Sunday, May 27, 2007

Customer Service - Up In Flames 2

Flame-throwing appliances seems to have been a theme for our family this past couple of weeks. About the same time I found out about the potential for our dishwasher to catch fire, our outdoor grill was busy spouting fire for real. Too bad the manufacturer's customer service couldn't have been similarly en fuego.

We had some nice weather one of the days my folks were in town, so spousal unit started the gas grill, closed the lid, and walked back into the house waiting for it to heat up. I was at the sink and happened to see flames shooting up inside the grill and some of them coming out of the grill. "Umm, dear? There are flames," I say, none too intelligently. "Yeah, it's a bunch of the old stuff burning off," he replies, with his back still to the grill.

"No... there are flames!" I reiterate, waving hands around in attempt to indicate the seriousness of the situation. Okay, so you try to sound as intelligent as you usually prefer to be when something big like that happens unexpectedly. Anyway, at least he turned around at that point and saw for himself why I was somewhat at a loss for words, ran back out and got the gas turned off without any further incident.

Hmmm... flame-throwing grill. Now what?

Flash forward to Friday morning before Memorial Day Weekend. I'm actually thinking ahead to the possibility we'll want to grill something so I start checking into the trouble of flames leaping out of our CharBroil that's all of two seasons old. Nothing like a recall, like for the dishwasher, is mentioned anywhere on the internet, but careful perusal of the manual indicates spiderwebs inside the burners can cause a serious hazard called a flashback that typically results in - you guessed it - flames. At least one forum discussion out there confirms other experiences similar to ours (though with varying degrees of acceptance of this as an acceptable occurrence) and another one sort of hints at it.

Figuring this is at least a possibility I can investigate and attempt to fix myself, I set about following the instructions to clean the burner and am immediately stymied. The trouble is, when I go to "remove the burner", it won't come out. I check the manual - there too, the instructions are very basic - "Remove two pal nuts, carry-over tube and burners" - implying it should be as simple as lifting them out, but it's not that easy.

I look over the assembly instructions and am dismayed to be reminded that when we put the darned thing together, we had to place the burners inside the grill bottom, then place the grill bottom in the stand, then hook up the control panel and then attach the side shelves. That's a lot of disassembling to have to do just to remove burners that the manufacturer wants you to clean "often" - at a minimum, once a season, more often if the grill goes unused for as little as a month or if you have particularly industrious spiders.

Not finding the information I need in their knowledgebase and not seeing a phone number that looks like it's supposed to be used for anything other than ordering parts or getting warranty service, I try requesting assistance through their website first. While I don't indicate directly that I'm having trouble removing the burner, I do provide the model number and I would think the difficulties I'm experiencing are implied in my request for information:

How do I remove the burners to clean them without taking the entire grill assembly apart (ie remove the control panel and/or detaching the grill bottom from the base)?

The automated response to the request indicated that it could take 1-3 days to get an answer, by which time, of course, I might well run out of grilling opportunities. It's just as well I called - although I had an answer within 24 hours, it consisted entirely of

Thank you for contacting The Grill Service Center. You never have to detach the grill bottom from base. I have attached a link on how to routinely clean your grill. Please follow all steps in it to clean your grill. Thank you Tiffany Grill Service Specialist

along with a link to the same basic cleaning information I'd already located for myself.

Not that the phone call I made ended up a whole lot better. It turns out that the warranty/parts ordering number on the CharBroil site will get you to customer service that's supposed to be able to help out with these kinds of questions but that doesn't mean that they necessarily can.

Don't get me wrong. The young woman I spoke with was quite pleasant. And if the number of times she had to put me on hold is any indication, she quite likely was new to the job.

I cut her a fair amount of slack for all of that. The trouble is, she had no more information available to her than I had available to me on the website and that information was not near enough to help me get my problem resolved. Yes, I had removed the carry-over tube. Yes, I had noticed that there were stabilizing pins from which the burners had to lifted clear. The trouble was that the there is not enough clearance inside the grill bottom to lift the burners clear of the gas valves when the control panel is in place.

At this point, the poor girl did not know what to tell me except to suggest perhaps it would be necessary to remove the control panel to pull the valves clear of the burner tubes. But that doesn't make sense! Surely the product can't be designed that poorly that regular maintenance that's to be performed "often" requires near complete dissasembly? Isn't there some other way to get the burners out? After all, we're talking flames and the potential for fire and exploding gas tanks, something I'm taking quite seriously.

Although she's taking the matter seriously enough to stay on the phone with me, she clearly is flummoxed abou how to proceed. We have so many different models... yeah, but that's what databases are for!

I apologize for ruining her average handle time and she puts me on hold again to see if she can find out more information. When she comes back, she suggests that we may be able to simply loosen the control panel a bit by removing the two screws holding it in place. Okay, this seems halfway reasonable, so I remove the screws. The panel isn't budging. I'm a small person and not necessarily all that strong, but I'm smart enough to figure out if it's a matter of applying greater strength or whether it's just not going to move no matter what I do. I tell the rep it won't budge.

Her response - I kid you not - Is there someone else there who can help you?

No, sorry, there's not! That's actually not quite all that I said, but if I share any more, I'd probably owe spousal unit an apology. Let's just say that despite appearances to some customer service folks I talk with, I really do have far more patience for this kind of work than he does so I figured all along I'd be doing this job without him.

Meanwhile, despite being told that I won't have to remove the shelves, I try loosening the screw on each side for those while I am simultaneously trying to impress upon her the fact that she does not have the information needed to help me and the value and importance of providing feedback to her superiors about that inadequacy.

Amazingly enough, this does the trick - loosening the screws, that is. Just that much, without having to remove the shelves themselves, I am able to loosen the control panel just enough to free the burners. It's still more effort than I'd really think is reasonable under the circumstances but at least it can be done.

As for providing the feedback, it doesn't sound like she got it, though she may have. If anyone sends me a survey, I'll be sure to point out that one of those shelving screws is also directly behind a gas-line fitting that makes it nearly impossible to access even with a stubby screwdriver, as well as the other various hassles I endured in this little adventure.

On the good side, blowing the burners out with water and cleaning out the worst-clogged holes with a paperclip wire does seem to have done the trick and now our grill isn't shooting out flames anymore. I can't say that the process involved is easy enough to make cleaning out the burners in this fashion is anywhere close to a reasonable expectation however.

From my perspective as a user who knows something about customer service, this is a nightmare from start to finish and it took me nearly the entire day to resolve. Product design that does not take into account ordinary usage. Incomplete information about appropriate maintenance of the product available to the consumer. Customer service that does not take into account the possibility that customers might have actually already availed themselves of all available information. And inadequate information provided to the customer service representatives themselves.

As I say regularly to anyone who will listen, customers successfully using supportable products has to be the real goal - not just getting the products to market - just like climbers have to focus more on getting home safely than on simply reaching the summit. This was clearly an example of the summit being more important than the end result. I'm just hoping it doesn't take exploding propane tanks and/or a class action lawsuit to get that point across.

If you have a customer service story to tell, go ahead and send it to me at and we can discuss if there might be better solutions out there somewhere.

How can information that could be used to improve our experiences get where it needs to go?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.