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Gettin’ the business from big business

Whenever I buy anything, I’m guided by two principles: I try to buy American, and I try to buy locally.

Buying American is a real chore since almost nothing’s made in America anymore. From my experience, American-made goods are still first quality. Unfortunately, you’ve got to look long and hard to find them — provided they even can exist.

As for buying locally? Luckily, compared to almost everywhere else in the country, we have a lot of locally owned, independent businesses. And because they always provide the best service, I’m a loyal customer. In fact, if don’t patronize a local business, it’s because either they don’t have the goods or because I screwed up. And when it came to my latest propane provider, I screwed up.

This saga starts 45 years ago when I moved from an apartment to my house and had to get both oil and propane service. Since my family always had Hyde’s for oil, I figured I would, too. I would’ve had them for propane, too, but back then they didn’t have it, so Fobare’s was my logical choice. The Fobare brothers were scrupulous craftsmen and as colorful a crew of characters as ever trod in shoe leather. Plus, having known them since childhood, to me they were friends.

I stuck with Fobare’s for 35 years or so, until they closed shop. Then I switched my account to AmeriGas. Why them, if Hyde’s had propane? Simple: Because they didn’t have it back in ’75, my illogic told me they still didn’t. Oh, live and learn …

With AmeriGas, deliveries went as scheduled, and Sandy, the local office manager, was always a delight to deal with. Things went perfectly … till about a month ago.

I have a propane, on-demand hot water heater, which does its sainted thing fast and fully, giving me all the hot water a Dope could want. Or at least it did till the temperature dropped into single digits. Then either one of two things happened: It took nearly forever for the water to get hot, or it never got hot at all.

I checked the tank and it was at 75%, so there was no problem with supply. So I assumed the regulator was farmisht, if not farblunget. And if it wasn’t the regulator, it wouldn’t matter because the service guy would figure it out. All I had to do was see Sandy and report my problem, and she’d take care of it, post haste, as she always did.

No one home

So imagine my shock when I pulled up to the office and found out, due to health concerns about COVID, the office was closed. But there was an 891 number to call. OK, swell, I thought, they’ve got someone here who’ll take care of me. I called and got an automated menu, and after I listened to it, I punched the appropriate number, but for all the good it did me, I might as well have punched the wall.

Turns out, that 891 number switched my call to some call center somewhere. Then, after going through more number-punching protocols and being told by the robot op how important my business was, I was told the approximate wait to talk to an actual person was 67 minutes. Being the clever fellow I am, I figured if I couldn’t reach anyone through that number, maybe I could at the Plattsburgh or Ticonderoga offices. And I guess I could have if I’d wanted to wait 64 and 66 minutes, respectively — which I didn’t.

So now what?

Well, why fool around with the pishers when you can go to the head honchos themselves? So I checked AmeriGas online. They’d posted a notice that said they knew some peeps were having difficulties getting in touch with them, but by gosh and golly, they were doing their level best to remedy it. They were doing this and that and the other thing and would “soon have doubled staff members in our customer engagement centers.”

Customer engagement centers? And what do they do there — help you pick out the perfect right ring for the lovely bride-to-be? Well, they might as well be doing that because while there were several different numbers to call, I got through on none of them. Still, I tried … and tried … and tried. Feeling my normally sunny disposition turning to something akin to homicidal rage, I quit the phone jazz and went for a long walk.

Back to Square One

When I came back, I called again … and again … and again. With my blood pressure about to turn me into a human fountain, I once more gave up and took the dogs for a long walk. When I came back from that, I gave it another Ole College Try and, lo and behold, actually got through to an operator named Kelly.

I told her my problem, and in a trice she set up a service appointment. The only problem was it was 10 days hence.

I realize lots of people like to submerge themselves in ice-cold water. Among them are Zen masters, flagellant monks and polar bears. The polar bears I refer to are not of the ursine ilk, but folks of the same species as me (but that’s where the resemblance ends). They’re the ones who, mid-winter, chop holes in lake ice and leap in. It’s supposed to be great for one’s health, and it appears to be — at least for the ones who don’t croak from heart attacks.

But for all the people who love cold-water bathing, I’m not one. So I asked Kelly if she could move the appointment up, since skinny dipping in the Bering Strait just ain’t my kinda thing.

She said she’d do what she could — and she did. The next day I got a voicemail that told me a service person was in area and, if I called back and confirmed it, she’d schedule him to come over that afternoon. She said to call any AmeriGas number, give them her extension, and everything’d be copacetic. But when I called back, I was back at Square One, or more exactly, Square Zero: After a bunch more calls, I still couldn’t get an operator.

A W.C. Fields quote then came to mind: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

Next I noodled around their website and — Lo and Behold! — they had an email contact. I immediately shot them an email detailing my woes. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t hear back … and still haven’t.

So I quit trying to contact them. What the hey, I’m a patient guy, I could take dupa-freezing showers for another nine days. Certainly, I’d been through worse — like boot camp, a hip replacement and decades of faculty meetings.

And wait I did. Besides, ultimately, it was no big deal. Certainly, my problems were small potatoes compared to those of a family without heat or hot water.

The numbers game

On the appointed day, Kelly called and said the serviceman would be there as scheduled, which he was. In very short order, he checked out the system, replaced the regulator, verified there were no leaks and made sure everything heated up as it should, which — Huzzah! Huzzah! — it did.

But here’s the thing. If I’d had an account with Hyde’s, the problem would’ve been solved in a day, maybe two at most, which is what local businesses are all about. But to depend on big business to come through? Well, in this case at least, bigger sure is NOT better.

That said, the problem isn’t everyone in big business. The folks I dealt with directly at AmeriGas were wonderful — all the local people, the delivery guys, the serviceman and especially Kelly (wherever she is) were first-rate. Which leads me to conclude that any incompetence is taking place at the higher levels. Frankly, announcing on your website how hard you’re working so customers can get in touch with you, when they can barely get in touch at all, is as disingenuous as it gets (“disingenuous” being a pretty way of saying “a load of crap”). To me, closing local offices before an effective communication system is already in place is at best sloppy, and at worst unconscionable — especially for a vital service.

Certainly, with a company as big as AmeriGas, there’s no telling who’s actually responsible for them having such a lapse in customer service. And if anyone actually ends up twisting in the wind for it, it’ll probably be some vice president who wasn’t responsible at all (which I suspect is why huge corporations have so many vice presidents in the first place).

Just for giggles, though, I wanted to find out who’s the Big Kahuna at Amerigas. So I looked up the CEO online. He’s Hugh J. Gallagher, a handsome fellow who looks like a well-scrubbed All-American lad. And I’d bet dollars to dimes that all the scrubbing he does is with an unlimited supply of hot water.

I’d also bet, if he’s as smart as I think he is, his hot water heater is electric.

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