Thursday, January 26, 2006

good, old-fashioneed service

Isabella (C) and Nancy

A few years ago I picked up a semi-commercial espresso machine that my boss’s boss’s boss mercilessly taunted me into buying. He had an Isomac Millennium -- he named it "Milly", which was affected and beyond eccentric, created awkward silences by referring to his espresso machine as his mistress and did a lot of posting on

Naturally everything your boss’s boss’s boss says, thinks or does is interesting and when he is amusing he is "really" funny but my wife and I actually are coffee lovers and so I was intrigued by the notion of kicking it up a notch, coffee-wise. Over the years we had bought crappy consumer machines for around $100, worthless battery-powered frothing devices and even a stove-top esspresso pot which exploded in our tiny SoHo apartment, scaring the cats (and us) and causing no real collateral damage but curtailing the home-espresso-machine debate for a few years.

Boss man could sense weakness (that's how you get to be boss man) and decided to make me his hobby. He’d walk past me in a hallway, no eye contact, deadpan, pretending not to know I was there and then as we passed he would whisper, ‘Did you get it yet?’). I'd get an e-mail at an odd hour from his blackberry with the subject line "Did you get it yet?". IMs from the ivory tower would appear. "Did you get it yet?!"

I figured joining the coffee geek club would be a good career move, and took the leap. it was a fairly tough decision as these things go because of the value proposition. I have had an easier time closing on houses and cars. I mean, $1,500 is a lot of money for A CUP OF COFFEE. if the value proposition makes no sense I will not pull the trigger, no matter what the amount involved. I once ruminated for more than a decade before parting with $100 to buy a dorm-sized refrigerator. I feared it would seem unforgivably excessive and reveal to the world my lethargic and consumptive lifestyle and why should I not have to fumble my way downstairs to the kitchen for a cold drink in the middle of the night like my parents and their parents before them had to? (Of course the lid is off now and we also have a water cooler in our closet and a second small fridge in the basement.)

But go an order of magnitude up in price and things get more complicated. My Isomac Rituale (I got a bit of revenge on boss man by getting a newer, slightly more advanced model) and virtually-mandatory high-end grinder/doser Mazzer Mini (just like boss man) set me back 10 times the first fridge and cooler. But I was able to justify my spendthrift ways (sort of) by cutting way back on trips to Starbucks et al. Not spending an estimated $50 a month as a family for take-out lattes and hot chocolates would pay for my replacement extravagance in about three years, I reasoned, just as I had rationalized years before that going to Starbucks wasn't extravagent because I had made so much on Starbucks stock.

Apparently aversion to the cost of becoming your own barrista is a common hurdle for first-time buyers because the company from whom I bought what we quickly named Isabella (naming your machine, i have come to realize, is neither affected nor eccentric) had a no-return policy, and specified “buyer’s remorse” as the reason all sales were final. Not a great sign. But it all worked out. We welcomed Isabella into our home and she has been the perfect guest.

Until, that is, a few weeks ago.

Isabella stopped working, or at least, stopped working consistently. She would fire up and stay stoked for a while, but then decide to shut down. Finally, she would not start at all. Like any high-tech repair that would involve original packing and freight shipping I dreaded the prospect of dealing with any part of it.

When is the last time you recall dealing with any company whose customer service rocked? I called the store where I had bought Isabella, Chris Coffee, and they answered on one ring. I told them I had a support question, they asked me the model, patched me through and the technician answered on one ring. He put aside what he was doing, walked me through some disassembly, asked me to get some electrical readings and call back (again, two rings to his desk) and then told me the part I needed. It is on its way.

There is nothing more important than your reputation, the world’s impression of you. It can buy you eternal grace and forgiveness of almost anything. Your product may not be the market leader, or you may charge more than the competition, but if people like working with you, you win. And that goes for the people who represent you; often the least-paid employees of a company face the public and if they don’t do you proud, you lose. Conversely, they can be your best ambassadors: my familiy frequented a local restaurant whose food was for years mediocre at best (it has become quite good) only because every server there treated us like returning family.

So, Isabella will soon be back on line, and I can’t imagine doing business with anyone other than Chris Coffee for my espresso needs. If Isabella weren’t so jealous, perhaps an upgrade … ?