Guide to good service (July 1978)

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Article author: Herman Burstein

Over the past two decades the quality of service rendered by independent service shops and by the service departments of audio manufacturers seems to have matured to the point where it generally ranges from good to excellent. Though not perfect (is anything?), it is superior to service of yesteryear. For example, I recall my first encounter with an authorized service shop some 20 years ago; my tape deck, just a few weeks old, had acquired a slight but distinct gargle in recording. A technician put the deck on the test bench, recorded a signal off FM, played it back, and said, "It works." He refused to do anything further, although I protested that the deck didn't work well. (Fortunately my audio dealer was willing to exchange he unit for another.) In recent years my experience has been much the opposite. I have usually sound service on the ball, ready and able to bring a unit back to specifications even though the problem might be a subtle one.

This impression of satisfactory service today is bolstered by correspondence from readers of my "Tape Guide" column. Their letters contain relatively few complaints about service. Still, some complaints do arrive. Therefore, he purpose of this article is to describe the problems faced by service facilities in giving satisfactory service, and to list a variety of steps the audiophile can take to increase his chance of getting satisfactory service.

The article relies largely on answers by nine audio firms to a questionnaire on:

1) Why is service sometimes unsatisfactory?

2) What measures can the audiophile take to insure satisfactory service? Specifically, I am indebted to: Advent Corporation, Empire Scientific Corp., Glen Oaks Service Labs, Inc., Heath Company, Mark Levinson Audio Systems Ltd., Phase Linear, Sansui Electronics Corp., Shure Brothers Inc., and Tandberg of America Inc. While I shall quote extensively from their replies, under a prior pledge of confidentiality these quotes will not be attributed to individual firms.

Nature of the Service Problem Audiophile's complaints about service seem to divide into two categories:

1) A service facility-a manufacturer's service department or an independent shop-has failed to repair a component to the owner's satisfaction.

2) A manufacturer has failed to answer the audiophile's inquiry about a matter, such as trouble with a component, correct way of installing the component in a system, a desired modification, a replacement part, etc.

Most complaints fall into the first category, which subdivides about as follows:

a) The trouble has been cured insufficiently or not at all.

b) Cost of the repair is excessive.

c) The repair took too long-sometimes several months.

d) The "repaired" component came home with new troubles.

Why Unsatisfactory Service? While the cause of dissatisfaction may lie with the service facility, it may also lie with the customer or elsewhere. Based on an analysis of its service performance over several years, one firm has found that while five per cent of its repair jobs were returned by dissatisfied customers, two per cent turned out to be bona-fide complaints, with the other three per cent being "consumer-oriented problems, such as improper operation or difficulties in associated equipment." Another respondent points out: "A common problem is that after a unit has been serviced and reinstalled at the customer's home, the customer makes mistakes in reinstallation." The fault may also be neither that of the customer nor the service facility. For example, "Certain reception problems on FM exist only at the customer's location." These may be due to a poor antenna, hilly terrain, radio frequency interference, etc.

The problem of satisfactory service stems partly from the sophisticated nature of audio equipment, from the need to not merely restore operation but to restore it to peak performance, and from the high level of expectation by the customer.

In this vein one firm writes: "There are two problems with repair service in this industry-the generally long turnaround time for repairs and the caliber of the repair work. In contrast, repairs on television sets, the other major category of electronic home entertainment product, usually are performed in a few days, frequently in the home, and usually with a high percentage of success. Why, then, the difference? The first reason is that audio components are more sophisticated, more akin to high performance sports cars, whereas television sets are more analogous to the family sedan .... The second reason is that the audio component owner is more discriminating about the performance of his gear in the same way that the sports car owner is about automobile performance. Add to this the fact that no audio repair technician can possibly know all audio gear well enough to repair each of them all properly. Obviously, knowing where to go for service is essential to the audio customer.... We suggest that customers contact the manufacturer about where to take an ailing product." "Attitude" of a service facility is a factor, as illustrated by the following comments of firms that enjoy a high reputation. They give a sense of what the audiophile may be justified in expecting. One firm states: "Customer service has always been important to us. As a matter of course, we try to answer letters within three days and to service units within seven, exclusive of shipping time. ... If a unit is here for service and we cannot duplicate the problem, we call the customer for more information before simply returning the unit." Another states: "We've worked to develop a service procedure which is as thorough and efficient as possible. We maintain a two-day turnaround period, exclusive of shipping time, which includes two complete and comprehensive test and alignment procedures, both electrical and audio, with a 24- to 48-hour monitored idling period. Needless to say, this exceeds most customers' expectations, and it is to our advantage to maintain this type of high quality service." (So far as I can ascertain, a two-day turnaround is rather unusual. For high -quality service facilities, a turnaround of five working days seems more typical. -H.B.)

A third firm states: "Everyone receives personal attention from us.

Whether it is problem, complaint, comment, advice, or just plain opinion, we continually make sure that 100 per cent of all letters and calls are personally dealt with and resolved to the best of our ability. We've put special emphasis on this type of service and intend to maintain it. We therefore encourage present, would-be, and even non -customers to contact us concerning any issue in which we may be of assistance." And a fourth firm notes: "Our long-standing policy has been to answer all customer correspondence be they application questions, general comments, or complaints-within five days of receipt. Similarly, items returned for repair receive immediate attention and are generally en route back to the customer within about eight days (weekends included)." Although a service facility averages a fast turnaround on repairs, sometimes a customer has to wait a good deal longer than average. The reason may be that "an item returned for service is not accompanied by an explanation of the problem involved; or, if an explanation is included, it may not be specific enough to identify the problem. This, of course, results in a time-consuming probe on the part of the person performing the repair work to first identify the nature of the defect and then fix it. The effect is increased turnaround time." A second reason for a longer wait than usual is a stubborn intermittent trouble, with infrequent and perhaps brief appearances that make it difficult for a technician to diagnose. True, there are ways of accelerating the appearance of an intermittent problem, such as operating a component at elevated voltage. Still, the intermittent usually takes longer to solve.

The wait may simply be due to the fact that "in his anxiousness to get an item repaired, a customer may fail to include his return address and phone number. This necessitates time-consuming work to insure that the unit is returned to the owner."

A customer may have to wait because a service shop is out of stock on a replacement part. Such an occurrence depends upon the care and money the shop is willing or can afford to devote towards maintaining an adequate supply of expensive parts ... for example tape heads and motors. When the shop has to order a replacement part from the manufacturer, turnaround time depends a good deal on the manufacturer's response time. In this respect a manufacturer writes: "We provide a strict three-day parts turn-around time here at the factory, with same-day service on rush orders." The out-of-stock situation may also develop at the level of the manufacturer. The respondent just quoted states: "Occasionally the factory will be back-ordered from the supplier of a certain part, so that the three-day parts turn-around policy cannot be met. If this is the case, we send out back-order notices which should keep the customer aware of the situation." In cases like this, a customer's long wait might be due not to the service shop or the manufacturer but to a supplier of parts to the factory.

Turn-around time at a service shop may depend upon the pressure exerted and the assistance given by the manufacturer who contracts to use the shop as an authorized service station. One manufacturer states: "Although the overwhelming majority of our warranty stations are top notch, occasionally we have problems with excessive shop time.... We monitor the turnaround times and service techniques of all our authorized service shops.... We provide charge -free telephone technical assistance to all of our dealers and warranty stations. Our regional representatives personally check dealers on a regular basis." When a service shop is compensated by a manufacturer at a standard rate for repairing a component under warranty, and when the repair is especially time-consuming, a question may arise as to whether the shop has been adequately remunerated. In such cases there may be a temptation by the shop to minimize the cost of the repair by cutting corners. Whether the shop succumbs to this temptation again depends on "attitude." An enlightened point of view is that the shop will not cut corners. Instead, "by investing in proper service during the warranty period, the shop will see the customer again after the warranty expires, and the shop will then be properly compensated for service at that time." It should be recognized that the price of a component is related to service in at least four ways:

1) Quality of design and construction (reflected in price) both govern a component's reliability-freedom from the need for service.

2) Quality of design and construction govern the ease of servicing a component.

3) Quality of service under a warranty, and the length of the warranty period, represent costs which must be recovered in the price of the component.

4) Willingness to answer questions represents a cost to be recovered in price. Thus two components of different brands may have almost identical looks and specifications but may differ appreciably in price because of the manufacturer's and dealer's intentions with respect to the service question.

Here a respondent notes that consumers may not be serving their best interests by "looking for lowest initial costs and shopping for discounts at stores where there is not enough margin left over to provide for adequate service or personal attention in a meaningful way. Consumers must accept the idea of higher initial costs for two reasons:

1) So that the equipment can be built to higher standards initially; and, 2) so that the dealers can make a fair profit, enabling them to offer better services.... In this modern age, time means money. Correct design, construction, testing, service, and so forth take time, therefore money. The consumer must accept his responsibility to pay for this, since no one really gets something for nothing." We noted earlier that your chance of getting a reply to a question addressed to a manufacturer depends upon his attitude toward answering each and every query. However, there is another factor: The U.S. mail. A manufacturer writes: "The U.S. Postal Service is not the most reliable organization in the country. Most of the complaints that come to our attention relate to this (failure to get an answer), and our investigations invariably indicate that the initial letter was either never received or was received very late."

Measures the Audiophile Can Take

What can you do to maximize your chances of satisfactory service? Based on the foregoing discussion, on further comments by respondents to my questionnaire, and on other sources, the following are some suggestions:

1) Be reasonable in your expectations. For example, don't expect that after being repaired a component will perform better than ever before. Thus, if your tape deck has had appreciable hiss from the start, don't expect the hiss to vanish after the deck is serviced for a transport malfunction. Or, if your FM tuner has always lacked adequate sensitivity (perhaps is saddled with a poor antenna), don't expect the service facility to make it an outstanding receptor of distant stations.

A respondent supplies still another example of unwarranted expectations: "The audiophile's view of what constitutes proper service very often is at variance with the manufacturer's position. For instance, a customer will sometimes immediately demand a new product for his defective unit when the manufacturer's warranty clearly states 'repair or replace'.... We have had cases where the consumer writes that he is unhappy with the product and demands a refund from us. This doesn't make sense since we did not sell him the product; the proper channel for him is the dealer from whom he purchased the merchandise. We have also had cases where the consumer writes to us stating he is dissatisfied and advising that he has already bought a new product and expects us to send him a refund for something he is not returning.... Finally, we run into a situation where the customer takes his defective product to the dealer, who tries to adjust it for him and winds up creating irreparable damage. The customer then tries to return the product to us for refund." (Presumably this manufacturer refers to a dealership which is not an authorized service station. -H.B.)

2) Supply full, clear information about your problem. Of course you have to put this in writing when you ship a component for service to a manufacturer. It is just as wise to put it in writing before you tote the component to a service shop. If you don't, on the way home you'll probably think of several things you wish you'd said.

Elaborating, a respondent states:

"a) Give a specific description of the problem, including when it does and doesn't occur in the case of an intermittent problem.

b) When inquiring about a problem, give the serial number of your unit. A manufacturer may have had a problem within a specific serial group, and knowing the customer's serial number can help identify and solve the problem.

c) Give a list of your related equipment, including specific model numbers. The problem may be traceable to another component in the system or to interaction between components. In the case of a tape deck, it is especially helpful to know the brand and type of tape used."

Going into detail, another respondent states:

"Experience shows that too often even a qualified and experienced technician does not fully understand the customer's complaint. The customer should explain the problem as exactly as possible. In the case of a receiver, is the problem in the tuner, preamp, or power amp section? Is it in the left or right channel or both? Is it an intermittent or a constant problem? If intermittent, approximately how long must the unit be on before the problem occurs? If the problem is in the tuner or preamp, is it in mono or stereo, or both? In the case of a tuner problem, state what antenna system is used and what kind of building it's used in. If the tuner has both AM and FM, specify which mode has the problem. If the problem is in the preamp, state in which modes of operation it occurs-phono, tuner, tape, etc. If it is in phono, give the name of the cartridge and turntable used. If it is in the tape mode, give the name of the tape equipment used; this can be very important because of different input sensitivities and output levels, particularly if DIN jacks are used. If the problem is in the power amp, state what speakers are used, their impedance, how many pairs are used, and how they are connected-in series or parallel. Does the power amp work with other speakers or with headphones? In the case of trouble with a tape deck, specify whether the trouble is in the left or right channel, or both.

Is the problem in record or play, or both? In the source or tape mode, or both? What kind of tape is used? If the problem tends to occur at a given point on the tape, send the tape along with the deck and state the reading on the digital counter when the problem occurs; make sure that the counter reads zero at the beginning of the tape.

Has the tape path been cleaned and demagnetized? Is the deck used in the vertical or horizontal position? If the problem occurs only when using microphones, describe the microphones, their impedance, and whether the connection to the deck is balanced or unbalanced. If the problem occurs when headphones are used, state which ones they are."

3) Send the entire unit for repair. This applies to items such as phono cartridges, microphones, headphones, etc.

To illustrate, one firm notes that sometimes a customer with a complaint about a phono pickup "might return only the stylus instead of the entire cartridge." If the pickup is in a detachable shell, as is ordinarily the case, the entire assembly should be sent for repair. Similarly, if a cartridge or microphone is used with a step-up transformer, the transformer should probably also be brought in if there is a problem with the cartridge or mike. In the case of electrostatic headphones with a power supply, this supply should accompany the phones on a trip for service. In the case of a tape deck, if is wise to send along a reel of the tape you ordinarily use.

4) Give your return address and telephone number. A manufacturer comments: "You'd be surprised how many customers don't provide return ad dresses." Giving your telephone number, both at home and at work, is a good idea in case a special problem comes up.

5) Ask for a written estimate. Otherwise you may have an unpleasant surprise when you pick up a repaired component that is out of warranty.

You may not want to pay a service bill that you consider disproportionate to the value of the component. You may feel that the money involved is better put toward a new component. A manufacturer advises: "Asking for a written estimate can save a customer from being burned, although it usually takes as long to diagnose the problem and give the estimate as it would to repair. the problem. For routine maintenance, many manufacturers recommend repair fees, and it never hurts the customer to ask the manufacturer what such a job should cost, or would cost if it were done at the factory." The consumer can compare this factory cost with a service shop's estimate before giving the shop a go-ahead.

If a service shop's charge seems excessive, there is a possibility that one can ask the manufacturer to intercede.

But, as one manufacturer points out, ordinarily this is feasible "provided the consumer is complaining about a service shop authorized by the manufacturer and provided the customer has not yet paid the bill." When you have an estimate from a service shop, ask for a pledge that the shop will not proceed without your permission if it finds that the repair cost will exceed the estimate. Some manufacturers, in their contracts with service shops, require the shop to obtain authorization from the customer before undertaking a repair costing more than the estimate.

6) Read the instruction manual thoroughly. To avoid actual or imagined trouble, it is desirable to read it carefully at least once and preferably twice. Some manuals are quite extensive, but they are usually written clearly and informatively, so that the time expended is worthwhile. A respondent writes: "A unit returned for service may not be defective at all. It may have been that the consumer simply did not fully read the operating instructions and overlooked a fundamental set-up step." Another states: "In almost every case of complaint after re-service (when a repaired component is returned for further service), we find the customer has not read the instruction manual or has a malfunction in an associated piece of equipment. Attention to the instruction manual can prevent incorrect use, sometimes involving other components in an audio system." Attention to the instruction manual can also head off customer inquiries about operation of a component or its connection to other components. A manufacturer states: "Most instruction manuals supplied with today's products are very complete, and if the consumer would merely take the time to read these, most of his questions would be answered."

7) Use authorized service stations when possible. An authorized service shop usually has a sign listing the manufacturers which have engaged it to perform work on under -warranty components free of charge to the customer. A new component may be accompanied by a listing of authorized shops; otherwise such a listing can be obtained by writing to the manufacturer.

If your component is still within warranty, it is obviously advantageous to use an authorized service shop, because service will then, ordinarily, be free (unless you have done a foolish thing such as playing with the alignment screws of a tuner or tape deck or have overlooked a consumer -correction, such as a blown fuse). Even if your component is out of warranty, it is recommended that you use an authorized shop. It is likely that they know your component well, so that the repair is efficient and effective, giving you the most for your money. Manufacturers frequently hold special training and updating sessions for technicians of their authorized stations.

Usually the authorized station, in its contract with the manufacturer, pledges to conform to desirable standards of service, such as carrying an adequate supply of replacement parts, repairing equipment within a stated period of time, not making unauthorized circuit changes (which may produce new problems), etc.

8) Make sure which component is at fault. Manufacturers note that con sumers sometimes return a properly operating component in the mistaken belief that it is defective. I have been guilty of this myself: Once I brought in for service a tape deck whose left channel intermittently dropped about 6 dB in level when recording. Embarrassingly, it turned out that the fault was in my tuner. Similarly, a fault that appears to be in a preamp, power amp, or speaker may turn out to lie elsewhere, including cable connections, pickup leads, and speaker leads.

Logical sleuth-work will ordinarily identify which component has the problem. To illustrate, if the right channel of a power amplifier appears to have a defect, note what happens if the cable from the left channel of the preamp is connected to the right channel of the power amp. If the power amp's right channel now operates satisfactorily, this indicates that the problem may lie in the preamp, or in the cable used to connect the right channels of the preamp and power amp. To take another example: A speaker may seem defective because the speaker leads are partially shorting either at the amplifier terminals or at the speaker terminals.

9) Ask for a bench check when possible. If you personally pick up a component that has been repaired by a service facility, ask for a bench check before you pay-that is, ask for a demonstration that your component is now working properly. To illustrate the possible consequence of not doing so: A reader recently complained that he paid $35.00 for a tape deck repair by a local shop, only to find when he got home that the problem was uncured.

On returning to the shop, he was told that the deck left the shop in good condition and was refused further service without further payment.

Admittedly, time is money, and it costs the service facility something to provide a bench check after repair. But a reputable firm will not refuse this.

Moreover, a high -quality service facility will demonstrate that all features of your component are in proper working order, so that when you come home you don't find that one trouble has been replaced by another. Thus, a reader recently complained that he had his tape deck satisfactorily repaired with respect to the problem that led him to a service shop, but once he got home he discovered that the deck had developed new afflictions in the shop.

10) Exercise your protest function sensibly. If a service facility fails to repair your component satisfactorily, or fails to answer your inquiry, or takes too long in doing either, do not hesitate to notify the proper party. To whom should you complain? In the first instance you should contact the party that caused you dissatisfaction.

If this fails to resolve the matter, contact the manufacturer-either the customer relations department or the manager of the service department by letter or telephone. Then, writes a respondent, "If all else fails and a situation has not been resolved, write a letter to the president of the company, including copies of all previous correspondence." When even a letter to the president doesn't produce satisfaction, it is suggested that "the proper consumer agency be contacted." However, another firm advises that consumer agencies, although they exist for a good purpose, should be used only as a last resort. It explains: "Federal warranty laws require that in case of product or service dissatisfaction, the con sumer is given a procedure to follow in notifying the manufacturer. Some people believe that immediately sending copies of complaint letters to various consumer agencies will speed the resolution of their problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. Direct manufacturer contact between factory and customer usually results in a fair and equitable settlement. When a third party (consumer agency) becomes involved, communications become more formal, with procedural delays." This respondent also advises the customer to make sure he has a legitimate grievance before seeking help from a consumer agency: "Consumer agencies will not become his advocate unless he has a valid complaint."

11) Select your service facility with care. Those living in or near metropolitan areas, as most of us do, usually have a choice of service shops, including a choice of authorized shops. Probably as much care should be exercised in selecting a shop as in choosing components for one's audio system. One respondent suggests that a telephone call to the customer relations department of a manufacturer may be the best way of finding the right shop. Or one may write for guidance. Friends and acquaintances with strong experience in the audio field, or an audio salesman with whom you have established rapport, may be helpful.

The problem is not much different from that of finding a good doctor or dentist; caution and judgment should be used.

Ordinarily, unless you are dealing with an authorized shop, it does not seem to be a good idea to entrust a sophisticated and expensive piece of audio equipment to the typical TV repair shop which also takes in audio work.

Some audiophiles are not in the position of having several franchised shops available, or of having even one.

Then your best bet is apt to be the service department of the manufacturer, particularly if the factory happens to be within reasonable traveling distance. Ordinarily, though, you will have to ship the component, which is not very convenient, but still usually a wiser choice than selecting a service shop of unknown quality.

If the component is to go to the factory for service, pack it with great care.

Preferably, use the original carton and shock-absorbing materials, such as Styrofoam braces or pellets. Select a carrier which will handle the carton gently. A number of manufacturers warn against using U.S. Parcel Post, recommending United Parcel Service instead.

12) Save all receipts. An authorized service shop will usually want to see your sales slip to prove that a component is under warranty. The manufacturer's service department may want the same proof. Keep your service receipt in case re-service is necessary. If your warranty has expired but you are returning a component for the same problem that was treated before the expiration date, your service receipt should entitle you to an extension of free service on this particular problem.

(Source: Audio magazine, July 1978)

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