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A High Rate of Return

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It’s a few minutes before five and the noise level in the shop has already started to fade. It’s time to start packing it in for the day. At least, that’s what I thought until the white Outback crested the driveway and started down the lot.

Déjà vu all over again!

That vehicle and its two new front axles had just left a little more than an hour ago for the hour-long drive home to Camarillo, Calif., and here it was back again. Not exactly the kind of repeat business I strive for.

“It’s making noise. Lots of noise. More noise than it’s ever made before, and the steering is tight! Too tight! It wasn’t doing any of this before!”

This was a meticulous senior customer who is really in tune with his Subaru. To suggest he was distraught would have been a gross understatement. He wasn’t distraught; he was actually beginning to unravel right there in front of me.

I caught the technician who installed the axles just as he was about to walk out the door and sent him out to drive the vehicle with the customer. It wasn’t making any noise. At least, not exactly. But, the steering was tight, tighter than it had been before. And, the engine (and transmission) was “grounding” against the frame, creating the sensation the customer was trying so desperately to describe as “noise.”

The only question: why? How could simply installing two new axles cause such a profound difference in performance? They looked the same, they measured the same, and they felt good. So, what could possibly cause this post-repair nightmare?

I drove the vehicle with the tech to experience the problem for myself. It was there and it was real. I tried hard to remain calm and focus all my attention on experiencing the failure. It wasn’t easy. I was frustrated. How was this vehicle allowed to leave the shop with such a profound and obvious problem? That’s the way vehicles behave when they arrive here. It’s not the way they behave when they leave!

I finally decided that the axles were causing both the problems. It was too late to follow up, so we put the client in a rental so he could get home and saved the heavy lifting for the next morning.

Staff Graphic

We reinstalled the old axles in the morning and the problems disappeared. But, where do you go from there? You go to the source and you start asking questions, uncomfortable questions—at least, uncomfortable for your suppliers. You ask questions about quality, performance, failures and rate of return. In this particular case, the rate of return was just a bit less than one in five. That’s twenty percent for you math majors out there. More than 19 points short of Six Sigma.

In all honesty, I don’t have a problem with a manufacturer having a problem. It’s going to happen regardless of how hard you try to avoid it, no matter how hard you work to prevent it. But, I do have a problem with a supplier keeping merchandise on the shelf and then selling it to some poor bastard like you or me when they know one out of five is likely to fail and find its way back to the warehouse!

Sure, they’re going to “make it right,” doing whatever they can, everything they can, to cover the costs for both the labor and the parts. But, what about the consequences? What about the lost confidence in the manufacturer, in the product? What about the client’s lost confidence in us, and my lost confidence in the supplier for taking chances with my reputation?

You see, understanding the costs involved, I can actually understand a supplier taking a chance like that with the product. One in five? It’s almost worth the risk.

After all, what’s the big deal?

It’s no good? Send it back and we’ll send you another one. But, taking chances with my credibility, my reputation? Well, that’s just plain unacceptable!

The funniest part of the story—if there can be a “funny part” to a story like this—is that just yesterday I received an email inviting me to participate in a panel at AAPEX this November addressing the hard questions of warranty facing manufacturers, distributors and members of the repair community like you and me. In a convoluted kind of a way, I guess I should be grateful because now I’ll have at least one thing to talk about when I get there.

But, realistically, I will sit down at that panel with at least one suggestion for reducing the high cost of warranty: Don’t sell products you know have a one in five chance of being returned—not when you have no idea what that high rate of return is going to cost the warehouse distributors and manufacturers in the audience, me, the motorist or the industry as a whole. 

Mitch Schneider is a fourth-generation auto repair professional and the owner of Schneider’s Auto Repair in Simi Valley, Calif. He is an industry educator, author, seminar facilitator, and blogger at Contact him at

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