The window will not open, close, stay up, lock or tilt back in. Or, there’s air coming in around it. Or, it’s leaking. Or, there’s fog trapped between glass panes. Or…
When homeowners experience a window problem, they typically have no idea how to describe it. “They can never articulate the term ‘seal failure’ says Doug Cook, president of Feldco, an Illinois window company and one of the nation’s largest. “They say: ‘There’s fog in my window!’ or ‘There’s fog between the glass!’ or ‘I can’t wash these windows!’ or ‘I can’t see through them.’”
But contractors don’t blame buyers for failing to know window terminology or mechanics. “They don’t know what a pivot bar is or a balance view,” says Dan Schweihs, president of Window Universe, a multi-unit window and door chain, who blogs on window issues as The Window Dog. “All they know is that the window’s not working.” And that’s all that matters. (Note: for a blog series on window terminology click here).
RFS: A Reminder
In retail, the seller’s responsibility for the look or function of what’s sold diminishes to just about nothing the instant the transaction is complete. So how much does malfunction matter to the home improvement company that sold a window?
A lot, because the manner in which such Request For Service is handled at window replacement companies provides an accurate reading of just how serious the operation is when it comes to customer satisfaction. “It is,” says Schweihs, who worked as a manufacturer’s inspector on window warranty issues before opening his retail company, “an opportunity to remind the customer why they went with you.”
The age of online reviews has upped the ante. Anything other than a prompt and courteous response risks brand damage. Window companies are often at pains to reassure prospective customers that, once installed, they’ll handle any problem with the window or its performance. Homeowners take such assurances seriously. Windows once sold become an obligation, at least for the life of the warranty.
Above And Beyond
That seems reasonable, given how much homeowners paid, but for window dealers, a non-stop stream of service calls, costly and aggravating, is something to avoid. John Gorman, president of Save Energy Co., a door and window contractor in Petaluma, CA, became alarmed when manufacturers began offering lifetime warranties on product and some window contractors followed suit by offering lifetime warranties on their installs. “I fought this tooth and nail with the [manufacturer] salespeople,” Gorman says. “I didn’t want to be responsible for something for life.” But, he says, “my fears have not been met as far as people calling from 20 years ago and wanting service.” There are occasionally calls from as far back as the 1990s, but since most involve seal failure Save Energy Co. will find out if the window is under warranty and if it is “we let the manufacturer know and they go out and change out the glass.”
The key is having a process to manage service calls, even if the reason for such calls is often ambiguous. Windows differ from roofing in that if a new roof fails, it’s likely an installation flaw, whereas with windows it may a problem with the product. Changes in design, engineering, materials, any of it, could result in a run of windows that malfunction at some point. “I can’t control the manufacturing process,” notes Jim Lett, owner of A.B.E. Doors & Windows in Allentown, PA, who’s been selling windows since 1974. “They can change who they’re buying the glass from, or do something in-house that’s not fully tested. You just don’t know. Things happen.”
A window problem might also, Schweihs points out, be something that’s neither the manufacturer’s fault nor the installer’s, but simply a matter of homeowner cluelessness. For instance, a customer complained on Yelp that the basement window recently installed by Window Universe leaked when it rained. The company contacted the homeowner and an investigation showed that a deck above the window unit wasn’t sealed to the house, allowing water infiltration. It’s possible “to get blamed for something that’s not our fault,” Schweihs notes, and “the trickiest situations are not caused by us at all.”
Calming Jangled Nerves
Technology’s proved useful in reducing the number of site visits, which enables companies to be at the house when it’s clearly needed. For instance, Yankee Home Improvement in Chicopee, Mass. doesn’t charge for window service calls. “We’re happy to go out and service the window for free,” says owner Ger Ronan. Most calls used to be for seal failure but after switching window vendors a few years back, Ger Ronan says, ninety percent of the calls the company now gets are from homeowners who tilted the window out and then couldn’t get it properly aligned when they pulled it back in. “It’s an easy fix,” he says. “They have to engage it at a 90 degree angle. We walk them through it on the phone.”
Window Universe systematized its call handling approach. “We ask them to email us pictures of the problem,” Schweihs says. “It can be a waste of resources to run all over town with wrong parts and no game plan to solve the problem.” After taking a day to inspect three separate houses where homeowners had called complaining of drafty windows, and finding in each case that the unlocked windows were “actually not closed,” Schweihs put together step-by-step digital documents and some simple videos that enable customers to fix, or at least clarify, what the problem is.
Systems Resolve Complaints
For a smaller company like Rosenello’s Windows, Siding & Roofing in Philadelphia, which depends for much of its business on referral leads, resolving a customer issue may be “frustrating and time consuming”—with more paperwork on the manufacturer end, and customers limited in when they can be home—but it’s a priority.
“Most customers are logical, and understand it’s a product issue,” owner Mike Rosenello says. He’ll ask callers to slide the window open “and give me the numbers on the label, or snap a picture of it. With the right questions, oftentimes we don’t even have to go out there [to investigate]. Most of it involves failed sashes” and older windows.
Rosenello Windows orders parts and sends a technician. And while he’s willing to service customers with that kind of complaint, Rosenello says he’s lately reconsidered his policy. Lifetime service is “a little bit ridiculous.” Now the company offers a three-year workmanship warranty.
Reasonable and Responsible
Large-volume companies can be particularly at risk. Feldco, for instance, which installed 15,000 window jobs last year, manages service calls by the book. “Our philosophy is, we don’t want it to be a black hole,” Cook says, pointing out that catalog retailer L.L. Bean recently changed a long-standing return policy that enabled customers to return any product for any reason. But when it comes to service, Feldco contracts include exclusions involving window problems that are obviously not the company’s fault, such as vandalism. Installation problems normally make themselves known “within 12 months post-install” and are usually an easy fix. Feldco offers a lifetime product warranty and a five-year labor warranty. But the amount of time that’s passed since installation “will dictate how we proceed.” One basic reason is that parts may not be available. The 15-year old service department at Feldco is “not a profit center. We want to make sure [customers] are satisfied with our products and services,” Cook says.
Sometimes it happens that a window manufacturer is no longer in business to fix windows or supply parts. For instance, A.B.E. Door & Window began to get calls about seal failure on windows made by a company that folded and was subsequently sold to a competitor. The new owner gave homeowners a year to resolve any glass issues. Lett notified customers who’d purchased the manufacturer’s windows from his company that he would give them a ten-year, pro-rated period in which he would replace failing glass. He estimates the cost of doing that at $20,000 to $25,000 a year in labor and materials.
“I could’ve walked away and said that’s a manufacturer issue,” he says. “I could’ve said we take care on the service end of problems we caused. But they put their faith and trust in my company.”