The “War” In Warranty: A sure-fire battle plan

Having recently dropped huge sums (for me) of money on a Shiny New Bicycle, and subsequently having that shiny new frame crack, I participated firsthand in my bicycle company’s Warranty and Crash Replacement Program.

In my case I was lucky. I bought a frame from a reputable company with a 20 year history, known for quality and customer service, with a clearly defined warranty and the added bonus of a Crash Replacement Program. These things happen, and for the record I’m pretty glad my incident happened to me while riding a Santa Cruz product. I submitted my “claim” on Friday, had a dialogue with their Warranty Manager via email on Monday,  had a totally satisfactory solution including delivery of a new swingarm by Wednesday and had my bike built back up and riding by Thursday. In my case I had a crash which resulted in a rock strike to my rear triangle. In a testament to the frame I didn’t even realize it had happened, finished the ride and found the crack when I was pulling the bike off the rack back at home.

Broken Nomad Chainstay

In my 20+ years as a mountain biker I have broken, or found unusable my fair share of stuff. Steel, aluminum and carbon frames, hubs, delaminating tires, folded-up forks, crushed handlebars, unservicable dropper posts; and have on rare occasion found a lemon that came to me already wrong. The following are the lessons I have learned the hard way. I share them so that you can learn from my mistakes.

1. Buy Quality

Buy the best you can afford. Check the company’s warranty policy and make sure it sounds reasonable and comfortable. Put yourself in some warranty shoes before you buy and ask yourself if you’re willing to risk the purchase price of the frame or product on a company’s warranty policy. Go online and search for reviews. Ask your dealer if they’ve ever had any warranty issues and how they went.

2. Don’t Bite the Hand that Feeds You

The first impulse for some people in our age of interweb connectedness is to head straight to the forums and social media and scream into the internet about their misfortune. Dragging the good name of the manufacturer through the dirt publicly on pinkbike or mtbr or twitter is not going to help your cause. Smearing pics of broken frames or blown-up wheels along with demands for justice is not going to get the kind of results you want. Cooler heads prevail.

When bad things happen, cooler heads will prevail

3. Dealer Vs. Direct

Manufacturers have an interest in going through an authorized dealer in that they can get a guarantee of “qualified” installation, narrowing the margins for operator error. Some companies might not give you the option of submitting warranty claims on your own. Sometimes they have systems in place to handle these situations and trying to do an end-around on them causes more confusion and wastes more time than its worth. Ideally, the dealer is your advocate.
However, not all dealers are created equal. Some are true customer advocates and remember where their bread is buttered. Occasionally they can be real A-holes. Generally a small shop will do their best for you, but most small business owners already have a lot going on. In my personal experience I have had better success when I’ve been able to go direct to the company. I have the resources to build or repair bikes on my own without the help of a dealer. Not everyone does.

4. Find your Guy (or Gal)

Find someone consistent to communicate with at the company. Just about every bike company is going to have a warranty/replacement person. Sometimes they aren’t going to be designated as such. If you’re dealing with a small builder the warranty person might be the sales person and the fabrication person and the welder. Major operations will have full time personnel. Find someone to glom on to. This will save time and effort for everyone involved. If you can, figure out who their bosses are. This serves two purposes. If, at the completion of the Warranty/Replacement process you aren’t a satisfied customer, you will know who you have to go chew on next. More optimistically, when at the end of he W/R process you are a satisfied customer, you will know to whom to sing praises.

5. Communicate Clearly

After you’ve established who your go-to person is going to be, heard a real human voice and established contact, move forward with email. Email is the preferred method of communication for a number of reasons. It’s trackable. You and your Warranty Representative both have copies of all communications. Times, dates, information. This is good for both parties. It’s fast. Most people who do this kind of business have their email pushed to their phones. Email will reach them whether they are in the office or not, on the phone, at lunch, wherever. It’s flexible. These people are probably pretty busy. There are lots of people breaking shit. If they have to service each caller in the order in which they are received it’s gonna take a while. Via email, these folks can take care of customers from anywhere, anytime, and can do so quickly while collaborating with supervisors, the shipping department, the dealer, the customer all at once. It might be counter-intuitive, but in today’s world email can often times be a more personal way of doing business than the phone.
The more accurately you can paint your warranty/replacement picture the better. Most companies are going to need some info to help you out and the sooner you can provide it the faster things can start to happen. With that in mind here are some elements to include when you send your initial “I was Just Riding Along When..” email.

There I was just riding along when…

a. Pictures are worth 1,000 words

Take them with a decent camera (blurry cell-phone shots are no good), and size them to fit in an email. Some corporate email filters will reject messages beyond a certain size, so format your pictures in a way that maintains quality at a reasonable size. First off, clean your bike. A filthy ride smacks of neglect, and makes a detailed assessment of the issue difficult or impossible. An overview pic of the bike at 90 degrees right (drivetrain side) as you would generally see displayed as in a magazine bike review, a detailed higher-res picture of the area of question, and a picture of the serial number are good places to start.

b. Keep Your Receipts

Send a scanned copy of your original receipt. There are a number of issues with .pdfs, but pdf is a pretty widely used/accepted/understood standard. Scan it and send it as a .pdf unless otherwise specified. Check the file and make sure its legible in the scanned format you’ve chosen. Scanners are quirky little buggers and will export .pdf’s that are similar in visual quality with massive differences in size. If your software has a “documents” setting use it, and attempt to produce a reasonably-sized document.

c. Your Deposition

Tell them what happened, use your own words, and press hard- you’re making three copies- just like a police report. This isn’t a novel, it doesn’t need a lot of creative writing. Be honest and try to explain the forces that were involved in the failure or the condition of the defective item. Body weight, speed, heights of jumps, and shock pressures are examples of quantifiable, reproduceable values that mean the same thing whoever you are. Be as specific as you can. Descriptions like “I landed weird” are not particularly telling. “I came off a 2-foot drop going around 10mph onto a flat concrete landing. I weigh 180 pounds and run 180psi in my rear shock (Fox RP23)” contains much more viable data. Remember: Every email exchange that takes place, every question that isn’t answered, takes time. Their time is valuable, and so is yours. The fewer questions left unanswered, the less time it will take to get you rolling.

6. Be Honest

“Just Riding Along” has long been regarded as a joke in the bicycle industry. It is a red-herring phrase that defaults bullshit detectors to maximum sensitivity. People in general have difficulty separating the objective and the subjective, the facts of a given event vs. one’s interpretation of those “facts”. This gets even more blurred when replacement costs for new frames are frequently in the THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS. People tend to tell the story with just a little bit of personal bias when there’s $2k-$3k+ from their own pockets on the line. Give them the truth and they’ll respect you, and you’ll be able to sleep better at night.
Warranty folks should be well versed in failure modes for their products and likely aren’t interested in all the sordid details about the ride or how sad you are. It all comes down to this simple question: Did the bike Break, or was it Broken?

7. Be Specific

Tell them up front what your hopes and dreams are. If you think it’s a warranty situation tell them, and tell them why. If you have specific reasons, needs, etc., them them up front. It’s not going to be possible to fulfill all needs from all customers, but it saves time if they already know what your expectations are and what you’re after.

8. Be Reasonable

Be honest and be honest with yourself regarding your responsibility in the damage. There are too many failure modes out there in the wild for the engineers to predict all of them. Most of the time they do a pretty good job, but somewhere, out there, is a rock with a bad attitude that’s been hanging out for the past couple hundred million years waiting to ruin your day. If you start out with both barrels blasting, asking for a replacement at no cost, overnighted, and installed free of charge you might be disappointed in the result. It’s gonna take more work and more emails and more time to whittle down to what’s possible, responsible, and acceptable to both parties. Accept the most accurate level of responsibility you can.

Follow these steps and you too could be riding off into the sunset

9. Be Patient

I hate being patient. Patience is a boring virtue, but it is also very useful. Don’t bombard your contact with a torrent of phone calls and emails. When communicating via email, establish reasonable, defined timeframes for answers. When talking over the phone, ask for when you will hear back from them and let them know when you plan on checking back in if you don’t hear anything. Here’s the patient part: stick to these. Give these people the time they need to work, and hold them accountable for their deadlines.

10. Be Grateful

The company has a responsibility to do the Right Thing, both ethically and by whatever agreements they have laid out in their warranties and terms. This doesn’t mean that you can’t still be grateful for being taken care of. When you experience good customer service, return the favor. Now is the time to sing their praises in your social media. Send a final email to your go-to person. Copy their supervisor, the owner of the company, anyone else that you think would want to know when they have maintained customer satisfaction.

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