From Kenmore, Talking Washers and Dryers

Last February, Mel Bonner, 63, of Tinley Park, Ill., noticed water beneath his washing machine. He couldn't find a leak, so he dialed the manufacturer's customer service number. Then he held the receiver up and let the machine do the "talking."

The washer was "beeping, and lights [were] flashing" as it transmitted self-diagnostic data, says Bonner, a retired electrician. When the telephone representative couldn't figure out the problem, a technician was dispatched to Bonner's home. The technician "didn't know what was wrong" when he arrived, says Bonner, "but he knew what wasn't wrong." The washing machine was working properly again in less than half an hour. "It was just so simple," says Bonner. "I don't know why everybody doesn't have this."

On Aug. 4, Kenmore, the appliance brand of Sears Holdings (SHLD), announced Kenmore Connect, a technology developed with LG Electronics and intended to speed up appliance repairs. Bonner was one of several thousand customers in a pilot program to test the remote-servicing technology. Company representatives review screens of data generated by ailing Kenmore machines and transmitted via a toll-free phone line. Next week, LG will add the feature to many of its top-of-the-line laundry appliances in the U.S.

Most of the calls Kenmore representatives receive during a customer's first year of ownership can be handled over the phone, says brand Vice-President Betsy Owens. Even when a repair visit is unavoidable, the time the technician spends making adjustments or replacing parts will be reduced, company officials say. Consumers won't pay more for the technology, which will come with appliances priced from $799 to $1,499.

Miele, based in Gütersloh, Germany, has offered a similar remote technology in some of its high-end appliances since 2008. LG already uses it in some of its products sold in Korea. The Kenmore announcement marks the spread of the service option to a much wider market.

Kenmore Connect may yield savings for the company, even though that wasn't the main goal, according to Owens. The company maintains the nation's largest repair fleet—more than 10,000 trucks—and handles 12 million service calls annually. The new technology may encourage more customers to pick up the phone to report minor problems, but it is expected to result in fewer in-person service visits. Owens estimates that Kenmore eventually could reduce its truck runs by half.

"Almost 60 percent of the time that we send a truck out, there's no part that is put into that machine; there is no mechanical failure," says Tim Adkisson, a product engineer for Kenmore. Now the washers will be able to speak up for themselves and suggest minor adjustments.

The bottom line: New technology allows washers and dryers to diagnose their problems and tell a telephone representative.

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