The Portland Phoenix

Leftovers: Poor customer service doesn’t exist in a vacuum

Natalie Ladd

Second of two parts.

Last week I shared the true tale of horrible customer service I experienced from a nurse during the second of two day-surgeries on my eyes. I let it go – until the hospital bill arrived and I became incensed all over again.

At some level, customer service is the benchmark of everything we do. Even if Nurse Ratched was having an off day, her bedside manner was more the stuff of nightmares than reassurance and comfort. That I was left feeling ashamed and guilty that I had been a problem patient bothered me as much as her condescending attitude. After all, who wants to be a difficult and demanding Nervous Nelly during a simple routine surgery where they stick things in your eye? 

Me, I guess. 

And this was exactly what I told them when the quality care survey arrived from third-party medical facility auditors the same day as the bill with my out-of-pocket balance due.

Money shouldn’t have played into the chip on my shoulder, but the two “simple routine” outpatient eye surgeries cost more than $31,000. Thanks to my generous employer I have excellent health insurance, but somehow my balance due is $7,000. No longer having debilitating headaches and being able to see clearly out of both eyes is priceless, but I still fell off my barstool. 

A few days after I finished the unabridged, unedited, “War and Peace”-length letter to be attached to the survey, I received a phone call from the place where my vacuum cleaner was being serviced.

The backstory on the vacuum cleaner is I dropped it off during the early days of the pandemic at a place specializing in the exclusive brand I bought, but could not afford. Originally upsold and thrilled with the claim that dog hair anywhere was no problem for this light, powerful machine, its annual upkeep was a given. Even if I used it as little as possible because I detest cleaning, it was necessary to take good care of it in case the urge hit me. While it was away, I used a poor backup that didn’t suck.

Anyway, the phone call caught me off guard because it was from the owner of the vacuum cleaner repair shop and he wasn’t very nice. Thinking the call was work-related, I had answered in my most professional voice only to hear a man yelling: “Hey, are you going to come pick up this piece of crap, or what? I’ve had this thing here for a long time.” Confused, I asked who was calling and what exactly he was calling about.

“I’ve got your damn vacuum cleaner and I’ve left you a bunch of messages,” he said. “If you don’t pick this thing up I’m gonna use it for parts. I’ll give you a week. How much room do you think I have here?”

The man wasn’t at all interested in my point that they were closed for several months due to COVID-19 and had only opened a few weeks earlier. He also didn’t care when I pointed out the shop kept days and hours that would make any old-school banker jealous. Additionally, I had no recollection of any missed calls. That’s not to say they didn’t call, but aren’t I the customer? I didn’t actually say that last part because, in truth, I was intimidated. 

Once again, feeling equal parts shame and outrage, I left work early to retrieve my fancy vacuum cleaner and save it from being reduced to nuts, bolts, and belts. I pulled into the parking lot, where an employee was locking the door five minutes before the advertised closing time. I ended up leaving empty-handed. 

A few days later, I gathered my courage and went into the shop at noon. The young guy working behind the counter was pleasant, professional, and clearly uncomfortable when I asked if the man who called and yelled at me was there. Trying to sidestep the issue by suggesting I buy name-brand bags, I suspect he had been asked that question before and may have been on the receiving end himself.

A hundred dollars spent and one pristine vacuum later, I left that experience behind me wishing there was someplace else that specialized in the brand and better customer service. 

As far as Nurse Ratched, there’s been no word from the hospital administration. At least not yet. In the meantime, I’ll negotiate something reasonable with their finance department, hoping for gracious customer service.

No matter what, chances are pretty good it’ll take even longer to pay that off than it did for me to pick up my vacuum cleaner.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at

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