The John Lewis Partnership, a leading British retailer, the owner of the bien pensant supermarket chain Waitrose, as well as a number of department stores in suburban malls, has acquired over the years an excellent reputation for customer service. This seems to have been well earned, as the following story attests.
A lady bought an iron from the John Lewis store in Kingston, Surrey. It was the latest model from the Philips factory, with a space-age design. It tended to emit strange hissing and grunting sounds from time to time but it also produced perfectly wrinkle-free clothing.
The lady took it back a few weeks later. There was a problem, and not one that was associated with the noise.
“What appears to be the trouble, Madam?” asked a typically polite and solicitous customer service representative behind a counter.
“There are ants in the iron,” said the lady.
“Ants!” said the assistant, evidently taken aback.
“Yes, ants,” said the lady, “as in insects. They’re small creatures with six legs and there are quite a number of them running around inside the iron, even as we speak.”
This iron, perhaps I should perhaps mention, came equipped with a clear plastic dome over it. A perfect viewing chamber, one might concede, for observing etymological life. Indeed, the manufacturer – the giant Philips electrical company based in the Netherlands – could hardly have designed it better if that had been the purpose for which the appliance was intended rather than for pressing clothes.
“Ants in the iron,” muttered the assistant, this time with a shake of the head. “How did they get there, do you suppose?”
“I’m afraid I really don’t know,” replied the lady, politely. “All I know is that they’ve somehow done so, and apparently have made a home there, or a nest, or whatever it is that ants live in. Obviously they like it in there. It’s very warm and cozy, I suppose.”
“I’m not sure what one does about ants in an iron,” said the assistant, understandably bemused. “I think I’d best call my supervisor.”
“Well, do what you must,” said the woman. “But I’m here to ask you to remove the ants and if possible take measures to prevent them getting back in. I can’t be doing my husband’s shirts with ants running all over the collars. Besides, I can’t stand the sight of the things. They terrify me.”
“We shall see what we can do, Madam” said the smiling assistant now, having spoken to his supervisor by telephone and received instructions. He started to fill in a form, though with some hesitation, unsure how to describe the problem to the Philips engineers across the channel in their advanced research laboratory in Eindhoven, who even at that moment may have been waiting expectantly to dismantle and examine the offending appliance.
The woman left him sucking his pen thoughtfully. She also left the iron.
Two weeks later, she received a telephone call from John Lewis. Madam’s iron was ready to be picked up.
“Did you get rid of the ants?” she asked.
“Yes, Madam. The iron is now completely ant-free.”
“And ant-proof,” the lady asked.
“That I can’t vouch for, Madam, and I’m sure you understand that we at John Lewis didn’t actually design the iron. But the people at Philips assure us that all is now well.”
“And how much do I owe you?” asked the lady.
“Nothing, Madam. No charge. We can only apologise that you’ve been inconvenienced, and so frightened by the experience.”
And on that happy note, the problem resolved, this little tale ends. It is, by the way, a true story, and not, in case you were wondering, a long-lost sketch from the archives of Peter Cook.
The iron is still in use, by the way, hissing and burbling away noisily, and completely ant-free.
And my shirts, I must say, are looking better than ever.
Thank you, darling.