There's a fine line for complaining

Consuming Interests

November 14, 2006|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

When it comes to the art of complaining, there is a very fine line between being determined and being a pain. Lil Jungreis worried that she crossed that line after she spent two years calling Whirlpool Corp. about a defective refrigerator she purchased in October 2004.

"They make like I am crazy or like I don't know what I am talking about," Jungreis said of her repeated calls for repair. "Almost from the very beginning, I thought I did something wrong. I felt so bad. I spoke to so many different people. A Monica. A Barry. A Jeremy. A Danny. It got me nowhere. It was so frustrating."

The problem wasn't that Jungreis contacted customer service too often. Or that she voiced her frustrations repeatedly. Or even that she didn't have a legitimate complaint. It's just that the 73-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident would call to complain about her fridge and then disappear for six months. Then reappear again in the summer to complain and then vanish again in the winter.

Whirlpool had no idea what to make of Jungreis' disappearing act.

Being a longtime, loyal customer - her dishwasher, stove and beloved old fridge of 18 years all carried the Whirlpool name - Jungreis couldn't understand the Michigan company's indifference.

This is what you'd call a classic case of failure to communicate.

Jungreis' problem began shortly after her trusty refrigerator went kaput and she decided to buy another Whirlpool. Once the new fridge was installed, however, it insisted on freezing everything placed on its shelves. Food went in only to come out as chicken soup slush, pineapple ice bricks and fish Popsicles.

Mmmmm, tasty.

Good thing for Jungreis, she called Whirlpool's service center right away since her fridge came with a one-year warranty.

They told her to set the temperature dial on 2. Nothing. She called back. They came out and replaced the thermostat. Nothing. Back and forth, they continued.

And then Jungreis stopped calling. Little did Whirlpool know, Jungreis spends her winters in Boca Raton, Fla., enjoying the warmth, ocean cruises and her lovely grandchildren. A misbehaving fridge was often the last thing on her mind.

But come the spring of 2005 when Jungreis migrated back to Baltimore, her battle with the Whirlpool would begin anew. She'd call. They'd tell her to set the dial down low. She'd call. They'd come out to fiddle with the thermostat. She'd call. They'd ask her some more questions. And then she'd fly south again, leaving her problems behind.

Problem was, by now, her warranty had run out. When Jungreis began calling Whirlpool again this spring, the service center told her air from the freezer was flowing directly into the refrigerator. It was a component failure, they said. Worse, they told her she'd have to pay for the work.

By the time Jungreis got in touch with me last month, she was at wit's end and ready to flee south in less than a week. She left a Florida contact number. I told her to take all necessary documents with her.

I explained the problem to Whirlpool spokeswoman Audrey Reed-Granger, who immediately set Chris Miller, the company's executive consultant who handles many consumer problems, on the case.

"The biggest mistake people make is that they don't call when they have a problem," Miller said. "In this case, we pulled up a record and saw that we did have a service record for her."

To her credit, Jungreis' prompt calls for service showed Whirlpool that she had done everything within her power to have the faulty fridge fixed.

"We're willing to fix the problem," Miller said. "But we can't get someone to her home right now so we're willing to wait until she gets back."

In fact, Miller said, the only problem Whirlpool had in coming to that decision was several failed attempts to get ahold of Jungreis in Florida. When the two finally connected, Whirlpool quickly made an offer to fix the fridge, replace it or refund her money.

It would be easy to say that the only reason why Whirlpool came through was because a newspaper intervened, but there are some real lessons to be learned from this case.

To start with, Jungreis did do one huge thing to help herself, which was calling and calling often. That was proof to Whirlpool that her problem started before the warranty ran out and it continued after.

It also helped that Jungreis kept meticulous records of the calls she made to Whirlpool, the people she spoke to and all the receipts, warranties and manuals provided when she bought the fridge. Knowing the model number and serial number helped Whirlpool figure out if that specific product had any manufacturing defects or recalls that need to be addressed. It didn't.

Lynn Holmgren, Whirlpool's customer relations director, suggested that it's always wise to register major appliances and electronics with the company because it immediately creates a file that tracks the time and number of repairs on a particular product - a useful tool when you're trying to prove that the product never functioned properly.

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