Thoughts on Service

I had a horrible customer service experience this weekend. Whenever I experience either exceptionally good or exceptionally poor service I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how I can apply it to make the services we at OpenNMS provide even better.

The situation was this: my water heater started leaking. I was doing some work on the farm, went in to the garage to get some tools, and when I came back about an hour later there was a stream running across the garage and then outside.

My house is over 15 years old and my guess is that the water heater was just at the end of its life (I could see some places near the bottom where the paint had bubbled – probably from rust). Unfortunately, the cut off valve for the heater itself was frozen open, so I had to turn off the water main to get the stream to stop flowing.

I didn’t worry about it too much since I had a home warranty from American Home Shield, and this was definitely covered. The warranty originally came with the house and we’ve been making the premium payments once the first year was up (for over nine years now). I’ve had mixed results with the AHS service in the past, with the best service coming years ago when we first started with them and then steadily getting worse.

I called their toll free number, worked through the automated attendant, explained the problem and was told they’d have someone call me.

On Monday.

Since this was Saturday afternoon I wasn’t looking forward to spending the weekend without water, so I called back to see if I could get my total lack of water considered an “emergency”.

Now I used to work for NORTEL on ACD systems, so I have a bit of an interest in how these things work. Usually, pressing “zero” or saying “agent” will short circuit all of the “press/say one” crap, but on modern systems a healthy dose of swearing will work as well.

Voice: “If you are experiencing problems with your heating and air conditioning, say ‘HVAC’. If you are experiencing problems with an appliance such as a stove or a washer, say ‘appliance’. If you are …”

Me: “Agent”

Voice: “I’m sorry, your answer was not understood. If you are experiencing …”

Me: “Transfer me to a go****n f***ing agent right now!”

Voice: “Please hold while we transfer you to an agent.”

Once I reached a human, they told me that they would contact a plumber and I should hear back within the hour. An hour and a half later I called back, went through the same routine again and got the same answer – someone would call me.

Chances are if your service company doesn’t call you back on an emergency call within an hour, they ain’t calling back. But I waited another hour before taking matters into my own hands and deciding to get it fixed on my own. I figured it would be easier to get a service person out at 5pm on a Saturday than 9pm.

What was even more frustrating about the experience is that it was the weekend and I had stuff to do. Unfortunately the cordless wouldn’t reach to where I needed to work outside, so I was basically forced to wait inside by the phone.

It did give me time to surf the web for stories about American Home Shield and they aren’t pretty. I also had plenty of time to read my contract and I realized that I had until tomorrow (the 24th) to cancel my current contract for a full refund. Of course, if you want to cancel within your 30 day period, make sure you schedule it for a business day because they won’t cancel your contract on a weekend. I found this out when I called AHS back to cancel the service call and deal with it myself.

So, what does this have to do with open source? Well, ostensibly AHS is an insurance company, and to some degree what we provide is a form of insurance. So why do I think we got it so right and AHS got it so wrong?

The main difference I think is in motivation. It is the goal of AHS to maximize profit. There are two ways to do this: sell more or spend less. From what I’ve been able to read on the web, it seems that the focus of AHS is the latter. Since there is no pre-inspection there is no baseline for determining the state of your house. There is a clause in the contract that requires you to “maintain” your property, and it appears that AHS has refused to pay for services just by stating that the problem was due to a lack of maintenance.

Should they actually decide to address a claim, it also appears that their contracts with suppliers are pretty draconian, asking the supplier to take on a fairly high level of cost and risk. Thus they only attract the lowest common denominator of service company – such as those that won’t respond to an emergency page on a weekend. One can only imagine how they would handle a more important job such as an HVAC system.

At OpenNMS we try to do the opposite – increase revenues by selling more. Our plan for that is to deliver the best level of service possible so that our current clients will tell their friends how great we are. While our support services are described in a detailed Statement of Work, we often venture into the category of “out of scope” work in an attempt to insure our clients’ happiness.

We also hire talented, cheerful and qualified people. We provide premium services and charge accordingly, so you won’t get anyone whose major understanding of network management starts and ends with the ability to spell SNMP.

Maybe one last difference is that I think I would resign if anyone had anywhere close to the experience I had with American Home Shield with OpenNMS. At 9pm on Saturday, four hours after I cancelled the service call, AHS called the house to tell us that they just couldn’t find anyone to fix our problem. At that time it would have been hard for me to find someone, so luckily I got it fixed earlier.

I tried to be nice when I called to cancel my contract this morning, but it was hard. At OpenNMS we have lost a few customers over the last seven years, but never due to performance. While I hate losing any client, I’d much rather get a note like

We do not plan to continue to utilize a support contract with the OpenNMS Group as we have quite frankly not found a need to utilize support services on the product itself. Thanks.


We do want to acknowledge and thank you for outstanding support and superior responsiveness; on a scale of 1 to 10 I would rate your service at the highest level, at 9.99999, only reserving the 0.00001 as incentive for continued growth.

I can live with that.

One thought on “Thoughts on Service

  1. Not shocking as I got an offer for a class action Settlement for AHS not performing the work under the contract terms. Enough people paid for the repairs and then still could not get a refund that it was a class action. Guess they are primed for offering car warranties as well.

Comments are closed.