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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
August 2004

Passion and Profit

Range, microwave, dishwasher, refrigerator, washer, dryer. You might think, as I did, that purchasing these appliances from the same store all at once would entitle you to reasonably good customer service.

Late last year I purchased new GE appliances for my house and paid six weeks in advance of delivery for all of them. Delivery took place later than promised and over the course of two weeks, during which time I could wash first no dishes and then no clothes. Right before delivery, I found out that the microwave and clothes dryer were backordered, which meant accepting floor models different from what I ordered.

All of this was inconvenient, but such broken promises have become commonplace, a part of living in the 21st century. What pushed me over the edge was something else. When the dishwasher was installed, the person doing the job admitted that what he was doing may lead to the dishwasher slipping and becoming unlevel. "Just give us a call and I'll come back out," he said -- and I believed him. Of course, the dishwasher did slip and thereafter leaned forward so the racks inside would roll out whenever the front hatch was opened.

So I called the store that sold me the appliances and talked to the salesperson who helped me. I explained the situation about the installation and the installer's offer.

"I'll have to charge you for a service call for that," was her reply.

"But the installer, Mark, admitted this might be a problem and said he would come out and fix it."

"Yes, but too much time has passed, so I'll have to charge you for a service call,"

"We've owned our appliances for less than eight months. They are still under warranty."

"Yes, but you needed to tell me about this sooner."

"It didn't happen sooner."

"I understand that. Are you handy at all? You could probably fix the problem."

"That's what I'll do." [click]

I would think this is an isolated incident if it weren't repeated time and time again -- with all manner of goods and services we purchase today. We can point fingers at the lack of skilled people in service-oriented jobs, but the root cause is more insidious: the goal of not just making, but maximizing, profit. Today corporations are chasing this principle with more fervor than ever before, and this results in goods and services for which quality is largely unimportant. If you get what you expect, you're lucky. More often, you get what you get, and that's less than you anticipated as well as something about which you can do nothing. Large corporations are nameless and faceless for many reasons, not the least of which is that dealing with customers, who have names and faces, cuts into profits.

Yes, I'm cynical, but I'm also realistic -- and hopeful. There's the high-end-audio industry and companies like Thiel Audio, Wilson Audio, Audio Research, Magnepan, Paradigm, Energy and a host of others. Yes, these companies are trying to make money, and yes their products are expensive. But in each case, their beginnings were not driven by the profit motive but rather by the passion of people who simply wanted to make better-sounding audio products. Even now, years after their solvency has been established, these companies are driven by the same passion.

Take, for example, Thiel Audio and its new subwoofers, which are radically different from others on the market because of Jim Thiel's singular vision and ability. It's easy to discern David Wilson's exceedingly high standards from his company's products, while Magnepan offers speakers that are simply unlike any others. Audio Research has been on the cutting edge of audio electronics for over 30 years. There are many more examples, and I would argue that this is so because the companies I mention have created a culture in which passion is not just good for business but necessary for survival.

As for customer service, imagine what would happen if a dealer for the products of one of the companies I mention told a customer to fix a problem the dealer caused. It will take imagination because it wouldn't happen. One call to the company, during which you would talk to a person, would result in, at the very least, new parts shipped and a call to the dealer, who would then be calling you to set up a time to correct his mistake. I've dealt in just this fashion with a couple of the audio companies I mention before I began writing about audio products, so I am not out of touch. If some company doesn't value you as a customer, there are plenty of others that will.

By and large, designers of audio equipment don't set out to create audio companies. In fact, some are poor at anything having to do with business development. Instead, they let their passion guide them, and sales flow from that. This is the principle by which high-end audio operates, and there's a lot that other industries can learn from it.

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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