Friday, August 28, 2009

On The Death Of Repair Departments And Product Quality

The tiller (of which I have blogged before) suffered a near-catastrophic failure when Yours Truly pulled the starter cord clean off the flywheel several weeks ago. (HE-MAN!) As it was the hot part of the summer (no, the real hot part of the summer), I put off getting anything done to it for a while. But with fall gardening just around the corner, I figured it was about time to Get Things Done.

So I pulled off the outer housing cover and examined the interior. Threading the cord back onto the flywheel was an issue --they don't make it easy. But I knew something else was wrong when I finally got everything buttoned up and I pulled the cord and it did not zing! back into readiness. Uh oh. Off to the vendor I went. And that's when the first annoyance occurred: the location in question (part of a national chain) required me to bring in the entire machine for inspection. Nevermind that the man behind the counter (who knew what he was talking about, to be fair) diagnosed the problem with 95% certainty (worn-out or broken return spring in the inner flywheel housing). Store policy was that I bring in the entire unit.

I put this off for a while, as the store was somewhat of a distance from my place. I finally got around to it today. And that's when I made the second annoying discovery: they didn't actually do the repairs on-site. No, they would charge me $29.95 as an entry fee (a "diagnostic fee" but we'll call it what it is here...). And then, they would examine the machine NO! They would wait for the once-a-week truck to come collect it and take it to their central parts/repair depot, where they would repair it NO AGAIN! they would ship it off to the regional repair shop. In Dallas. So we're looking at two weeks of transportation just to get it to the place where it would be examined. "Or you could take it to the depot yourself and save a week, here are the directions...." Oh well, it was on my way back to my part of the world.

After a further half-hour of driving --the directions were essentially accurate, but the promises of "oh, it's just off thus-and-so street" were, shall we say, distorted-- I found the depot. Oh look, they actually do some on-site repairs here! And they stock parts! Well now!!! I went inside and talked with a parts guru, who was able to bring up the Briggs & Stratton parts diagram on the screen, and together we came up with a simple solution: buy a new housing unit (cord, flywheel and all) and have it shipped directly to Casa Mojo. Joy!!!

Would that this were an aberration in the customer service world. But it is not. Bean-counters and "efficiency experts" long ago decreed that repairs should at all costs be taken out of the hands of the end user to ensure profits higher up the food chain. Later this asinine reasoning was extended to take repairs out of the hands of local vendors. And that's just plain stupid. While there is a certain level of redundancy in having every retail outlet also having a repair shop, it's that level of customer service and dedication that builds brand loyalty --and brand loyalty means long-term profits! American auto makers never did learn that lesson, constantly making cars harder for drivers to work on or repair or even have routinely serviced --and American cars need lots of service because the folks making them quit giving a rat's hind end years ago. American manufacturers of appliances never learned that lesson, either, and so you simply do not see as many American-built products. People want to be able to get things fixed when they break, and fixed sooner rather than later. And we don't want to have to buy a $400 piece of equipment when a $3 part breaks.

And this becomes even more meaningful in an economic downturn. I came from a family in the tire business. We always did more sales of mid-high end tires in bad times because people traditionally kept cars longer and thus were more inclined to buy tires that would last longer. (The low-end tires, by contrast, actually sold better in good times because people would buy a new set to put on before they sold their old jalopies.) Repairs also went up in bad times because people would pay to have their clunkers kept running rather than stretching to buy a new one. But what good does it do now when you have to jump through multiple hoops (some of which are sometimes aflame) to do simple repairs? If the intent is to encourage consumption of new merchandise, it's ultimately self-defeating, since people will remember those things and buy (usually foreign-made) merchandise that lasts forever. There's a reason I remember so many people in the Eighties and early Nineties driving Hondas, Toyotas and Nissans --the damn things would last forever if kept up. And all this says nothing of the ecological impact of never reusing or recycling --how horribly "incorrect"!

At any rate my new part will be here next week and fall gardening prep can begin in earnest. (No, Roy, the Atikinsons died despite my best attempts, it was simply too hot.)

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