By David A. Davies and Joshua Davies

Every type of business receives customer complaints, ranging from the mundane to the uniquely difficult and even strange. It seems the water business in particular is prone to some of the most bizarre and fanciful customer complaints. Sometimes the customer is convinced there is an issue with the water system when in fact, none exists. Yet regardless of whether or not the grievance is legitimate, properly handling these complaints is critical to the reputation and success of any business. Let me illustrate some of the strangest complaints we ever received and how we successfully dealt with them and appeased the customer. All of the below are true case studies.

“My softened water tastes salty and I know it is salty because I can see the salt right there in that tank.”
A very nice, middle-aged woman purchased a residential water conditioner containing cation exchange resin with a floatable bed of activated carbon along with an RO system. She was on municipal water with 8-gpg hardness, 250-ppm TDS and 1.5-ppm free chlorine. The systems were installed in her home and she was initially very happy. Shortly after installation, she called our office and complained that while the RO water was fine, the water from all of her other faucets tasted salty and she knew it was salty because she could see the salt in the brine tank.

We sent technicians out who did complete service checks on two occasions and could find nothing wrong. The TDS of the softened water was virtually the same as the raw water. The TDS of the RO water was about 15 ppm. None of the technicians could taste the salty taste in the softened water. They showed the customer the TDS test results. She kept insisting she could taste the salt. When we pointed out that the raw water contained about 65 mg/L of sodium in it, even without any softener, she replied that she had never tasted any salt in the water before the installation. Despite all the assurances and scientific evidence that everything was working properly, she was not convinced and she was not a satisfied customer.

My service manager and I went to her home after the technicians could not solve the problem. We first double-checked that everything was working properly. When we determined it was, we showed her a TDS meter set to 0, then how the RO water tested 15-ppm TDS and the softened water tested 250-ppm TDS. We asked her if she would help us with a little experiment and she agreed. We filled a glass in front of her from the RO and asked her to taste it. She said it tasted just fine. We showed her a container of table salt and asked her to turn around so we could conduct a blind taste test. While her back was turned, we would either (a) add a little bit of salt to the glass or (b) not add any. We then asked her to taste and kept doing this, logging each trial, to see whether or not she would taste any salt. The first time we added nothing and she said it tasted fine. The second time we added enough to raise the TDS to 150 ppm. She said it tasted fine. At 500 ppm and at 1,000 ppm she could not taste any salt. She first tasted salt at 1,200 ppm. When we showed her all of the readings, she realized that it was impossible for her to taste any salt at a 250-ppm concentration. Then she smiled; all was now okay.

Sometimes a bit of honest, subjective customer-service psychology needs to be combined with a bit of objective science because the science alone will not be enough. In this case, what appeared initially as an equipment performance complaint was actually a subjective psychological complaint.

“Our water smells like rotten eggs since you put your system in. It never smelled before.”
A very nice couple purchased a residential water conditioner containing cation exchange resin with a floatable bed of activated carbon and an RO filter for their newly constructed, two-story home in a brand-new neighborhood. They were on municipal groundwater with 4 gpg hardness, 395 ppm TDS and 0.4-ppm free chlorine. They were thrilled for about two months after installation. Then one day, they called our office and complained that all of a sudden, they were getting an intermittent rotten-egg smell, but only from certain sinks in the house and only for the first 10 seconds of running water. We asked if the smell could be coming from the P-trap at those sinks only or other sewer issues, as it was unclear how the conditioner could be adding rotten-egg smell that was not present before.

The sales representative and a service technician did a follow-up visit. They confirmed some rotten-egg smell but only at certain sinks on the first floor and only certain sinks on the second floor. Some sinks had no smell at all. After running the cold water for a bit, the smell was gone. The customer said it was worse when they first came home from work. The RO water was fine. The technician put the unit through all its cycles and the unit was operating correctly. He backwashed the unit and then flushed cold water at multiple sinks. The smell then went away. He could not determine the cause of the problem. Unfortunately, this was a temporary reprieve and the smell came back within a week or so.

After researching the issue with a number of equipment manufacturers, it was agreed that the conditioner could not be adding hydrogen sulfide gas, but that sulfur-reducing bacteria must be present in the municipal water supply and the residual chlorine was keeping them at bay, but not destroying them. The carbon bed in the conditioner removed the residual chlorine and the sulfur-reducing bacteria were ‘coming back to life’ producing the rotten-egg odor. A call to the local municipality confirmed they had H2S in the water supply. The sinks to where the gas could rise more easily from the conditioner had the smell, while sinks in other areas of the home that the gas had more difficulty reaching did not have the smell. We ended up removing the carbon from the conditioner and adding back in some ion exchange resin. We then super-chlorinated the house and the problem was solved.

Sometimes what you don’t know (including what you can’t see, taste, smell or test for) can hurt you. The sales representative had no idea there was hydrogen sulfide in the water as he did not detect any odor when he was first in the home. As Sherlock Holmes said, “…when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Detective work determined this to be an inadvertent misapplication of equipment. Even though the installed equipment was working properly, it was not the correct media for this application.

“The water in my bathtub is green since you installed your water system.”
A very nice family purchased a three-year-old home in a cul-de-sac in a newly constructed sub-division. They had previously complained to the municipality of green-colored water. The municipality had flushed the lines for them upon their request, after which they got brown water. They were told by the municipality not to worry. We tested the municipal water supply at 6-gpg hardness, 3-ppm free chlorine, 436-ppm TDS and pH of 8.2. They purchased a residential water conditioner containing sediment filtration media, cation exchange resin and a floatable bed of carbon, along with an RO system. These were installed in their home and they were thrilled…for about three months.

They called our office and complained that the water in their white master bathtub had a green tint to it. We asked if the water was green everywhere in the home or just in that one tub. They were not sure, but they thought they saw it in the tub because the volume of water there was greater. When we asked if it was the cold water or hot water that looked green, they weren’t sure, but thought it was both. No cause for green-colored water came immediately to mind (this wasn’t low pH water in copper pipe, for example), especially if it was visible at only one location in the home. This was the same complaint they had, however, before we installed any of our equipment and the problem had returned.

A technician was dispatched to the home and determined that the unit was operating correctly. He could not see any green tint in a full glass of cold or hot water drawn at the kitchen sink or even at the bathroom sinks in the same bathroom where the customer said there was green water in the bathtub. Finally, the technician asked the customer to please demonstrate the problem by filling the tub. Lo and behold, the water in the tub did have a slight greenish tint to it. The technician, completely at a loss as to how this could be possible, looked heavenward for inspiration and the answer came to him in a flash. He pointed out that the bathroom had a wall of green translucent glass blocks and the green-tinted sunlight shining through is what was coloring the water green. The customer was so relieved that there was nothing wrong with his water that the complaint dissolved (pun intended.) Sometimes the customer wants to find someone easy to blame for any issues having to do with water, whether related to the water conditioner or not. Luckily the technician was very observant and was able to show the customer the real source of the color and the customer accepted the explanation.

“My spayed cat started getting her period again because of your water system.”
One day the office phone rang, and a long time customer was on the phone. This family regularly serviced their residential water conditioner containing cation exchange resin and a floatable bed of carbon and an RO system. Their home was on a municipal water supply with 6-gpg hardness, 1.5-ppm free CL and 150-ppm TDS. Right out of the blue she said, “My cat started getting her period again and it must be because of your water system.” She explained that her cat had been spayed and this could not possibly be a natural phenomenon. Apparently, she had recently read an article about pharmaceuticals in the water and how the city didn’t test for them. Then she saw blood on her cat and the cat had not been injured in any way. Her only conclusion was that her cat began menstruating again and it must be because of our water system letting too many hormones into her home. Trying to explain over the phone how this was unlikely, or impossible, did not help. She was absolutely convinced that this was the only reasonable explanation. While there was no way her complaint could actually be true, we of course, had to take it seriously.

I told her I would send a technician out to the house as soon as possible to test her water and to completely check her systems out from top to bottom and that if there was any doubt, we would change all of her RO filters and membrane. After the technician reported back that all hardness, chlorine and TDS readings were where they should be, I emailed her the results from the work order and a detailed list of contaminants removed by softening, carbon filtration and reverse osmosis. She was satisfied, the complaint went away and she happily paid for the service call and filter changes.

Conclusion
As unreasonable as a complaint might sound, put yourself in the customer’s shoes and try to understand what they need to feel satisfied and then provide it. A reasonable response will often make the unreasonable complaint go away and an unreasonable customer can become your biggest fan. These are just some examples of complaints unique to the water business. Perhaps in a future article, we’ll review some more.

About the authors
David A. Davies, President of Aqua General, Inc. and Manager of Rayne Water Solutions of Houston, LLC, has been in the residential, commercial and industrial water treatment business for over 25 years. He is licensed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as a Water Treatment Specialist Class III and is a member of the WQA and TWQA. Davies has served in branch management positions for US Filter and Culligan and has owned both Puronics and Rayne dealerships. He can be reached by email, info@aquageneral.com or sales@rayneofhouston.com. Joshua Davies, Communication Specialist at Aqua General, Inc., is responsible for the content of all outgoing communications. He can be reached at sales@aquageneral.com.

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