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Mitch Schneider: Salvaging Relationships

At this time last night, I was sitting in the same chair in front of the same computer working on a different column: a column you will probably get to see a month from now or maybe even the month after that. Not because it isn’t as important as what I feel compelled to write about tonight. What I started writing about last night is every bit as important, but in a different way. Not because it isn’t as timely … I was writing about a customer complaint and ….

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By Mitch Schneider
Contributing Editor

At this time last night, I was sitting in the same chair in front of the same computer working on a different column: a column you will probably get to see a month from now or maybe even the month after that. Not because it isn’t as important as what I feel compelled to write about tonight. What I started writing about last night is every bit as important, but in a different way. Not because it isn’t as timely…I was writing about a customer complaint and that’s always timely: never comfortable, but always timely.

I didn’t plan on putting that piece aside in the middle of a paragraph, but what happened this afternoon, or, more precisely, what started three months ago and finally reached what I’m sure the manufacturer feels is its culmination this afternoon, won’t give me peace until I share what I have to share with you.

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Like so many of the other things that happen to us every day, this event was one of a series of events; each of which could and probably should be the subject of a column of its own. And, perhaps it was preordained that I would be writing about a customer’s complaint and how we handled it last night, only to find myself sitting in front of the computer writing about what it’s like to be a customer with a complaint — a complaint that was first ignored for more than three months: then, finally dismissed this afternoon.

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The event itself involves every segment of the industry: a vehicle owner, a service provider, a warehouse and a manufacturer. And, unfortunately, what happened to me will probably paint an all-too-familiar picture of what happens, can happen or has happened to you or someone you know.

I’m not going to lie to you. This column is anything but objective. So, if you’re looking for “fairness,” look someplace else! I’m angry — beyond angry, actually. I’m enraged; livid because it’s been more than three months since the part in question failed and was returned to my supplier for warranty consideration. And, although I was resolved to the fact there would be no resolution, at least none that anyone on our side of the service counter — and, that includes the vehicle owner — would find satisfying, I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

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The claim involved a 1994 Ford E150 van: “tricked out” with all the amenities you would expect to find on a ’90s vintage Ford van with a “Don’t Bother Knockin’ If You See This Van A Rockin!” sticker emblazoned across the rear bumper.

It belongs to one of my favorite customers: the kind of customer you would do just about anything for because they rarely ask very much of anything from you. It’s the kind of relationship all of us work hard to build, the kind we cherish and would do just about anything to protect.

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The van had been parked, waiting for the youngest boy to head off to college. College was in Utah, 15 hours and 1,100 miles away and all of a sudden that old van started to look pretty good.

Before it was parked, the van was well taken care of. I know: we took care of it. And, when it came time to put it back in service we went through it as carefully as we could: Eleven hundred miles is a long way to go for a service call!

One of the first things we noticed was that the heater wasn’t working. It was March, and March in Utah is a lot colder than March in California!

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We did an “oil and filter” service and a 30-point inspection and found the vehicle was low on coolant. A pressure test revealed leaks at both the radiator and at the thermostat housing, and a road test revealed the thermostat was stuck open. The inspection revealed upper and lower hoses that needed to be replaced and a serpentine belt that had more than three cracks per rib per three inches. The air filter and air filter housing were contaminated and a number of services were indicated as appropriate including a fuel filter, plugs, cap and rotor.

Because of the age and mileage of the vehicle, we even performed a chemical block check to look for a possible head gasket failure. Unfortunately, while the results of that test were negative and noted on the technician’s copy of the repair order, they never found their way to the finished invoice: something that would come back to haunt us later on.

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The vehicle went out at the beginning of March and had come home 3,000 miles later at the end of May. It overheated somewhere between East Elbow — No Place, Utah, and No Sign of Life For Four Hundred Miles, California. It was the middle of the night with no place to stop and no place to go, so the young man drove it…and he drove it too far and too long.

It didn’t take long to diagnose the van after it arrived. The top tank of the radiator was distended and separated along the entire length of the header. Cranking speed was high with absolutely no indication of compression and it sounded like the Spirit of Troy Drum Line was practicing inside the oil pan. The engine was history.

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It was hard not to prejudge the failure as temperature related. It was equally as difficult not to blame the kid for driving the vehicle after it started running hot. As tempting as it was, I resisted that urge until the radiator was out of the vehicle and we could take a closer look. When removed, we found a small, but obvious, plume of coolant residue surrounding a pinhole in one core row on the front of the radiator about eight or 10 inches below the header and four or five inches in toward the center.

Now, the cause of failure wasn’t quite so obvious. Did the head gasket fail and blow the top tank off? Or, did an imperfection in the core result in a leak that subsequently led to overheating which, in turn, caused the head gasket to fail?

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I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I find it damned unlikely that a hole in the core developed after the top tank blew off! How does that happen after the pressure goes away? I pointed this out to the owner of the company we purchased the radiator from when I presented him with the radiator, a claim for the failure and an estimate for the projected repairs.

Of course, I had to wait two weeks until he returned from vacation before we could do that…But, that’s OK. Everyone needs a vacation. In fact, a vacation is starting to look pretty good right about now!

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Regardless, the radiator was returned to our supplier, who in turn sent it back to his supplier. After what seemed like an inordinately long period of time without hearing anything from anyone — don’t forget, we had to wait two weeks after the vehicle failed to start the process — I called and got the standard, “Let me check it out and I’ll get back to you…” response.

Weeks went by filled with more than a few phone calls, each with its own set of excuses. Finally, my supplier called the manufacturer’s corporate headquarters. They told him that it “normally” takes anywhere from three to six months to handle a warranty issue, especially if it’s associated with a labor claim: not a bad strategy if you ask me. Unless you recognize that most Customer Relationship Management research confirms the faster a dispute is resolved, the more likely you are to salvage a relationship.

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Perhaps, someone should remind the manufacturer that his distribution customers aren’t his only customers and certainly not the only ones involved in this relationship.

Yesterday, my supplier appeared on site with an outside sales trainee in tow. I guess he thought it was safer to have someone with him. I’m not sure why: it’s not like this is worth going to prison over! In any case, he had a copy of the “Labor Claim Expertise Report” in hand and a plea for understanding. The claim was denied, in part because a misfire and coolant leaks had been identified on the original invoice, and despite the fact that both had been confirmed as repaired. I can’t say I was at all surprised.

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What surprised me was my supplier’s response: “They won’t do anything. But, I have liability insurance and the only thing I can say is: Sue me! That way, you might at least be able to get something back from someone…”

Well, I also have liability insurance. But, the point isn’t liability; the point is responsibility: whether or not you accept a problem as your own. And, response-ability: whether or not you are willing or able to respond.

Aside from that, I don’t want to sue my supplier…at least, not yet. I want to sue the company that built the radiator. If I can’t sue them, I want to tear their building down. If I can’t tear it down, I want to punish them for ignoring what I believe is a material defect in their product and for taking so long to process a claim. Either they have entirely too many claims — the implication is obvious. Or, it’s a tactic with only one possible purpose: drag things out until the claim goes away.

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I’ll deal with my local supplier in my own way, on my own terms and in my own time. Dealing with the manufacturer is another story, although there isn’t much we can do as individuals except for the one thing we’ve never done before and that is to talk to each other. Talking to each other is the great equalizer — or, at least could be: the only tool that could give us little guys the leverage we need to get a “Big Guy’s” attention. Whose attention? How about any company that chooses to ignore us or still believes they can dismiss us without consequence!

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Without the strength numbers can afford us, we’re just a minor annoyance: a fly on the elephant’s butt!

But with it…We’re the elephant!

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