Editorial April 1, 1998 Issue

Pissing Matches

I have before me today four "case histories" of consumer complaint. Some weeks I get more, some less. But come they do, usually in large manila envelopes or Express mail pouches. These are fat files, with lots of back and forth correspondence between the reader/consumer and the manufacturer. He or she might include copies of invoices and even photographs to prove a point. Occasionally, the reader will call first to see if I'm interested. That goes without saying.

What is more at issue is whether I can doing anything about their problem. Once in a while I am able to earn the reader a measure of satisfaction. More often than not, I cannot.

This week's pile includes a reader who bought a new refrigeration system for his boat and has had nothing but problems with the voltage sensitivity of the digital control unit. He burns up fuse holders. After repeated contact with the manufacturer, he got a letter from the company saying that the problem lay in his boat's inadequate electrical system, and went on to say, and I quote, "I am aware that among a certain type of cruiser, and (sic) endless pursuit of 'freebies' is considered constructive entertainment." Not surprisingly, the customer took offense.

Another file contains the year-old saga of a couple's unhappy foray into the world of boat ownership. They spent a lot of money on a new boat only to discover that an assortment of problems would keep them from sailing that first summer. They blame the builder for shoddy workmanship. The builder accuses them of abusing the boat.

A third involves a customer who cannot recover his deposit for a life raft because the maker is in bankruptcy court.

The fourth has to do with a balky outboard motor that, despite repeated visits to the dealer, won't run right.

For the most part, readers write to PS when they feel they've exhausted their efforts with the subject company. Maybe they've also been in touch with the Customer Protection Bureau at BOAT/U.S. which attempts to mediate such disputes. And more than a few have consulted attorneys, only to learn that the cost of litigation will far exceed the cost of damages incurred.

Needless to say, I don't have any magic powers to make two adversaries come to terms. And let's face it, opponents in some of these cases are as bitter as the Jews and Palestinians.

But for what it's worth, here are a few observations.

Some consumers are whiners and there is no pleasing them.
Some manufacturers have no concept of customer relations and others are so tight-fisted they'll gladly take a damaging public relations hit before forking over a $5 part.
Do-it-yourself boat owners sometimes create their own problems with poor installations. Unfortunately, paying a "professional" often isn't any guarantee of better work. In the marine business, just about anybody can hang a shingle and call themselves a surveyor or an electronics technician.
Resolution is rarely possible when requests are viewed as excessive or when personalities get involved ("I want all my money back, you jerk."
Like a car, sometimes the luck of the draw gives you a lemon.
Some brands of gear are of poor quality, plain and simple.
Too many consumers can't recognize junk when they see it.

Suggestions to avoid such unpleasantness?

Establish as best you can relationships with local businesses, with people you can get to know and trust. A dealer who has come to value your patronage will have a harder time dodging you than a faceless manufacturer clear across the country.
When you have a problem, present it in a friendly way that is neither accusatory nor unreasonable. Be willing to compromise.
If resolution is not possible and the amount is small, forget it. Even though on principle you are outraged, it isn't worth the stress. As Dale Nouse, our executive editor, has often said of bad restaurants, "I don't complain. I just don't go back."
If the sum is large and you feel a moral duty to warn fellow consumers, write your local Better Business Bureau, BOAT/U.S. (which keeps track of complaints and makes available helpful data to other consumers), and write us. While we probably won't be able to get your money back or get you a new boat, we may be able to draw attention to the manufacturer's behavior either by means of publishing your letter in Mailport, or, in really juicy cases, lay out the story in a Special Report, such as "When Deals Go Bad" in the July 1, 1997 issue. Other topics we've tackled in the past have included fraudulent life raft repackers and crooked yacht brokers.

Lastly, it's a shame that in the U.S. there is no inexpensive, legally binding mediation process whereby both parties can sit down and tell their respective stories before a Solomon-wise "judge," who can make reasonable judgments and awards.

-Dan Spurr

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