My epiphany during a recent call with Sears Customer Service was breathtaking and chilling in its clarity. We had only one hope as a nation and that was to immediately move to New Zealand.
Over 100 years ago, Sears was the Amazon of its time – innovative, disruptive, a blueprint for modern American business. Its catalogue was the veritable internet of its day, the company the pride of Chicago. Mention you worked for Sears and people raised an approving eyebrow and treated you with respect, admiration – even envy.
Today the brand barely functions as a punchline. It has devolved over the last decade to the cusp of extinction and has become to inventiveness and craftmanship what the Hindenburg was to air travel. Buy a Sears appliance today without an annual maintenance program and you’re taking a risk on par with letting a blind narcoleptic perform your next colonoscopy.
On July 4th weekend in 2012, intoxicated by a truly wonderful team of Sears sales people and multiple holiday deals, we went all-in with Sears and infested our kitchen with a top-of-the-line trash compactor, disposal, dish washer, stove top, oven, refrigerator, washer and dryer, and a barbeque. Relative obsolescence for each device was approximately 37 minutes after the expiration date of its warranty. On the upside, several of the Sears repairmen have become close family friends and can be found sharing Christmas, Thanksgiving and Passover with us, especially given those are the most likely dates a major Sears kitchen unit will go belly-up.
While the Sears call center people are always gracious, immediacy is not a core component of the company’s mission statement. Typically, a repairman arrives 3 days to a week after you report the odd electrical smell from the oven or the geyser pulsing from the base of the dishwasher. After the initial diagnostic, parts are ordered with an estimated arrival time of “eventually.” The subsequent repair date is set, and precisely between the hours of 8 AM and midnight, the first of several attempts will be made to install the new part.
In fairness, most repairmen have proven to be true wizards, breathing life back into devices that had seemingly bled out on the kitchen floor. But in some instances, albeit the exceptions, we have encountered “experts” who lacked expertise in a few key areas, such as having any working knowledge of a Sears’ kitchen appliance. For example, July 4th a few years back, it took 5 attempts to repair our refrigerator. After the third one, a process which entailed 3 separate instances of defrosting it by leaving it unplugged for 24 hours, the repairman gave us a thumb’s up and wished us a “Happy 4th of July weekend. We trekked to Trader Joe’s, re-stocked it and buckled up for the Independence Day festivities.
That evening the repairman called with an urgent message. “Turn off the refrigerator immediately. I think I wired it incorrectly. If it runs that way too long, it will catch fire.” He promised to return the following Tuesday between dawn and 10 PM.
If damages are excessive, you get funneled to Sears’s claims department, a rabbit hole of inertia.
In April of 2018, our dishwasher blew a gasket. I ran downstairs in the predawn darkness, bolting to catch the 6:40 bus and suddenly found myself on my back sliding past the dog and under the kitchen counter in an inch of water. Per Sears’s instructions, we filed a claim. They referred us to their legal department, who referred us to the manufacturer who made the defective dishwasher, who referred us to their legal department, who told us to take up our claim with the company that designed the valve. Their legal department then referred us to Sears, which said it was out of their hands due to their bankruptcy filing.
But putting aside the litany of breakdowns we have suffered over the last 7 years, it was my recent conversation with Sears regarding our oven that was the genesis of my epiphany. After pushing 1 for service, 2 for English, 3 for large appliances with a small problem, 4 for small appliances with a large problem, 5 if we had a maintenance agreement, 6 to speak with a priest if we didn’t or 7 if we had ever operated heavy machinery after taking Extra Strength Nyquil, I was placed on hold.
Expecting only to schedule a repair date, I was stunned when the representative announced he could fix the issue over the phone. He bristled with confidence.
“The oven doesn’t heat,” I explained.
“Not a problem,” he said, a response I assumed referenced his solution as opposed to an assessment of the oven’s core issue. After putting me on hold, he directed me to shut off all power to the unit, give it 30 seconds and then switch the breaker back on.
“Done” I said. He asked me to look at the readout on the oven.
“It’s flashing pf.”
“Is that an error message?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I answered. I asked him if he thought “pf “was an error message.
“That’s what I’m asking,” he said curtly, seeming to suggest that by asking first, he had dibs on the question.
I suggested that since he was the one fixing the issue, he should be the one telling me. Reverting to repeating the same phrase louder, the way many people do when trying to explain something to someone not fluent in English, he asked twice more if I thought pf was an error message.
“I still don’t know what ‘pf’ means.” I responded. Reaching an impasse, and with neither of us able to raise our voices any higher, he put me on hold.
“OK.” He said after a few minutes. “I’ve figured it out. pf means there’s been a power failure. “P” power and “f” failure. So, it’s not an issue with the unit. You must be experiencing power fluctuations or outages in your area. You need to call your gas and electric company.”
I explained that the oven was reading pf because he had asked me to turn off the power.
“Nooooo,” he countered, drawing out the word. “pf signifies faulty power.”
“But you asked me to turn off the power. We, therefore, caused the pf.”
He sighed heavily and then doubled down, explaining loudly that I had AN ISSUE WITH MY POWER SOURCE and what was it that I couldn’t understand. Then, on a line that might be recorded to assure quality assurance, he added, “Look – do you want my help or not?”
I placed the phone back in its cradle, holding it with only two fingers, as far away from my body as possible, as if the device itself were a contagion. I backed away from it struck with my epiphany.
Winter wasn’t coming, it was here. Tanks are on The Mall in D.C. Children are in detention camps at the southern border. This experience was a symptom of something bigger, like a sneaky cancer you don’t see on the back of your neck until it’s too late. Companies and people touching every aspect of our lives were losing their grips on integrity. Somewhere along the line, defective performance had become expected, and the new norm for customer service forever involved pushing buttons, interminable holds and snarky attitudes. Subpar was the new par and “the buck stops here,” had been trampled in a frenzied rush to pass the buck.
But more frightening than any of that was the conspicuous prevalence of stupid. I sat in our kitchen, a veritable ICU of Sears products, and watched the pf pulse across the readout on the oven. Stupid wasn’t just finding its voice, it was getting louder and colluding with indifference, pathogens combining to leave a wasteland of defunct kitchen appliances and enlightened civilization in its wake.