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Show Up or Pay Up : Companies that keep customers waiting too long can be held liable for lost wages or other expenses up to $500.

February 26, 1993|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to The Times.

Dawn Widjaja of Santa Clarita loved her new, custom-made French doors--until it rained. Then gallons of water seeped under and through the floors, flooding her kitchen.

She called the manufacturer, made an appointment for a repairman to determine what went wrong, took the morning off work and waited. No one arrived.

She called again and set another time--and was jilted once more.

After several angry phone calls, a third appointment was arranged for 9 a.m.

"This time he finally showed up--after 1 p.m.," she said. "I had to miss another whole day of work."

While infuriating, Widjaja's plight is far from unique.

Virtually everyone who has ever needed a toilet installed, a sofa delivered or a furnace lit is at the mercy of a delivery or repair person.

Some companies adopt a cavalier "expect us when you see us" policy and refuse to set appointments.

But as of Jan. 1, the hours of helplessly hanging should have been over--or at least reduced.

A new consumer rights state law, SB 1387, written by Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) and Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove), requires public utilities, cable television companies, merchants with 25 or more employees and retailers who repair merchandise to specify a four-hour period during which a delivery or service call will be made. In addition, the customer must be notified of the time period at least a day in advance.

But words are cheap. What happens if the delivery or service call is not made within the specified time? According to the law, the consumer may initiate an action in small claims court for lost wages or other expenses up to $500.

To win the case, the consumer must be present when the delivery or service call is scheduled to take place. If the delay is caused by "unforeseen or unavoidable occurrences," the company is off the hook if "a diligent attempt" is made to notify the customer.

Based on a random survey of Valley retailers, utilities and telephone and cable companies, the law is widely obeyed. Most companies promise to schedule service calls and deliveries within a four-hour time frame and arrange appointments a day or more in advance.

Pacific Bell even agrees to make an appointment up to three weeks in advance, and many companies offer same-day service.

Southern California Gas Co. is the most difficult utility to reach. Its customer service line may ring 50 or more times. When the line is answered, a recorded announcements helpfully notes that the wait will be at least 10 minutes. On one occasion, after eight Muzak minutes, the phone line clicked and disconnected.

Callers who finally reach a gas company representative have their choice of service from 7 a.m. to noon, noon to 5 p.m. or 5 to 8 p.m. That means customers choosing morning or afternoon service may wait up to five hours.

According to gas company spokesman Dick Friend, appointments also may be made for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1 to 5 p.m. slots, and customers who do not want to wait around for four hours may request service at a specific time for a $25 charge. However, some gas company representatives answering the customer service line neglected to offer these options.

Friend noted the gas company receives more than 20,000 calls a day on its 24-hour service line, and customers may have an easier time getting through if they avoid dialing during peak morning hours.

"We do better than most utilities because we provide service in the home up to 8 p.m., and we provide Saturday service," he said.

Montgomery Ward, on the other hand, impressed a customer who recently purchased a refrigerator from the retailer. At the time of the sale, the store promised next-day delivery between 8 a.m. and noon.

"We got a phone call that night, confirming they'd be here," the customer said. "Then the next morning, they called again to remind us."

A few minutes after 8 a.m., a truck rolled up in front of the customer's house to deliver the shiny new appliance.

The new law may help more customers to have equally hassle-free deliveries.

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