There’s a saying that “Customer service is an attitude, not a department.” The story that follows might be a perfect illustration of those wise words.
In 2009, as part of a renovation project, we re-built 2000 square feet of wood deck surrounding three sides of a house near the water. To frame the deck we used a highly anticipated, well-regarded (by respected sources) new lumber product called TimberSIL. Touted as pressure treated lumber without the chemicals, it was infused with a baked-in, supposedly rot-resistant glass barrier. The material was guaranteed to last for 40 years, and contained no residual chemicals so that when the wood reached the end of its useful life, it could be chipped up and used as mulch. The TimberSIL slogan was “Locked in for life”. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a pathetically short life.
Fortunately the material was so problematic to work with that we never used it again. Unfortunately, that one time we did use it was for a very large job. This year it failed, miserably. From a serviceable deck to a major hazard in no time flat. We discovered that there have been other major failures, most notably in the case of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which used it on houses they built in the post-Katrina 9th ward re-building, only to experience severe failures. Not surprisingly, the company is out of business and nowhere to be found.
We learned that that our liability insurance doesn’t cover this loss and that our client’s Homeowners’ coverage has a limitation for rot coverage that wouldn’t come anywhere near the cost of the new deck.
We felt that our clients deserved a new deck, but we also felt that they should participate in the replacement cost as they got eight years of service life and will now get a new deck. They agreed, but a very large chunk of the financial responsibility was on us.
I took Sandy Ray, the owner of Martha’s Vineyard Insurance (he sold it to a larger company five years ago but is still involved) out to see it. He said, “your liability insurance carrier would only cover if there was an incident and something or somebody were damaged.”
I said, “Look at this, Sandy, it’s an accident waiting to happen. Doesn’t the insurer want to avoid an accident?”
He said, “you know, John, it makes sense, but insurance companies are not known for their foresight. And there just isn’t any coverage.”
“I get it, Sandy,” I said, “but here’s the thing. Over the past four decades we have paid your company literally millions of dollars for insurance and never made a claim. Now we have a problem and we want help. There must be something you can do. I hope you’ll get creative and come up with something. I know you can do it!”
Three days later, he called and said he wanted to come talk to me. He said they can’t refund premiums or commissions, but, he said, “My son Matthew and I are going to do the dismantling of the deck for you.”
“You’re going to what?” I said.
“It’s something we can do to help,” replied Sandy.
It’s no exaggeration to say that he got about as creative as you can get – and then some! When he said he and Matt wanted to do the de-construction of the deck as a gesture of participation, I was startled. It was way more than a gesture! It was 100 hours of grueling work. Sandy, at the age of 73, worked throughout, long days. They did a beautiful job, they did it promptly, and they did it with great humor and plenty of pride.
I said to Sandy, “I’ve heard of good customer service, but this takes the cake!” We are grateful, impressed, and appreciative.
The new deck is complete. Ultimately, the cost has been equitably shared by all. Everyone’s feeling pretty good. Bad situation, sweet resolution.
I have no idea how much of this inferior product TimberSIL sold. There doesn’t appear to be much information available. I hope it wasn’t much.
It is not uncommon for us to be faced with evaluating new products that appear to be improvements over old products. We generally do so warily and carefully, with the understanding that when we choose to experiment there’s risk involved and that we may have to make good on failures that occur. Fortunately it doesn’t happen often. It’s heartbreaking when it does. In this case it was a good example of plain old bad judgment. But when you receive “the ultimate customer service “ it sure does take the sting out of it!
It’s looking a bit better now, isn’t it?
I really enjoy reading your blog. Fantastic little bits of insight into a truly remarkable company that you’ve built.
All the best for SMCo for 2018 and beyond.
Bravo, all! I would expect no less from South Mountain and the people they do business with! Keep it up – you’ve always been an inspiration for me, especially now, in life after the Vineyard.
Thanks Vicki and Fortunat.
Fortunat – we are constantly learning from your amazing company as well, and we appreciate!
South Mountain Co.
Would it be ok if I reprinted the customer service post from your blog in our company newsletter. Truly a tremendous example of attitude vs. department.
Happy New Year !
Our daughter found this and forwarded it to us. Last Wednesday, Aug. 21st 2019, we had just gotten off the ferry in Vineyard Haven on a nostalgic trip for me. I had last been on the Vineyard in 1959 staying with a family in Menemsha when not at sea aboard the RV Bear out of the WHOI. We went to the USPO for post card stamps. In the parking lot we hailed a random local to ask directions. It was Sand Roy. He not only answered our questions but engaged in an extended pleasant chat about various local options and our reason for the trip. Like on many of our trips, our luck held and we found the right person at the right time.
Long life and many more smiles to Sandy.