Thursday, November 01, 2018

Wasteful and destructive customer service

Along with so much else in the world, the bike industry is slumping to new lows in waste and destructiveness.

Today's topic: warranty. Back in the 1970s, any bike shop employee could rattle off the phrase, "lifetime warranty on the frame and a year on the parts" with casual assurance. Crash damage wasn't covered. Normal wear and tear were excluded. Not a lot of stuff seemed to come back. A simple warranty like that was a safe bet.

At the dawn of the mountain bike era, the industry held onto the memorized phrase until the strain of explaining the exclusions got to be too much. The 1990s saw a sharp change in the previous open-handed policy. No one was covering crash damage, but companies handed out a lot of freebies as the competition ramped up, just to try to win friends. But the accounting department soon stepped in to preserve profits during the unprecedented surge of business. And rightly so. Conniving riders were constantly scamming to get things covered. Unfortunately, honest claims suffered as well. And warranty terms became a moving target. We had to keep checking to see what current policy was.

Since the bike industry has broken up cycling into very specific categories, warranty has become more generous again, particularly in the less crash-prone sectors. And, with consumer interest far below what it was when everybody wanted a mountain bike, the industry senses a need to try to buy some friendship again.

All this sounds like it might be good. Here's how it isn't:

When bike shops were treated like trusted members of the industry, we were trusted to evaluate claims and submit them. As the 1990s cranked up, manufacturer's representatives would come through to validate our findings and write credit memos, but it was still pretty collegial. That shifted abruptly around the midpoint of the decade. Our shop received fewer and fewer rep visits. Warranty procedures varied from company to company. Response times got longer. Reporting requirements became more stringent. We would usually have to box up an item -- even if it was an entire bike -- and send it to the company to be evaluated.

Shipping is expensive, especially for a large, awkward box with a bike in it. This year, Fuji had us return two or three bikes that arrived damaged in shipment, but they were still basically packed, or easy to repack. Fuji sent a call tag, and off they went. Other than that, we have been successfully discouraged from pursuing much warranty for much of anything smaller than a bike. The process takes time, and time is, as they say, money.

A customer who bought an Orbea somewhere else brought it to us for a shifting problem. In the process of dealing with that, we discovered a crack in one chainstay. The customer did not want to repair the frame, so he contacted Orbea for warranty. Once his new frame arrives, we are supposed to saw the old one into pieces, and send photographic evidence to Orbea. As much as I rag on the carbon crowd, the bike is beautiful. I hate destroying beauty.

The bike hangs on death row in the workshop, while the customer waits for the new one in the color he wants. I wouldn't want to own it, but I can appreciate its appearance. And it's old enough still to have the cables on the outside. The new one won't.

As sad as it is to consider sawing up a carbon road frame that at least got to see several years of riding, the next case really shoves the wasteful consumer side of the bike industry in your face.

A customer bought a Specialized Fuse. He's an athletic adult in his late 40s, I would guess, a firefighter, a family man. What you would call a good and productive citizen, who has gotten into mountain biking. I don't know what his cycling background was before the little local mini-boom in mountain biking inspired him to get this bike. It doesn't matter really. He rides in a sporty but relatively sane fashion. He paid about $1,200 for what he -- and we -- thought was a solid and reliable bike.

A $1,200 bike today is about what a $500 bike was in 1995. Let that sink in a minute. One thousand, two hundred dollars. It used to seem like a lot of money. Now it's barely the threshold of anything built to stand up to the moderate abuse of a mountain biker who doesn't ride with a death wish.

Our buddy went up to the Kingdom Trails in Vermont early in October. The weather was cool, but not cold. The Suntour fork on his bike stiffened up and the controls ceased to function. The preload knob wouldn't turn, and the fork would barely react to bumps. He rode it anyway, because it was better than nothing, but he'd only had the bike for about two months. The conditions were not extreme. He had not crashed the bike or abused it. When we examined it, we found no signs that he had pressure-washed it or even hosed it down vigorously, which are two common mistakes. The fork was just foobed.

In the warmest conditions, the fork is almost normal. But this is New England.

A quick web search of "fork sticks in cold weather" or something similar will pull up lots of results that include this fork and most other low-end suspension forks from any manufacturer. We did suggest that the customer upgrade the fork, but the manufacturer still has a responsibility to back up the product.

In answer to the initial message to Specialized, they said to hit Suntour for warranty. It's a Specialized bike and the fork crown has a sticker saying that this particular fork was made to their specifications, but when it's time for warranty it's someone else's problem. Ooooo-kay. Sourcing is complicated these days, when a fork is its own set of complex moving parts.

Suntour responded helpfully enough, but the Fuse comes with a straight steerer on the fork. All the cool forks have tapered steerers. The OEM fork had 120mm of travel and a straight steerer. Suntour only had 100mm forks with straight steerers as replacements. Or they would send an upgrade with 120mm, but the customer would need to get a new headset.

Back I went to Specialized. I explained Suntour's deal, and asked if they would provide the headset necessary to make the change to a tapered fork. The head tube on the frame looks like it will accommodate it. Simple, right? Pretty cheap. Neat. Tidy.


Specialized will send the guy a complete bike. That seems awfully generous. Bordering on foolishly generous, actually. And the terms of the deal require us to take the perfectly good frame of his "old" bike and smash it. In fact, if we have to field destroy the whole bike, that includes every component. It's a gross and nauseating waste of resources all the way from here to China. But they don't want to pay the freight to ship the derelict back to them, and we certainly don't. The customer should not be penalized for having trusted their product to perform according to its advertised specifications. The whole thing goes from a fixable glitch to an obscene example of consumerist gluttony. And the new bike will have the same fork, with the same straight steerer, setting up the possibility for the same failure on the next cold ride.

Remember when bikes were about saving resources and having less impact on the planet? Yeah, I barely do. And riders who came in any time after the mid 1990s will never have known anything but this conveyor belt of consumption and obsolescence.

1 comment:

Avigdor Liberman said...
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