- One ringy-dingy: It's probably just a customer!

It was the quintessential Fearless Consumer moment. There I was, in the appliance department at Sears, with four or five salespeople– and a ringing telephone. The reason there were so many employees in one spot is that the store had just opened and customers were just beginning to trickle in; my saleswoman was looking something up on a computer, and the others were standing around chatting. Then the phone began to ring. And ring. And ring.

Finally I said, "Aren't you going to answer it?" To which a saleswoman replied– as if I were nuts– "We don't want to answer it." She went on to say that callers always ask questions that take a long time to resolve. I was unmoved. "Someone should still answer it," I protested, and she suggested that perhaps I should. Then she lifted the phone off the hook and playfully offered it to me.

Later I wished I'd taken it and said, "I'm a customer, and there are a bunch of salespeople here who don't want to talk to you– sorry." But I declined her offer, and she took the call (which, I noted, was brief).

I've written twice about readers' problems with the appliance department at Sears ["Cold Shoulder," November 3, 2005, and "Seared," November 17, 2005]. In both instances, the consumer complained– mightily– about how difficult it was to reach anyone in that department by phone.

What I didn't say when I was writing those columns was that I was having the same experience: I'd bought a washer and dryer, and was running into multiple snafus while trying to get it delivered and installed. I have vivid memories of repeatedly calling the appliance department and listening to the phone ring for what seemed like ages before I gave up.

The phone was answered only on rare occasions, and I realize now that when that happened, it may have been because some exasperated customer looked at a salesperson and said, "Aren't you going to answer it?" I guess that gives new meaning to the term "customer service."


MORE ON KATRINA

Last week I mentioned an urban legend in which post-Katrina termite-infested mulch is being foisted on innocent homeowners ["Mulch madness," March 16]. Thankfully, that's an unlikely scenario. What isn't unlikely, however, is that innocent car buyers can end up driving a post-Katrina or -Rita vehicle that suffered flood damage before entering the used-car stream.

Charles Katz sent in two excellent websites consumers can check before shopping for a car. The first is the National Insurance Crime Bureau (ncib.org), where you can enter a car's Vehicle Identification Number and see whether it's on the list of cars that were found damaged or abandoned.

The second is the National Automobile Dealers Association (nada.org), which offers "10 Tips for Spotting a Flood-Damaged Vehicle." To find it, click on "press releases," then scroll down to September 14, 2005.


CINGULAR UPDATE

Winston Barham is cautiously hopeful that escaping from his Cingular wireless contract will be graceful. When I wrote about his travails two weeks ago ["Off the hook," March 9], I stated that local Cingular employee Jessie Goodrich had failed to stay in touch with Barham even though she'd assured him she would follow up on his complaint.

Barham emailed me to say that in fact she had contacted him to see whether the problem had been solved, but after he had already filed his complaint with the FCC. I didn't have that information when I wrote the column.

"I always had pleasant interactions with staff at the Charlottesville store," Barham wrote, "who did all they could to alleviate my frustrations. Perhaps if I had called on them when the trouble first started, the problem would have been fixed sooner."

Sounds like the local Cingular crew could teach Sears a thing or two about customer service. Rule #1: Answer the phone!

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.

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