Making Your Case

Phil Dawson

MRS. J. LIVED IN southeast Virginia and had purchased an eight-year-old truck at auction for her college-bound child. It turns out that the truck had spent its entire life in and around Rochester, New York, in the heart of the Rust Belt. Mrs. J. had been advised by her local garage that many of the exposed chassis components on her truck were covered in rust. Her neighbors’ cars did not exhibit this condition. She felt the truck was unsafe and that the vehicle’s manufacturer—my employer—owed her a solution.

After a thorough inspection, I began to explain that the truck was not unsafe, no defects were present and no warranty would apply even if there were. Mrs. J. began a vituperative crescendo that was majestic to behold. Each time she came up for air, her pronouncements increased by an octave, as she advised everyone within earshot of the wretchedness of my employer and the clearly impure breeding of which I was a result. She swore apocalyptic consequences for my recalcitrance.

The outcome was not positive for Mrs. J.  What about me? For my trouble, I got a story to share.

As a technical representative for my employer, I get to interact with customers who have a problem with their car and are unable to reach a satisfactory resolution with our dealer network. Having worked with a number of these customers over the years, I feel qualified to advise on what behaviors are helpful in reaching a happy conclusion.

It’s not convenient for anyone. You took time from your day to drive to the dealer and meet with a rep from the factory, when you’d rather be getting your nails done. I get it. The person dispatched to look at your car may be days away from home and has a pile of other pressing matters as well. Be prepared to present your case in a way that supports an efficient resolution. Which means:

Know what’s covered. It helps to peruse the tiny book that summarizes your warranty coverage. If you purchased a new car, it is in the glove box next to the owner’s manual, both no doubt still wrapped in plastic. No matter how much you paid, or how entitled you feel, that little book defines what you are owed with heartless precision. The warranty covers defects under specified conditions. Outside of those conditions, you may receive assistance with your problem. But you will need to explain why it is in the manufacturer’s best interest to help you. My first question will be:

Are you my customer? Applying out-of-warranty assistance is a business decision. If you have a history of purchases from the brand, and your car has been routinely serviced in the dealer network, you have set yourself up for special consideration. If you bought the car at auction, haven’t seen a dealer in 60,000 miles and you’re out of the specified warranty coverage, the problem you’re having is yours alone.

It is your burden to demonstrate the defect. Manufacturers are unlikely to attempt a repair for a problem that cannot be demonstrated. If the problem is intermittent, it helps if you have a detailed record of each occurrence, the conditions during which you noticed the problem and how the problem was resolved. This may help the inspector understand and diagnose your concern.

Tell me the truth. This is not my first rodeo. I have inspected hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of cars. Your car is speaking to me from the moment I approach it. Don’t tell me the seat stains just showed up when the seat belts and headliner tell another story. Don’t tell me the part simply fell off when the adjacent parts tell me there was an impact.

I once had a customer tell me that the scratches on his windshield “just showed up and must be a defect.” I stared at him in silence as his conscience went to work. When he finally apologized and told me what happened, I helped him with his problem. And not because I had to.

The issue is not a defect, but I still want it fixed. Sometimes the condition you object to is not a defect, but a design element you dislike. I am not allowed to make unauthorized modifications to your car. Even when I have nothing else to offer, your opinion can support changes that will improve future products or spur developments that may be applied to your car at some future date.

Be civil. Shouting at the person responsible for a final position on your case will rarely get you more than is absolutely required from the manufacturer. Disparaging remarks about me, my mother or my employer are never helpful. “I’ll never buy another one of your products” voids any interest I have in helping you and any hope you have of a positive outcome. If you have trouble keeping your cool, send a trusty advocate that can present your case in a civil way.

Expect the same in return. If you don’t get your desired result, it doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome was unfair. But if you are not treated with courtesy and respect, please report your experience to the manufacturer’s call center. Incivility is never appropriate, regardless of the cultural decay we witness daily.

We all want the same outcome. Auto (and most other) manufacturers work in very competitive marketplaces that are highly dependent on customer perception. If the issue with your product can be resolved in a way that makes you smile, the manufacturer wants that outcome. I want that outcome. I am looking for reasons to say “yes.” Help me find them.

When not paddling, biking or shooting, Phil Dawson provides technical services for a global auto manufacturer. He, his sweetheart Donna and their four extraordinary daughters live in and around Jarrettsville, Maryland. His previous articles were Course CorrectionThanksgiving Prayer and Life After Amazon. You can contact Phil via LinkedIn.

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