Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Delivery Men Always Ring Twice

Desperate to reel in spring, I bought a large house plant last week. There were pulleys available for me to lug it out to the car myself, but the shop attendant hauled it for me. Two degrees from a light snow, he did this under a freezing rain. When he carefully assessed my compact itty bitty mini van, he realized it couldn't stand upright. He dashed back inside and returned with cardboard boxes and bags. He collapsed the boxes to line the the floor of the trunk, and cut and taped the bags to fit around the pot so the boxes, let alone the car, wouldn't get soiled. The whole time he was monkeying around with his props, the plant and my car, he was maintaining an umbrella over my head at an appropriate and steady height as I stood by his side. Now, hairdressers here walk you out to your bike or car with an umbrella over your head, but even that over-the-top gesture is a little more understood than a garden supply employee being concerned about keeping a customer's hairdo in tact. He seemed satisfied enough with his packing job to trust that I could make the 3 KM hop back to my house. At 50 KPH en route home, he somehow beat me there. A flashing light on the answering machine was welcoming me. He requested me to return the call if there was any mess due to his packing job, assuring me that he would arrange for the car to be cleaned, if necessary. "And to please feel free to return the boxes and bags for disposal if it's a cost or burden for me to wait for trash day in my neighborhood."

I'm going to keep an eye on the mailbox for a standard issued follow up gift-towel set from that Do It Yourself store where, incidentally, I did Nothing By Myself. I've learned that once I buy or install something in Japan, I've bought a relationship with the manufacturer for life. They follow up on their follow up, and their good word follows you for life. I can't seem part with money for repairs, even when it's clear that I'm the guilty party standing next to a crushed antique cookie jar with crumbs all over my face. A 2010 poll claims that Tokyo just bumped Moscow off the top spot as the most expensive city for expatriates in the world. Well, there's always more to those surveys than the rankings reveal. I'd have to eyeball the repair bills of my counterparts in Russia repair bills to check the big picture. Upfront costs are expensive, but I've come to terms with the fact that every purchase is like a debit card -- you over pay at the start, and everything thereafter comes as an accessory.

The Couchmen left a little while ago. I call them Couchmen, even though that might not be their true job title, because they were so fantastic at what they did with my old and new couches, that I have dubbed it their specialty. I must clarify that Couchmen should never be confused as a new stylish way to address a Couchpotato. The titles carry polar opposite cultural connotations. The Couchmen phoned the day before to politely inform me that they would arrive between 3:30 and 5:30 PM. The morning of delivery, Head Couchman phoned at 9 AM with an update after having assessed their loads and routes for the day. They would arrive around 4 PM, and require approximately 45 minutes from the starting blocks. My Ohio based Mother talks about losing days cooped up in the house waiting for delivery or repair men to show, or no-show up. She would have loved the idea that she would know a day in advance that she would only be on house sitting duty from 4 to 4:45 PM. She could have been at that Do It Yourself store getting plants to highlight her soon to be new couch set.

The doorbell rang at 3:59 PM. The Head entered with a bow, handed me his business card introduced his co-worker. He assessed the "already there" scratches on our wooden floors and proceeded to put down futon like tarps all the way from the outside to the middle of the living room to prevent soiling our already damaged, dusty floors. First they cleared the over-used set, then measured the area to determine the best entry with the new three-seater. After a 15 minute advanced architectural evaluation of the just a hair too low lying of a living room doorway, their strategy shifted to coming through an adjacent tatami mat room which required removing the traditional, most delicate, shoji double doors. Donned in jumpsuits, stocking feet and white gloves, they completed the removal, delivery and assembly in 15 minutes or less. By 4:30 they were rolling up the floor covers and using their dual battery powered dust busters to clean the work area without consuming my electricity. At 4:44 the Couchmen, Paperdoormen and now De-dustmen were handing me "after care" contact numbers in case I detected any malfunction or dissatisfaction after they left. I doubted I would need to activate the hot line, but I would love to see the next delivery crew shave the performance time down to 30 minutes, and I could even watch the action from a freshly installed couch. If there is a next time, I will be sure to exercise my share of the "before care" by breaking down potential barriers and clearing my couchpotato path.

Several years ago, we bought an Exercycle. One day, it seemed to go kaput. I called the store where we bought it, and the sales representative forwarded me to the company location closest to me that handles repairs. A repairman came to the house, the next day, based on my schedule, armed with a supply box that could rewire a cock pit. He spread a work mat on the floor as not to soil our carpet, and then asked me what the problem was. I explained that it had been fine, but suddenly when I turned the power on, lights would flash and the screen would freeze. He turned the power on. Power off. Used a ball point pen to push the "reset" function. Power on. Voila. Working. Over and out. I didn't know if I should be disappointed that I didn't get to see him tool around that box, or if I should have been impressed with myself that I had the supply of ball point pens that could repair a bike. The punch line? No charge. A house call, the next day, at no charge. He didn't think he did enough to justify collecting money. Well I was thinking he should at least write up an invoice for "ignorant customer," or at least, "ignorant teacher couldn't even use a pen," but funny invoices weren't part of their company policy. He has since made a trip back to replace a part that was making odd noises, and again, charged nothing. By that time, it was no longer within the warranty period, but after a block of hours taking the bike apart and rebuilding it, he just thought it shouldn't have been creaking in the first place. My daughter was so captivated for the duration while watching him work, that I really tried to get him to take what I would have charged in junior high school for babysitting, but no. He was more into the promise of the company logo on his badge than the potential room for more in his hourly wage.

My jogging stroller didn't survive a flight from Chicago to Tokyo. (I know what you're thinking: with all this exercise equipment, why not build some strength by fixing things yourself?) The stroller made it in one piece, but the shape was unsafe to use. The (State-side based) airline wouldn't claim responsibility, so I thought I would try to get it repaired before I was reduced to scrapping it for parts and replacing it. I took it to a bike shop. I figured it has the same function as a bike, and they'd have the tools, expertise, or at least a recommendation on where to take it. Instinctively, the repairman was reluctant to touch it since he would feel responsible for an infant's safety if he couldn't produce a sound repair job. I just thought, I'm trying to be resourceful here, and the alternative is the trash pile, so why not just give it a whack and we'll go from there (not the kid, the stroller). He agreed, fixed it, oiled it, and cleaned up the fabric. In the end, it looked better than the new model (the stroller, not the kid). No charge. In my mind I thought, but I got a repair on an item that I brought in. Isn't that what a labor or service charge is for? His mindset was more like, it's not a bike, and I'm not trained on strollers. I can't charge you. To try to pay back, which felt more like get back, I since have taken my 2 wheel bike in for air, break tightening, and minor adjustments to patron his business. He still hasn't taken a dime off me. Maybe he's waiting until he feels it's time to take my life in Japan training wheels off, then I'll pay a removal fee.

When we were preparing to move last year, a young company representative, smartly dressed in suit and tie came to the house and greeted me with his business card. He bowed, removed his shoes, put on the house slippers that he pulled from a sleeve of his briefcase and discreetly entered our home. His task was to provide an estimate based on how big our They Haul load appeared. We made pleasant small talk, chatting mostly about soccer (OK, I listened more, based lack of knowledge on Real Madrid's record this season, not because I'm not the chatty type) as he swiftly moved from room to room jotting notes on his clip board. He drew up a contract, I poured some coffee, we sat and signed. He gave me a gift box of soaps and a box of laundry detergent, which apparently are high on the don't bother to pack list, and thus useful in a move. I guess he was distracted by Bend it Like Beckham, because he assigned a truck just one size too small. The moving team arrived, and quickly realized they would need to make two trips. It's not as simple as it sounds (because taking two trips with a moving van sounds like a breeze?) because they had to honor another contract in between.

When the company unloaded us into our new place, two times that day, they removed their shoes, dusted the area before they placed boxes or furniture, hooked up essentials, and took their trash back with them. They loaded and unloaded everything including the traditional kick off of the shoes in the entrance way. They were cleaned and pressed, and managed to lift beds over their heads and climb a flight of stairs in stocking feet without slipping or cursing, for that matter. They followed up with a spontaneous pop in the next day in case they left a roll of bubble wrap or any debris behind for removal. Imagine the expense the company had to swallow, which the one crummy cup of Kilimanjaro that I served wouldn't cover. They did it. The same crew made three hauls that day. We thought we should offer something to compensate the underestimation. Money did not change hands. My husband got them to accept a six pack of Kirin lager, which somehow made the list of things to bring above the boxed soaps and laundry detergent that, if not a gift, we would have forgotten.

Besides the basic new furniture delivery from factory stores, electricians from each category of installment came separately in swinging-door fashion. They installed satellite dishes, air conditioning units and hooked up the water at the precise estimated time we said we'd be arriving at our new place on moving day. There must have been 6 service cars and a moving van on the narrow-I-can't-believe-this-could-be-two-way-street in front of the house at once. The service is so thorough, that I'm surprised one of them didn't provide a parking attendant or traffic cop. They set the time on the remotes, programed the TVs to the "ideal" energy saving settings, set the hot water temperatures at a comfortable setting, and even went as far as programming the bath timer to fill the tub for a pre-bedtime soak. Another electrician took the initiative to log us on to a 2 week free trial for cable on both sets. The furniture deliveries swept before they placed the items, removed the plastic dust covers, and cleaned up after themselves by taking the trash with them. All I had to do was stand in one place with the official signature stamp and stamp clipboards that rotated around me as each expert completed his task.

One minor detail that I missed, as far as not calling to make the contract transfer from the old house to the new house, was the gas company. The downside was that we couldn't call what felt like the "front desk" at our thus far luxury customer satisfaction set up and stay for a wake up call. Instead, a cold shower would do it. Oops. Hot water is powered by natural gas in this town. Although the electronic gage was set at an ideal temperature, you really do need gas hook up to heat water. I realized that in the middle of the night, when the absurd mental check list enters in and out of your slumber, like, did we pack the child? I rose in the wee hours and tried to run the "H" knob. Thinking I would get an answering machine informing me of the operating hours at the gas company, I phoned to collect information, or better yet, leave a message. Bigger Oops. A representative answered at 3 AM. This was not how I wanted to start my relationship with the indispensable gas man. Sorry that I edited the Land of the Rising Sun to the Hour of the Rising Gas Man, I stumbled through a taken-off-guard-apology, and asked when they opened. I said goodnight/morning(?) and thought I would call back at 9 AM, when the civilian world would invite incoming calls. He was at the door at 8 AM with the hook up supplies. And a towel. He apologized for somehow not reading our minds and initiating contact, and has since stopped by at least 3 times just to make sure we aren't having any problems, or maybe to make sure we haven't burned the house down.

I needed to connect a new computer to our wireless network, and couldn't crack the access codes on my own. I called our local server and they sent a representative to the house. Unfortunately, I didn't have the correct software, so instead of telling me to do my homework and then call him back, he got in the car with me and we drove to the local electronics store together. I'd call that a gold star house call, upgraded to a platinum house-to-the-store-and-back-to-the-house-call. I and my new laptop were up and running and emailing home to tell about the victory within minutes. I've been in touch with my brother in California lately about troubleshooting some techno glitches that would bring his TV cable to our home computer. It's a bumpy work in progress, so he's calling the for profit, charge by the hour "Geek Squad," an off shoot crew available through the store where he was originally over charged for the product, for a pinch hit on the job. There is no such customer service team in Japan, unless it translates simply as, "Old Fashioned Work Ethic," or, better yet, "The Right Thing to Do."

I am a split personality consumer. I have 2 sides: the US inquiry side, and the Japan inquiry side. My approach to customer service centers depending on the language and location is completely different. Something about a 1-800 number sends an auto protective vest on my delivery, semi-assuming that I need to have my defensive gloves on to brace for the catch. On the other hand of the speed dial, there is something effective on the Japan side when it comes to arranging a house call for a repair. I somehow end up apologizing in advance, as if I'm disturbing them when I make a request. Perhaps this feeling is because I know they will go overboard in their "after care," which would leave me feeling indebted to their company, rather than keeping focus on the fact that something I paid for is on the fritz. But there is a person behind the company, and that service representative and I now have a relationship, and as if they are a teammate of mine, I want to see us both succeed. The American side? Granted, but not guaranteed, things tend to be cheaper up front compared to the world record setting Tokyo prices. However, we tend to knee jerk our approach to that not-so-toll-free call: "OK, here we go, I know I'll be on hold for an hour, and then you'll find a loop hole denying my rights as a customer, so let's get this over with..." Which geographical or cultural side of this service industry do I want to be on? I think I'd skip the world that calls for a Geek Squad, and opt to bat for the team that tends to push coffee and beer as currency for awhile. I'll never win in the follow through swing or the gift giving rotation game in Japan, but I've found it to be the more dignified way to take the fall in the battle when things break down.