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Modern customer-support lines are the butt of countless jokes, and rightly so. These stories, the stuff of myth and legend, are often just folks venting, saying to their friends what they couldn’t say to a live person on the other end of the phone. I recently did battle with a few of the seasoned vets at the Lowe’s help desk and came away — like many other support callers — with a few new scars and an overwhelming desire to torch the product in question.

After hundreds of hours of hard use, my Task Force belt/disc sander snapped its primary drive belt. For those of you who can’t picture it, it’s the drive belt that connects the motor to the large sanding belt on the top of the unit. Without it, only the disc spins. So when it snapped it rendered the sander largely useless, and I needed a new one.

My first thought was a bit naïve: “I’ll just pop down to Lowe’s and pick up another one.” As you’ve probably guessed, this plan wasn’t destined for success, and I felt foolish for trying. So it was back to the shop for some digging. I searched the machine itself and couldn’t find a single number to call anywhere on it — but I did write down what I could find, like the model number, manufacture date, and serial. Armed with this wealth of information I headed to the web to find the Task Force support line and get my belt.

A five-minute search led me to the rather disturbing realization that Task Force doesn’t have a website. After two-plus years of tool writing I already knew this, but for some reason I was in denial over it. Swallowing hard, I put on the waders and called the Lowe’s support number. It was there that I was witness to the most glorious hand-off routine I have ever seen. I knew it then: I was out of my league. These people were professionals, well-schooled in help-line sleight of hand — and I was at their mercy.

Somewhere between the third and forth representative, a wire was crossed and the person trying to assist me kept asking what kind of lawn-mower belt I was looking for. He deftly handed me back into the queue when I made it clear a belt sander was very different from a mower and it didn’t really matter how good it was, it wasn’t going to work.

About twenty minutes had gone by. I was on the third call-in number and fifth rep when the line kicked me back off hold to a rep who exclaimed with pride that she’d found the number I actually needed to call. Foolishly, again, I had hope.

Thirty-five minutes in, I’d been handed off a total of seven times and given nine numbers to call — and all of them had been completely stumped and quickly shuffled me off to somewhere else that was not their problem. I was a bit disgruntled, but I pressed on in search of my belt with the eighth support representative, who put me on hold for about two minutes and returned with four numbers of manufacturers that might have built my sander.

The third one on that list was the correct number. I spoke with a very nice lady who correctly identified the belt I needed and informed me that for a few bucks and a few more in shipping I could have my belt in a few days.

I hung up for the last time and stopped to consider why I was peeved. No one had raised their voice or hung up on me like the horror stories you often hear. Instead, I realized, they had all found a much easier solution to their problem — to make it someone else’s issue. In this way they could smoothly, even politely, be rid of me in less than five minutes, without actually helping — and after all I couldn’t really complain, because they had given me a number to call at which they were sure someone would be able to help. It was the pride in their voice when they asked me if there was anything else they could help with that really started to damage my calm.

I’ve dealt with support enough times to know that just because a person is paid to deal with me doesn’t mean they’ll go out of their way to do so. However, it would be most refreshing for companies to have support systems in place that would at least be able to direct you where to go when you need a replacement part for a product they still sell.

Lowe’s Customer Support Line: 800.445.6937


31 Responses to Editorial: Customer Support And You

  1. steve says:

    Serves you right. If you had bought a decent tool to begin with, that wouldn’t have happened. It all you shlubs that buy the ‘cheapest P.O.S tool possible from these hacks that allow Lowes and Home Depot to continue to push them. Then real tool manuactures have to cheapen up good tools to compete. Then Lowes and H.D. switch tools around to find a cheaper tool by a nickel, and all you can buy there is crap. I hope it breaks again on you, only to find out they don’t make it anymore becasue it’s a Lowes special.

  2. Ray says:

    That seems a bit harsh Steve,. It seems that the sander has served Sean well for a long time and was perfectly suitable for his purpose. . While I prefer quality well built tools, sometimes the proposed use just doesn’t justify the price point. Sean isn’t running a cabinet shop out if his garage, he just wants the convenience of having a belt sander w/o dropping a ton of cash.

    To suggest that buying a tool that is “merely sufficient” for your needs is somehow creating a “race to the bottom” in tool quality is absurd. There are more tool choices on the market today than ever before, some of very high quality, with a robust support network, and an equally high price point geared towards the pro/heavy user (Festool, Metabo, etc.) as well as some that are certainly more “value line”, but this increases choices rather than diminishing them.

    I’ll put my soap box away now.

  3. Vito says:

    Let’s see, Steve either owns/works at a small hardware/tool store, or, drives a Mac or SnapOn truck. Right?

  4. John E. says:

    I actually agree with Steve, in less harsh words though, you get what you pay for. If your tool _doesn’t_ come with a parts list, don’t except to be able to find the part.

    Instead Sean (the article author) should realize that if he wore out a tool, it means a lot to him and he should therefore invest in something better. That’s my rule, if I buy a tool for ‘one time use’ I buy cheap….but if I end up using it so much it breaks, buy a Milwaukee version of it 🙂

  5. John E. says:

    /dyslexia – except = expect

  6. Scott says:

    Customer service is costly to provide and hard to do well. House brand tools compete on price first, utility second, and serviceability somewhere down the line. Often customer service is the forst place costs are cut.

    I have no experience with Task Force or Husky, but I’d be surprised (and skeptical) of any electric tools that did not include an exploded view and part numbers list. The lack of such information would tell me the vendor sees the tool as disposable: Don’t fix it, buy another one. Not my style.

    I can provide a contrasting example. Bought an Ingersol Rand pneumatic chisel. Used it to clan up a bunch of thinset. Messy, but effective. At the end of the job, I cleaned the tool up, including spinning the spring off, cleaning it and the barrel and spinning it back on. Read the owners manual twice to be sure I avoided any goof-ups.

    Went to use the tool again days later. The spring broke within minutes. Called I.R. and was told I should have backed the spring of 3-4 turns. Not a word about that in the manual. No blame game. Their rep. offered to send me three springs without further discussion. Got them in days. Wanted to get job done that day. Found the spring at their local dealer (not the big box store) at a fair price.

    If I had bought the house brand, would I have been treated the same way? I doubt it. Sean’s tail of woe is probably repeated many ties a day.

  7. ShopMonger says:

    Steve Get a life. …

    We cannot all afford the best of the best each time. I am so happy you can (rolling eyes dont’ care) But as for cheap tools, yeah we can bitch about bad cust rep departments but we can also take the money we saved and buy 2 of the cheap ones versus one of the regular ones. Yeah it is harder to fix them. But I would rather add functionality to my shop when possibel. i love good tools but cannot always have what I want. Some of us (not steve) just work on our tools to keep them running. I find it challenging, and self rewarding. Instead of other who ahve to have to have everyhting done for them (steve).

  8. Kurt says:

    Think that is bad, try having your AT&T DSL go dead. 5 days on and off with tech support, straining to hear every word from whatever third world hellhole is offering cheap labor these days. Still no resolution, having to use dial up now. Sure hope their CEO gets a another big fat bonus this year.

  9. Toolaremia says:

    Kurt: Nice thread hijack. 🙂 Though I agree completely. Don’t sweat it, we’ll be a third-world hellhole before long with the way the dollar is going. Then you can get bad tech support in crystal-clear English! ;-D

    Sean O: I had a similar experience with a belt on a Campbell Hausfeld oilless compressor. Seems Home Despot (or was it Ho’wes), has compressors that are specially made for them. Not sold under private label, but unique to the store. Took me about half the reps but twice the time as your adventure, and I had the part number from the parts list! I actually had to go into a store to copy the support number from a parts list on a similar new compressor. The number in my manual didn’t work. :-p

  10. SuperJdynamite says:

    I buy cheap tools from time to time. I fully expect that what I save on the front end I’ll pay for on the back end should the tool break and I want to fix it.

    That said I find that The Internet is a great resource when it comes to finding replacement parts or getting advice on a particular repair. Maybe it would help if Sean posted specifics, such as “Task Force sander model X might be manufactured by Y or Z and if your belt breaks you can order replacement part A”. That way it would enter the Googlesphere and help somebody else with the same problem.

  11. river1 says:

    while they don’t list task force as a brand you may be able to find it by tool part number at http://www.toolpartsdirect.com/

    hope it helps someone

    later jim

  12. kif says:

    Times are tough, and when you go to the Mecca of cheap tools, Harbor Freight, you will find that most guys there are self employed schmucks trying to muddle through. Sometimes I get tired of the “only cry once” line of logic when it comes to tool buying. Sometimes buying the quality option is just not possible – and in case nobody’s noticed, middle of the road is not available anymore. Nothing filling the void between WalMart and Norm’s shop.

    For all we know this sander was assembled in the same Chinese plant contracted to produce DeWalt. It is highly unlikely that the belt is unique to this machine. It’s probably common to many other similar machines, and I think Sean’s frustration is reasonable because someone along the line should have tipped him to a cross reference.

    Failing that, always keep the broken belt. Every major city has a run down warehouse district beyond the crack houses and stripped cars, where there are a million of these kinds of belts stockpiled and some 150 year old dude knows exactly where it is.

  13. Dex says:

    I like this line from kif. It rings true from my observation:

    >>and in case nobody’s noticed, middle of the road is not available anymore. Nothing filling >>the void between WalMart and Norm’s shop.

  14. JB says:

    Anytime I need a belt I just call napa autoparts. Nine times out of ten they have it, if not they can get it and most of the time the same day.

  15. Bart'sDad says:

    The auto refresh on Toolmonger can be quite frustrating. Third attempt to reply, only to have it refresh and clear out all I have typed. Maybe I should learn to type faster. URGHHHH!

  16. Bart'sDad says:

    Companies that care about their product generally provide good support. Companies that are only concerned about making a buck generally don’t.

  17. Toolaremia says:

    Bart’sDad: Get Firefox. It preserves text in text boxes across refreshes. (Just survived another one.)

  18. eschoendorff says:

    I’ve had my own frustrating experiences with Ridgid cordless tools. Their warranty is only as good as their contracted “service centers.” After a call, several emails, a visit to a “service center” and even a call out to a second “service center,” my problem is still unresolved.

    My condolences to any professional who actually depends on these tools…

  19. fred says:

    I’ve said it before, but it is different for those of us who need to earn a living from their tools or (more precisely) those who are buying tools so that their workers can help them earn their living.

    When a tool fails on the jobsite it either needs to be replaced immediately (for critical tools we maintain spares) or worse yet it can ruin a piece of work. It is a waste of time and money to heed to dispatch a crew member, in the middle of a job, out to a local supplier to find a replacement tool.

    We also do not maintain a dedicated repair shop or handle anything beyond obvious maintenance repairs (brush or belt replacement covered by the owners manual) – and unauthorized repairs by unqualified technicians can become a serious OSHA issue should the repaired tool fail resulting in injury.

    All of this leads me to try to source many of my tools and heavy equipment from local suppliers who also are authorized repair stations for the brands that they carry. Based on volume of business, I can negotiate prices that may not be quite as low as on the Internet, but I know that I will get service. That’s not to say that I do not buy oddball items from Internet suppliers – but even then – when I buy a brand that is handled by my local guy – he will service it. I realize that when you spend six figures per year you may get better treatment than a homeowner buying at a big-box store.

  20. Bart'sDad says:

    Toolermia: I do use Firefox!

  21. Zathrus says:

    and in case nobody’s noticed, middle of the road is not available anymore. Nothing filling the void between WalMart and Norm’s shop.

    I disagree entirely — I much more agree with Ray (look all the way up to the 2nd comment) that there is a far greater degree of tool choice today than in the past. As an example, you can buy a circular saw from $40 (Harbor Freight) to $800 (Festool), and there are dozens of models in between.

    The same is true for just about any other non-niche tool (and an increasing number of niche tools). I don’t see how this is anything but good news to pros and DIYers alike.

    Frankly, I’m sick of people whining about there not being any quality tools left — as Ray mentioned, there are a number of high-end tool brands that give service and performance you’d expect. And before you bitch about how much they cost — realize that 20 years ago you would’ve paid more (in comparable dollars) for a similar tool. Do tools from the (insert favored decade here) last forever? Some do. But take an equivalent amount of money now ($100 in 1972 is more like $500 today) and buy a tool with it and I bet it’ll last decades too. And in most cases you can spend half the money, or less, and get a tool that would last decades too. As an example, in 1971 you could buy a Craftsman 7 1/4″ Circular Saw w/ extra blade for $34.88 (Christmas) or $42.88 (the previous summer); Spend $184.34 or $226.62 in 2007 dollars. Thanks to http://www.wishbookweb.com for the archived catalogs…

    As for customer service — it’s hit or miss at just about any price level, and has been for decades. I agree it’s gone more toward the worse end recently, even for mid-price range brands, and that’s a very valid complaint. Particularly when you’re given the runaround like Sean was.

  22. olderty says:

    2 things:

    1. I consider Craftsman to be middle of the road. They always have a (in my opinion) decent quality tools, decent price, decent warranty, and if all else fails you can get the parts for whatever you bought online or at a store. Hint: look for the older guys, they usually know their stuff. I figure my time = money too, like if I have to go back to HF to replace another _fill_in_the_blank_tool_.

    2. The auto refresh is very unnecessary. And loading up all the digg.com links when you first hit the main page takes too long. Don’t get me wrong though, the content is still good.

  23. Chris says:

    I thought the auto-refresh was disabled a while back…but it’s definitely back with a vengeance now and I hate it more than ever.

    Do the people running this site actually read the comments? Because I’m beginning to think they don’t. I have yet to see an explanation for WHY this auto-refresh exists, and it’s quite clear that NONE of the commenters are in favour of this feature.

    If your users unanimously hate a “feature” of your product, that’s probably a good sign that you should redesign your product. This applies equally to tools, Web sites, software, and just about everything else.


  24. Michael Pendleton says:

    Just FYI: Customer Support reps are not paid to answer your questions, or to be more precise they are not paid according to the accuracy or helpfulness of their answers. They are in a strictly volume-based model model and are tracked by how long they are on the phone with any given caller. Not the satisfaction of the caller, just how long it takes to get them off the line. So, passing a difficult caller (or a caller with a difficult problem!) on to another rep is just the smart thing to do. Keeps your numbers low, and then maybe you get that $25 bonus…

    Talk about getting what you pay for!

  25. ambush27 says:

    Belts are a wear and tear item that has to be replaced when they stretch or wear, that being said I know a guy who bought a cheapass snowblower last season and the belt broke second day. the great thing about belts is they’re sortof universal any auto distributor will have serpentine and v-belts in many different sizes and profiles often in even 1/2 inch sizes, so screw the manufacturer.

    and there are many middle of the road tool brands, many high end manufacturers have introduced alternate brands that make products out of other countries but use the same quality control and manufacturing techniques. ie general international, blue point etc.

  26. justsomeguy says:

    I’m not saying that you always have to buy top of the line tools

    BUT, if you buy cheap tools, don’t whine and complain about bad service and hard to find parts. You chose to buy a cheap tool and part of that deal is terrible customer service, repair service and parts. The service is bad because they don’t spend money on it and pass that cost along to you.

  27. Chad Conrad says:

    As a partner in an industrial / electrical distributor, we refuse to sell the lower end tools. Honestly, for the margins, the time it takes to market them and the headaches that come with them, it just isn’t worth it. We sell only one major tool line and the reason we chose that particular line is the fact that their quality and name recognition within the industry is very good. Therefore, we can go out and in good conscience sell our customer’s a quality product and not have to worry about it coming back two days later because the motor konked out. In addition, when it comes time to service or repair the tool, we are able to easily access replacement parts as needed. I think this allows us to give a better level of customer service because our customers know they are getting a quality tool at a competitive price. Besides, our good customers know that our reputation is too important to sell them a cheap import just to get a sale.

  28. Sean O'Hara says:

    I found luck calling this number 800.243.5114 for this units repair.

  29. M Burke says:

    Please give the part number and phone number to GET THIS SPECIFIC PART! 😀

  30. James says:

    I love the story. I’m glad you didn’t give up the search. I’m one of those people too and so if you could give me those numbers of the Task Force manufacturers maybe one of them makes the part I’m looking for. It would make my life so much easier. In fact I’ve already spoken to one and they didn’t make the tool so they didn’t have the part I was looking for. “Never give up, never surrender”

    Thanks alot,

  31. james mitchell says:

    where may I find a drive belt for my task force disc/belt sander?

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