A Christmas Meltdown

There's a moral to this story, though it is a bit more of a cautionary tale than most I write. While it doesn't rank with the story of three wise men or even Frank Capra's Christmas classic “It's a Wonderful Life,” you may find some common threads with both learning wisdom and remembering why throwing ourselves off a bridge isn't the best choice, as George Bailey considered doing.


The year was 2007 or maybe 2008, and it was most certainly Christmas Eve.

We are close geographically and relationally to my wife's family (The Claerbouts) and my family (The Orrs), and due to this, we always spend Christmas eve with one side and Christmas Day with the other.

Luckily, while Florida Summers can drive an A/C tech insane, the winter and especially the holidays tend to be quite slow. For me, as a new business owner and one of the only techs at Kalos, that meant that generally speaking, Christmas was a welcomed rest from a crazy year with seemingly endless hours.

As we were preparing the kids to head out to Leilani's parents, my phone started ringing (my cell phone WAS the emergency line).

The caller was a notoriously—challenging—customer with many vacation homes under management. I gritted my teeth, swore inside, and answered as nicely as I could.

“Brrryyyyan,” the customer exclaimed. He always had a way of stretchhhhing out my name in a way that exuded disappointment and condescension.

“We have guests arriving, and the POOL IS COLD! You JUSSSSSTTTT serviced that pool heater last month, and now it's NOT WORKING!”

I need to step back a bit and clarify that we work on a LOT of pool heaters in the winter. In Florida, we use gas and heat pump pool heating to keep pools over 80 degrees so that people from cold climates can vacation at Disney and swim in sauna-like temperatures, even when it's 40 degrees outside.

It's nice winter work for us, and I shouldn't complain, but ever since we started doing it, the term “emergency” has come to include 57-year-old, very white grandmas from Buffalo who need to take a swim after their day at Disney World, and—GASP! The pool is 73 degrees! Somebody better dial 911!

On this particular Christmas eve, this particular pool heater happened to be on the very far side of town, on the other side of Disney, over an hour away from where I live.

“Good grief!” I said as I hung up the phone, looking and sounding like Charlie Brown.

So, I hopped in the van and drove to the offending pool heater.

When I hopped out of the van, I found the very best thing an A/C tech can find when they are in a hurry.

So, I call the customer, quote the capacitor, to which they respond (as they always do), “Bryyyyyyannnn, you were jusssstttt out there! That seems like a bit much, don't you think?”

Keep in mind, this customer is also British, so every word carries the weight and gravitas of Queen Elizabeth during a knighting ceremony.

Yes, that is the price.

No, I didn't cause it.

Yes, I can do it now.

Yes, I will leave the pool heater on.

I slap that sucker in, fire it up, check amps, grab the suction line (it's cold), touch the discharge line (it's hot), check the pool timer, and look at the pool valve positions. All is well as far as I'm gonna check today, and I'm OUT OF THERE!

Noon approaches, and I'm almost home, then…

Bzzzzt… bzzzzt… bzzzzzzzzzzzzt!

Because I'm by myself with no wife and kids, I curse out loud with all the words a Christian homeschooler can think of, “Poppycock and fiddlesticks!”

“Brrrrrrryyyyannn, the pool is SHTILLLLLLL COLLLLDDD!” shrieked Sean Connery's twin on the other end of the line in an agitated baritone.

Oh, is the pool still cold? Yes. Of course, the pool is still cold. It will take DAYS for a full-sized pool to heat up to 80+ degrees with a heat pump heater. I know this, they know this—everyone who knows ANYTHING about pools knows this.

I explain this to my dear, sweet, favorite customer in a squeaky, pre-pubescent voice and reassure them that the pool will eventually heat up but that it will take half a millennium AS PER THE USUAL, not one hour, which is all it had been since I left.

“BRYYYYYANNNNNN!!!!” the customer howled with a voice between that of Lord Voldemort and a hungry werewolf, “It is one thing for you to continue to rip us off with all these failed capacitors but quite ANOTHER for you to make excuses for a pool heater that IS NOT FIXED! You must GO BACK.”

This is the moment that this article is about: the moment of truth and choice that separates the wise leaders, managers, and techs from the reactive.

I took a breath.

I paused.

I reflected.

And I told the customer,

“I value your business. I'm as certain as I can be that the heater is working as expected, and it will take at least 24 hours, if not several days, for that pool to reach temperature. If it isn't warm in two days, give me a call. Otherwise, have a very Merry Christmas.”

No.

That's what I should have done. Instead, I pulled over my van too fast in preparation to turn around, and I hit an enormous piece of tire retread on the side of the road.

Just like Ralphie, I shouted, “OHHH FUUUUUUDDDGEEEE!” on the phone.

Only I didn't say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

The customer hung up on me, and I was sitting on the side of the road with a big, black rubber road rash on my van and the metaphorical taste of soap in my mouth where the ghost of my mother past washed the dirty word out.

So, I went back to the pool heater.

There was nothing wrong.

I explained everything to the customer and apologized for freaking out.

It turned out fine.

But the lesson of the story for us in the trade is that we need to be prepared for customers to be unrealistic, demanding, and rude. It comes with the territory, and who knows what they are going through that may be contributing to their behavior.

All I needed to do was be better emotionally prepared with what I am and am not willing to do, not with emotion, but as a clear business decision.

Many of our jobs in the field include being on-call, and many customers will have a different definition of what's an emergency and what isn't. We are best off being friendly, clear, and sometimes saying no in a polite, professional tone.

Merry Christmas, and may your on-call be easy and your customers friendly.

—Bryan

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