Planning For Failure Can Save You When It Happens
By Doc Frohmader
It's an old story. A customer brings in a rebuild job and you do your normal quality job. You dot all the I's and cross all the T's and walk away from the engine stand knowing you've done a good job. The customer pays and off he goes with his prize. You make the mortgage payment and the world keeps turning around and around.
Then, shortly after this idyllic story, the fecal matter hits the reciprocating air delivery device when (to your surprise) the customer returns, screaming about how your work was shoddy and defective. He now claims he has a load of expensive scrap, it's all your fault, he wants his money back, he wants to be paid for R&R, he wants punitive damages for mental distress, and his lawyer thinks he can get a substantial judgment for pain and suffering (endured by his pet schnauzer when, because of your inept bumbling, it was late to its pet therapist appointment). Before it's all over, you've been accused of everything from child abuse to global warming.
Now, it is always possible - however remotely - that somewhere along the line you did, in fact, make a mistake. One of the unfortunate attributes of being a human being is a disconcerting tendency toward imperfection. We try hard, we do it all by the numbers, and then because a phone rings or someone is standing in the shop chewing our ears we forget to torque that ONE bolt or flip a ring or… There always will be a certain percentage of errors made or defects in parts that will frustrate all our best efforts.
Take heart from the knowledge that whether you've considered it or not the prices you charge have these mistakes factored into them. It's complicated and involves economics, psychology, statistics, and probably some variety of black magic voodoo so I won't try to detail that right now. Simply keep in mind that if it were not true, you would soon be out of business because of something that is inevitable.
However, now that I've given you the bad news, there is an area you can get some control of what will reduce the number of these expensive come-backs and add a bit to your bottom line. If you are using good parts, have decent equipment, follow proven procedures and do your work well, what is left for you to deal with? Get some degree of control with your customer or installer - along with yourself.
Preparing the Ground
When an engine is installed there are lots of things to go wrong. Installers strip or break hardware. Torque converters end up jammed between crank and case when not installed properly. Manifolds can leak. On and on… If you sit down and make up a list of all the ways you've seen an engine damaged before it even gets a chance at life you'd probably get pretty depressed. Even the best can make a mistake and there are lots of knuckle-draggers, wannabees and amateurs that make errors an art form.
Then there's break-in. I am still amazed at how many people will pay good hard cash for an expensive engine and then not make any effort to properly break in the engine before it hits the street. Every cam manufacturer makes a big deal of cam break-in. Any experienced builder knows how much debris is in break-in oil after a mere 20 minutes at 2,000 rpm. Few of us want to know that our hard work is about to be sabotaged by some bonehead who waits 10,000 miles (or as long as it lasts) before changing break-in oil.
The solution? Put together and present a regimen of installation must-dos (perhaps even a check list) and have the customer SIGN it before the engine leaves the shop. Make it clear that the installer or owner has a series of responsibilities required to prevent failures.
Make it equally clear that if something goes wrong and your instructions have not been followed religiously, they will bear full responsibility for their failures.
While this is by no means a fail-safe it will reduce the number of failures you see in your shop. It does, however rely on a short period of time where your actions heavily influence the eventual outcome. By preparing for the possibility of a failure and preparing the customer to accept their part in a failure, you'll improve your position and reduce your liability.
So how does this extra preparation advance your interests? First, that document or checklist provides information that may otherwise be lacking. Sometimes it's best to assume your customer is a novice and provide info he will NEVER listen to face-to-face but will read over when no one is looking to make sure he isn't heading into embarrassment. Many people claim guys don't read instructions. Not true: we just don't like to be seen reading them. It's a testosterone poisoning symptom - a guy thing.
Also, by providing it and making him acknowledge it, he begins to understand his responsibility and will tend to be much more careful. When you make it clear up front that your customer is assuming responsibility, it's a lot harder to shift it away later. A signature once given holds a certain amount of power - both in terms of limiting the willingness to duck responsibility and in demonstrating to a judge your legal and professional position (if it goes that far).
Second, by providing this info AND a stern warning that what your customers are signing is critical stuff, you are putting them on notice. It keeps them on their toes by implanting in their minds the idea that not only is the information important but that you are smart enough to know when it hasn't been done right (In any business, convincing the customer of your expertise and confidence is a big asset.). They'll walk out knowing at some level not only that you are a methodical and knowledgeable technician, but that you are prepared for and capable of determining when the mistake is not yours and the instructions haven't been followed.
Third, if you do get an engine back, make sure you do the proper autopsy. Learn to determine the signs of improper installation and startups. Use your parts suppliers and their extensive experience and knowledge-bases to assess the problem. Look for signs of detonation and improper air/fuel mixtures. Check that when your customer installed the sheet metal it wasn't just after bead blasting and somewhat before all the bead was removed (the top reason for bearing failures is glass bead). Use a methodical and scientific approach to the causes and document them.
In some cases, you'll want to enlist the help of the parts supplier. Most parts makers have a warranty inspection function that allows you to send off questionable components and get a failure analysis. It may surprise you to know that reputable parts manufacturers WANT to know if they have a problem and are willing to help you find the cause of a failure so it doesn't repeat - regardless of who is at fault. Of course this works much better when you do it with courtesy and respect, avoiding high-volume accusations and threats and being willing to ask for and accept good information.
Let your customer know that you will be using clinical science to assess the situation and you'll be surprised at how often they'll get a lot more pleasant. Most people have a fair amount of respect for scientific analysis and when faced with the possibility of exposure for something they know or suspect they are responsible, quickly backtrack and look for a way to save face. Leave them room to do so and you can seriously limit your loss.
In fact, that's a huge asset in dealing with return claims: psychology. I liken it to a high school parking lot fight. Usually the guy that's doing the most yelling is going to be The Loser. He shouts because he is not sure of his position and hopes the noise will overcome the larger, stronger or more skilled fighter (a.k.a. The Winner). Confidence shows and wins arguments - you know what to do.
Using the same analogy, you can't expect The Loser to admit he's lost if you make him fight in front of his buddies or (worse yet) his girlfriend. So don't start or allow to continue any debate that places your customer in a situation where in order to admit a mistake he has to do it publicly. You'll force him to fight it out and resist to the end any acceptance of his errors or willingness to compromise. Take him into your office, have a quiet and patient conversation, and keep in mind that your goal is not necessarily to kick him out without a dime, but to negotiate a limit to your loss. It's much easier for him to back down.
Also, provide a way for him to walk out without humiliation. As much as you might like to run his shorts up the flagpole after he's snarled at you and made nasty remarks about your work, this is the time to stay in control. If you don't give him a way to keep some face, you'll force a more heated or difficult argument than is otherwise necessary. You'll have the private knowledge sustaining you that what you're doing is simply staying in control, using your intelligence to calmly negotiate the best outcome you can, and not allowing your ego to empty your pockets.
Taking the Hit
Finally, we all know you will rarely get off scot-free. Take a page from most parts suppliers who want to make their customers happy - even if it costs a little to do so. It's long been a trend that parts manufacturers will help out on failed parts even if they are not all that certain it was the part's fault. It's good PR. When a customer comes back with a failure, you'll want to make a good faith effort, avoiding flat out denials of any possible error on your part or jumping to blame parts manufacturers.
Instead, make it clear that you have a process to determine what went wrong and resolve the problem. You'll do the autopsy, make the tests, double-check with other pros, and then work with the customer so all involved come out with the least damage. Stop well short of hard and emotional declarations or accusations. Give the situation a little time to take the upset out of the equation while you do the data gathering and assessment. Then, when you are sure of your ground, bring the customer in, inform him clearly and with confidence of the results, and then take your high ground in negotiations.
If you are fair, if you accept the fact that you will need to give up a little more than you are strictly responsible for, and if you keep in mind that your goal is limiting loss without damaging your reputation or unnecessarily angering your customer, you'll almost certainly do better than going for an angry, quickly escalating battle where the winner takes all.