Last week, I had to call the county to have an inspector come to our house to check the work of a plumbing contractor who had installed our new dishwasher. The contractor gave me the number and said, “Call between 7 and 8am so you can make an appointment. If you call after that, they’ll be in the field and you’ll never nail down the time they’ll show up.”

As instructed, I called just after 7am and explained what I needed to the person who answered the phone. He told me to hang on, then put the phone down, and shouted, “Hey, Roger, where the f*** are the sheets for today? There’s a guy who wants to make an appointment and I can’t find the goddamn thing!” He went on like that for another minute, shuffling papers and cursing. Since I wasn’t on hold, I could hear everything that was said until another voice picked up the phone and said, “This is Roger. What’s your address?” When I told him, he said he’d arrive around 9:15am — and he did. The inspection took all of 90 seconds. I debated mentioning what I’d overheard, but decided against it.

That night, a friend told me about a run-in he’d had with a contractor who’s doing some landscape lighting for him. He’d been told the crew would show up between 1 and 5pm, so he called around 1pm to see if they could narrow it down, or at least tell him if they were running late. The woman who answered the phone said she had no idea, and the crew was working on another job at the moment. My friend asked if she could call them to see how their schedule looked, but she refused. Staying calm, he asked her again to please check and at least ask them to call before coming over, because he wanted to be 100% sure he was home so he didn’t miss them.

She finally relented, contacted them, then called him back to say the crew probably wouldn’t be there until about 5pm. He thanked her and hung up. A few minutes later, he got an email from the woman at the contractor’s office that she had obviously sent to the wrong person — my friend, instead of the crew — because it read, “This turd wants you to call him before you go.”

Beginning to regret hiring this contractor, my friend decided to play coy. He replied to her e-mail, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.” She didn’t respond, but about a half-hour later, he got a call from the owner of the company, apologizing for the e-mail and re-confirming that the crew would be there at 5pm.

I’ve mentioned this story to several people, all of whom said they would have told the owner to fire the woman for failing to represent his company in a good light with a customer. A couple said that they would have cancelled the work and found someone else to install the lighting. My wife, the ombudswoman for our family, said she wouldn’t have done either of those — she would have negotiated a discount from the owner for having been treated that way.

I don’t know what eventually happened to the woman at this company — any number of circumstances could have allowed her to continue working there, including being related to the boss — but I wasn’t surprised. I saw it as yet another example of bad customer service, a problem that seems to have become a pandemic in the last few years. In fact, I’m amazed when I deal with company representatives who are anything more than minimally competent, like the gentleman at Tele-Charge who helped me purchase some theater tickets over the phone yesterday, even finding me better seats on an aisle for a lower price.

This isn’t about companies making promises they can’t keep (in both cases, the inspector and the contractor showed up on time and did the work they were supposed to do to the satisfaction of the customers). It’s about having people on the front lines of your business who are good at dealing with the public. True, those are often lower-paying jobs with more-than-occasional frustrations, but that’s no excuse for doing it poorly.