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The Case of the Mysterious Chewed Up Insulation

As a contractor, it is important to constantly be working on your customer service skills.  A good rule of thumb is to listen to your customer 70% of the time and to talk the remaining 30% of the time.  This is a great rule of thumb because sometimes the best clues to solve a technical problem can be found by listening to your customer.

When I started in the HVAC field, the company I worked for had a straightforward customer service policy. Before any new technician was allowed to go on service calls by themselves, they were to ride along with a senior service technician for a week.  This policy was implemented so the newly trained service technicians could learn how to talk to customers.

Fresh out of technical training, I was excited to start my first summer of repairing air conditioners.  I considered riding along with a senior service technician as my final exam before I was given my own service vehicle and territory.  The technician I was assigned to ride with had real world experience and good technical skills, but after a few days, I realized he had very little customer service training.

One morning we got a “No Cooling” complaint from a customer.  We were the closest techs in the area, so the main office forwarded us the address and we scheduled it into our day.

We arrived at the center of an upscale housing development and were greeted by a polite homeowner.  We introduced ourselves and found the thermostat to check the settings.  After confirming the thermostat’s switch was set for cooling, we proceeded to the backyard where the air conditioner was located.

The problem was easily diagnosed upon kneeling down next to the condensing unit… the 3/8 inch thick black foam pipe insulation that was suppose to be covering the copper suction line was missing, only a few very small shredded pieces of it with teeth marks remained lying on the ground.  The brown plastic-coated condenser’s low voltage wires were torn apart, ripped as the wire entered the condenser as well.  This left exposed low voltage electrical wires to short out on the bare copper refrigerant pipes.

The senior service technician and I agreed on the diagnoses of shorted condenser wires.  From the shredded pipe insulation and minimum remains of low voltage wire, we also knew that this unit’s connection had been used as a chew toy.  Knowing what steps were needed to repair the homeowner’s problem, I was to listen and learn as the senior technician explained the diagnoses and repair cost to the homeowner.

As he explained that the owner’s dog was the cause of the torn insulation and ripped wires, the owner looked confused.  The technician went on to explain how it is not uncommon for dogs to chew on items in the backyard.  As the technician’s explanation was being delivered, the homeowner tried to let him know they did not have a dog, but the senior service technician continued, in greater detail, about how dogs who are left alone all day could be disobedient.

My senior tech felt he had made a complete delivery of this technical information and presented the homeowner with the estimate for repair.  The previously polite homeowner was noticeably upset with the proposed repair cost, and again tried to explain that they do not have a dog.  The senior technician took this as an insult to his technical diagnoses.  Still standing in the backyard, the conversation grew until it was an argument with both sides believing they were right.

During the explanation part of the service call, I was not supposed to talk, only listen.  I heard both sides.  I knew the diagnosis was technically correct, but the homeowner also had a valid point.  If they didn’t have a dog, who or what chewed up the foam insulation?  And what used this units low voltage wires as floss for its teeth?

I stepped back from the escalating argument and quickly glanced around the yard.  No sign of a doghouse, dog bowls or dog toys, only a large open yard with green grass.  On the far side of the yard, at the base of the fence was something black on the ground.  I didn’t notice it in the beginning of the service call but it now seemed unusual because the rest of the yard was spotless.  I walked over to the fence and lying on the ground was a medium size piece of black foam insulation with teeth marks in it.  I glanced around again and saw more black foam insulation in the corner of the yard.  Upon closer inspection, I noticed this piece of insulation was wedged under the fence.

At the back of the yard, I looked over the fence and found the explanation to our problem at hand.  The guilty party had pieces of condenser wire and chewed-up foam insulation scattered all over this adjacent yard.  Apparently the neighbor’s new puppy had dug a hole under the fence without anybody noticing, entered this customer’s yard and vandalized the air conditioning unit.

I immediately returned back to the dispute on the patio.  The now irate homeowner was yelling and the senior service technician was yelling back. I interrupted the argument and explained to them the evidence on the other side of the fence.  The homeowner and senior technician eventually came to the agreement that they were both right.  The homeowner agreed to pay for the repair costs and subsequently passed the expense on to the neighbor with the new puppy.

Many times as service technicians, we forget to listen to our customers.  As we enter another season, don’t forget that sometimes the best clue to solve a technical problem can be found from listening to your customer.


About the Author

Tony Albers is a highly successful trainer who has taught heating and air conditioning classes designed specifically to meet the needs of today’s busy technicians and engineers.  For the past 33 years he has worked to advance the field of heating and air conditioning by teaching classes for IHACI, RSES, Southern California Gas Company, and San Diego Gas & Electric.  In the last 23 years he has traveled extensively throughout North America for US Air Conditioning Distributors and Venstar, giving workshops and seminars for large HVAC distributors and manufacturers.  Albers has been on the Continuing Education Committee for the Institute of Heating and Air Conditioning Industries and has written articles for Indoor Comfort News, HVAC Insider, and the Southern California Chapter of ASHRAE.