February 16, 2011

America's Test Kitchen: Great Products, Iffy Customer Service

A portion of my library of America's Test Kitchen products.

Those who have followed our blog will recall that I frequently make recipes taken from various America's Test Kitchen publications, including Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, the various "Best Recipe" cookbooks and so forth.   By and large, I've found the recipes taken from the ATK line of products to be reliably excellent.  I have also learned a lot from the cooking tips, product reviews and so forth that are sprinkled throughout their products, and I subscribe to (and have recommended) two of their online sites, cooksillustrated.com and cookscountry.com.  As such, my impressions of America's Test Kitchen have been overwhelmingly, and almost entirely, positive until very recently.

That changed when I had to deal with ATK's customer service.

Although I already subscribe to the Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country websites, I decided to sign up for a 14-day trial membership with the AmericasTestKitchen.com website.  This features lots of videos taken from the America's Test Kitchen TV show on PBS, as well as recipes for the dishes featured on the show.   I like the show, so I thought the website might be worth having, but after looking it over carefully, I decided that while there was lots of good stuff there, there wasn't enough content not already covered by my other two memberships to justify paying for a third.  

Thus, that very same day I contacted ATK, both by email and via their "contact us" option to let them  know that I was cancelling that membership during the 14-day trial membership.   I did that to avoid being charged for something I'd decided I didn't want, and figured it was a done deal, since I got an auto-reply to the "contact us" message.

That's not how it worked out, though. 

The day after the trial membership would have expired, had I not already cancelled it, I got an email notice that I'd been charged for a  membership to AmericasTestKitchen.com.   I tried to access my account information to check on this, but was unable to access that information for the ATK.com account or for either of my other two memberships.  I immediately emailed ATK again, noting that I'd cancelled my membership during the free trial period and noting that I'd received an email confirming they had received the original cancellation message.  I also again once again sent a "contact us" message.   Interestingly, this time I didn't get an auto-reply to that message.   Still having received no response, I decided to call ATK's customer service.

That's when I found out that ATK doesn't exactly go out of their way to give you a contact number.  I had to do a fair bit of bouncing around the site before I found one.  Personally, I don't think it's good customer service to make it almost as hard for a customer to locate your phone number as it would be to locate the direct line to the Oval Office, but hey, after only about a half-hour of searching, I did find it, and called.

That's when I discovered that the customer service number provided on the website - which had taken a fair bit of effort to even locate - didn't give you any option whatsoever to talk to an actual person.  After listening to the options menu twice, I left a voicemail message explaining the problem and requested they repay the charged amount to my bank account.

I got no reply that day.  In fact, I never did get a reply to that voicemail, or to the email or the "contact us" message I'd sent that day. 

Frustrated by this lack of response, I wrote a bit about this on the Cooks Illustrated bulletin board, and on CI's Facebook page.  A couple days later, in response to the post on the Facebook page, someone from ATK finally contacted me.  Steph Yiu, the Social Media Manager for ATK, contacted me to say she had seen my post and that she was sorry to hear ATK's customer service had let me down, since she'd seen my blog posts and my posts and pictures on the CI Facebook page.  She asked for my phone number and email address and said she'd pass the information along to customer service.   In return, I thanked Steph for her offer of assistance and provided her with the requested information.  This led to further correspondence with Steph.

I am, by the way, very appreciative of Steph's efforts. In my contacts with her, she has been wonderfully courteous, supportive and helpful, and if she hadn't contacted me, I suspect I'd still be tangling with ATK over this issue.   

A few days later, I let Steph know I'd still heard nothing back from customer service.  In replying, Steph again expressed sorrow at customer service's dropping the ball, and she said she'd passed along my information to Jacqui Valerio, the head of ATK's customer service.   She also gave me Jacqui's email.  I've been pretty busy, so I didn't email Jacqui right away, wanting to instead see if I'd ever get a response from ATK.

Finally, almost two weeks after I first contacted ATK customer service about my having been mistakenly charged for a membership I'd cancelled during the free trial period, I heard back from someone at customer service.   Specifically, Jacqui Valerio called me, following up on Steph's heads-up.  I told her I couldn't talk long at that moment, as I was quite busy at work, and we made an appointment to talk the next morning.  The next morning I called her.  We spoke for about 10 minutes, during which time I explained the problem and my desired solution (they cancel my membership and repay me the fee).  Jacqui was very polite and patient as I explained things, then she accessed my account, made sure I could do the same, and reversed the membership fee.   She said had never seen the emails or "contact me" messages I'd sent, or heard the message I left on ATK's voicemail.  She also said she did not know what had happened to those messages, but assured me she would look into it.  Since then, my bank account has been credited with the refunded membership fee.

I contacted Steph again to follow up.  I noted that Jacqui had handled the problem, and been quite polite in doing so, and I once again thanked Steph for having passed along my concerns to Jacqui.  I also summarized how long this process had taken, and noted that this sort of thing doesn't do ATK's reputation any good.  Steph said she had passed along my suggestions to her superiors and discussed my situation with them, in hopes they'd take my suggestions under consideration.

I should note that the whole "this stuff damages ATK's reputation" thing isn't something I've come up with my own.  If you enter "America's Test Kitchen" into a search engine, you don't have to scroll through very many entries to find accounts of people's frustrations with ATK's customer service.  You can even find some comments of this sort on the various ATK bulletin boards, though discussion elsewhere suggests that a lot of the complaint posts made there are deleted by the board moderators.  Heck, one of my favorite cooking message boards is made up largely of people who used to be ATK fans, but who became frustrated and eventually left the ATK bulletin boards - and, in some cases, stopped following ATK's products - due to experiences much like my own.  I have to wonder, if I hadn't been an active participant on the Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country Facebook pages, and thus noticed by Steph Yiu, would things have worked out as well as they did for me?

Despite the fact that many others have had similar experiences of frustration with ATK's billing and customer service - and, in many cases,  have fared worse, sometimes giving up in frustration rather than continue to get nowhere - my hope is that some of the higher-ups at ATK will look at this pattern of difficulties and do something about it.  The products they put out are great, but bad service can kill any business.

These ladies and gents do their job.
The customer service department could
do with some improvement, though.

I've previously suggested our readers consider getting a paid or free trial membership to one of the ATK websites in order to access recipes from their products which I've made and posted about.   Given my experience, I have to wonder if any readers have followed through with that suggestion, and if so, if that has worked out okay for them.    Should any of our readers experience any problems with ATK due to my having recommended their sites, please drop us an email at jeffreyandjulicook(at)gmail.com and I'll be glad to forward you Jacqui Valerio's contact information, in hopes this will help you get things sorted out with the ATK folks.  Meanwhile, I'm no longer going to recommend people sign up for the trial memberships to the various ATK websites, given the hassles I experienced.   I get a lot out of the two sites to which I subscribe, and if you want access to huge selections of recipes, reviews and so forth, purchasing a membership is a good value, but if you're only looking for a specific recipe or two, you might be better off seeking out those recipes elsewhere and not risking the headaches that might accompany a trial membership.


  1. I must agree. I ordered an ATK cook book and DVD set, back in November, as a gift. Not only did it take a long time to receive, but the DVD's did not show up, and there was no explanation. I emailed ATK through their customer service page, and got no response. After a month I emailed them again, and again, no response. After a half hour or more of digging on-line, I finally came up with a phone number to call. A recording at that number said that the DVD's were on back-order until January. By the end of the month nothing showed up, and again got a message with a different back-order date. Later, the same thing. Today I finally spoke with a person, who said they would be sure the DVD's got shipped out to me. I explained my frustration, but she could care less. I will never do business with them again.

  2. You don't happen to have that email/phone number from the person at Customer Service because I'd love to talk to them about the website. They've really let me down.

  3. I do have the phone number for Jacque, who is the head of ATK's customer service department. Send us an email (the name of the blog, all in one word, at gmail) and I'll pass it along.

  4. Just to be clear: jeffreyandjulicook at gmail.