An angel or the devil?

Illustration by Emma Steele


Depending on your experience and perspective, the word “warranty” can often carry a negative connotation when it comes to most things, but particularly with bicycles. When something fails, it’s never a good thing, but when it happens to something that’s your passion and supplies endless joy like a mountain bike, it’s a particularly unfortunate event. What takes place next can go one of two ways. Either it’s handled in a professional and civil manner, or things take an awkward turn, often leading to hurt feelings, anger and a rant on message boards or social media saying they will never buy from brand “X” again.

Sadly, the story most of us see is the rant, because who brags about a clean, trouble-free transaction? There are people whose job it is to handle these situations all day. They deal with a lot of negativity and are often portrayed as a pawn in a brand’s quest to make more money, or at least limit the losses. These dark figures are often locked in a cubicle in the brand’s basement where they field calls all day and process claims. This is their story.

Going straight on the internet and posting pictures of your broken product and asking everyone’s opinion before contacting the company is not going to get you any favors.


How long have you been a vampire…I mean, a warranty tech?
I started working in bike shops before V-brakes were commonplace. I’ve spent the last decade or so handling warranty and after-sales support for several bicycle and component manufacturers.

Why do you want to remain anonymous?
In Project Mayhem we have no names, but for now, you can just call me “Robert Paulson.”

Have you ever been threatened?
In warranty and after-sales support, if you haven’t been threatened by Thursday, you are probably on a much-needed vacation.

Is it really your job to suck the blood out of customers wanting to get their defective or broken bike warrantied for the brand’s benefit?
Absolutely. If you are out of blood, we also take souls, firstborn children and Bitcoin.
In all seriousness, though, this can be a tough role because you have to strike a balance between doing everything that you reasonably can to serve the needs of the customer while not giving away the farm, so to speak.

Factor in the dealer and sometimes a distributor or sales rep, and you are trying to strike a compromise between multiple parties. If it is not a starkly black-and-white warranty case. Then you will need to carefully thread the needle that gets everyone close to their best possible outcome of a bummer situation.
It can even be an internal conundrum for the brand at the same time. Designers want nothing to break. Marketing wants everyone to be stoked, 24-7. And all the while there are always beans to be counted.
It’s sort of like that old sawhorse, “Strong, light, cheap: pick any two that you like.” I feel like in the last few decades we have seen advancements that are getting us pretty darn close to the paradigm of “all three.”

Roughly how many frames would you process per year?
Frames? Probably around 200–250 per year, but you might also help out a few dozen people with smaller issues on any given Monday; race on Sunday, fix on Monday.

What’s the biggest misconception customers have about their bike’s warranty?
What the word “warranty” actually means. “C’mon, bro, just warranty it,” they say.
My reply: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
A warranty is a pledge to the original purchaser that their bike was made with care, and if it should have an issue arise that stems from its production, it will be made right again (within a predetermined and specific length of time) .

It isn’t a magical classification that just turns itself into a free replacement based on the whims of the person on the other end of the phone or keyboard.

The warranty department is part of a brand’s future product development since they see how current product is performing out on the trail.


What is the biggest mistake you see customers making in the warranty process?
Immediately attacking their only potential ally right from the start. We’ve seen it all, heard it all, and one or two good pictures of your bike can usually tell us a thousand words that you didn’t—or didn’t want to— say. We recognize that you are not coming to us on your best day, and we are happy to give you some grace, but there is no need for hostility. As in just about every other aspect of life, calm, clear and courteous communication brings about the quickest resolution.

If your coordinator is asking you to provide some sort of additional information, it’s not to play Judge Judy and the Executioners; it’s because they need it to process your claim properly. Insult me all you want, but if I don’t have a clean serial number and there is just one fuzzy flip-phone Myspace photo of your frame (both in forced perspective and pixel count), then we can’t really move things forward. Yelling at me on the phone as a response to an e-mail request for more photos does not bring us any closer to creating an RA, let alone coming to a resolution.

Also, we know about protective tape. We also-also know what a frame looks like when it takes an impact that is almost, but not all the way, saved by said tape. We also-also-also know what a frame looks like when the tape is removed, so you can save yourself the trouble of trying to remove it strategically.

A warranty tech needs to figure out if something broke from just riding it or an accident like driving into a garage with a bike on the roof.


How do you handle customers with repeat warranties, ones who keep breaking the same thing over and over when others don’t?
I usually start by asking more “what, when, how” type questions to try and figure out the variables and get an idea of the root cause. Some people are truly unlucky, but if the lowest common denominator of any recurring issue is one bicycle/customer/dealer in particular, then they might be the X-factor. Usually, an outside factor related to rider profile, local terrain or deviation from OE parts spec comes to light.

Sometimes assembly process, service and maintenance protocols, or a lack thereof, or even “mechanic mythologies,” or service can play a part in missing, or misdiagnosing something the first time around.
You would sometimes get one person who had a specific thing happen and then repeat itself—twice. And, if it hasn’t happened to anybody else in the entire world, then I would know to keep asking questions to confirm that we were dealing with an outside factor.

Conversely (and understandably), that duplicate event would be the rider’s “definitive proof” that the quality was so, so bad that they would invoke the dreaded “r” word (“recall”) and say that it absolutely, positively must be the bike’s fault. Proved because it happened twice when, in actuality, the opposite is usually true.

It’s really rare for an item to fail more than once on a quality product that has such low failure rates. As you know, something as robust as a mountain bike frame is pretty trouble-free considering what it is expected to do. And, while it’s not unheard of to have repeat issues, it is pretty uncommon. Other things can play a part, especially if they’re not resolved correctly the first time.

Generally speaking, whenever there’s multiple issues, it can usually be traced to something else, like changing out parts specs to better suit your current needs instead of changing to a more capable bike. Something akin to putting a 4-inch suspension lift on the front of your Ferrari and some mud tires and not understanding why you’re breaking the suspension mounts. And, getting mad at the Ferrari dealer when they want to charge you to replace it.


What are some of the best excuses you’ve heard for breaking a frame?
The riders that seem proud of it always tickle me: “It just couldn’t hold me, bro.” “Can’t stand up to the full force of what’s coming out of my wattage cottage.” “Only lasted for three trips to SEND-sylvania.” I get a kick out of those.

There was one time when a co-worker saw me resting at a local trail intersection and went in for a “ride-by-dabbing” as he crested the hill. After the fist bump, though, his dab turned into an emergency dab, which was followed by a bike drop.

Unfortunately, I was next to a shin-guard-high rock outcropping that hit the unprotected part of a squarish edge of the downtube well before the grip, pedal or saddle was able to ground out and support the weight of the bike. Everyone winced at the cracking sound, and then again at the somber realization that it happened right in front of the “warranty guy.” As if somehow that was the only thing that made it “not a manufacturing defect”.

How important is the dealer in this process?
The IBD is a key component in successful support cases. Ideally, you should always start with the dealer who sold you the bike whenever possible. Hopefully, they are the marquee shop in your hometown, and you have fostered and maintained a good relationship with them since the sale.

It is likely that they are working diligently on your behalf to resolve everything as painlessly as possible with little to no effort on your part. They may consider this part of the overall sales process and will cover some or all additional costs that may arise. They also probably don’t sell their bikes below the minimum retail price. If this sounds like your LBS, that’s great.

If this sounds like your LBS, but after they helped you choose the best bike for your needs then you drove three hours to buy it from Uncle Andy’s Discount Bike Basement to save a few bucks, your experience might be different. A top-notch dealer should still give you the same level of professionalism as if you bought the bike off their floor (yeah, that one over there that you test rode on your third and fourth visits), just be prepared to come out of pocket for labor and any incidental expenses.


If somebody is having trouble with their warranty, should they try another dealer?
This is a tricky one. If your IBD of choice seems to be giving you the runaround (rare, but it happens), you should definitely look for another one that is better equipped to help you. However, if you don’t like the answer that you got from the brand, playing “Ask Daddy if Mommy says no” with every dealer in town is not going to change that answer. Tread lightly.

Do top dealers or customers get preferential treatment?
I try my best to provide the same top level of support that I could, whether it was your first bike or 15th. We always do our best to treat the bike, not the account (or price tag). To me, every customer with an unresolved issue is the most important customer.

Sometimes, however, an insistence on receiving preferential treatment can work against you. All of our cases are fairly urgent. Everybody’s important. If everybody has a legitimate issue that they didn’t cause themselves, or that they caused themselves and that they’re willing to pay for it and it’s not resolved.

They are all tied equally for the most important customer. As a rider, you want to get all of them back on the trails as soon as possible. So, it’s counterproductive for everyone (yourselves included) to always act like, “Oh, no, no, but no, you gotta pick me—pick me! I’m the most important! Don’t you know who I am?”

If everything is a code red emergency, then nothing can really be a true emergency.
It can get stickier if your service department is part of your sales department. You see some added involvement, where even if it’s truly not supposed to factor in you can get humans at both ends of the sliding scale, trying to adjust it.

You get people, and sometimes it’s not customers, wanting to be the big such and such, sometimes it’s dealer saying, “Oh, hey, I’m XYZ level dealer on this territory. You better do what I say or else. Yeah, or else maybe I’m not going to want to buy as many of your bikes.” No, that’s not okay.

Broken parts are a part of riding. Whether or not it is covered under warranty depends on a lot of factors.


There have also been times when I’ve had amazing customers and the dealer was the problem. Yeah, not very often; although that is very, very rare, it can happen.

There will be times when it’s a really good dealership, but they might have an old-school mechanic who just isn’t interested in learning how to do things in a different way. Mostly, it’s just people who don’t want to open the checkbook. They know they made a mistake, but feel like they shouldn’t have to pay for it. So, they yell at their dealer, and the dealers sometimes “pay it forward” and yell at the warranty person.

The more experienced service writers absorb what they can and often they’re just like, “Hey, he’s really mad. Is there anything you can do

There have also been times when the dealer is the one playing the devil’s advocate. The dealers are more like, “No, you shouldn’t even be covering half of this. I was there, I saw the crash, they need to pay!”
Like they say, you can’t win the Tour de France on the first day, but you can definitely lose it. A similar logic applies here.

How long do most brands keep frames and items in stock for warranties?
It is typical to have spares for three to five years, depending on the product. Contrary to the conspiracy theories postulated by members of the Internet commentariat, parts commonality is something most bicycle and component companies strive for.

Cross-compatibility as well. Nobody wants to maintain an additional warehouse full of spare parts to assemble and then support a bunch of slightly different frames and parts. If a new part doesn’t play nice with your old ones, 9 times out of 10 it is because it’s been adapted for performance, durability or evolved to better suit the ever-changing market tastes in form or geometry.

For a longer timeline of support, it is up to brands to strike a balance between holding reserves of older models versus providing free and discounted upgrades to newer products. It is up to the end consumer to bring a realistic set of expectations to the table in the event of an issue cropping up on a bike that has had more than one model refresh occur since it was released.

Carbon wheels and frames are the most commonly warrantied items for MBA’s wrecking crew.


How do you feel about lifetime warranties? Seems like that would be ideal for a vampire like yourself, right?
That all depends on how much legalese down in the fine print follows the invariable asterisk after the word “limited” or “lifetime.”

I think that it is a good way to instill confidence in the brand (as well as provide some job security for the coven), but ultimately it just comes down to the quality of the bike and the robustness of the support plan versus the perceived longevity of the company.

I would rather have something thoughtfully built with a short, fair warranty and a generous return customer-upgrade program than a mediocre frame that comes with a promise of another free bicycle-shaped object if thou doth protest too much.

Are there brands that you wouldn’t buy from based on their warranty program?
Yes, but it might not follow the traditional line of thought. If a brand has an overly generous reputation, my inner skeptic usually questions why. Is it because they have had a streak of failures and adopted a “flow everyone so that no one asks any questions” policy? Is it because they don’t spend a lot on design, materials, process control or QA; instead, they just plan a double-digit replacement rate into the budget? Maybe it’s a little bit of both, but I am likely to steer clear and prefer to spend a little bit more for something that I feel will last.

How can the average consumer tell that a brand they are buying has a good warranty program?
I think any brand where word of mouth is a net positive. Not exclusively raving, but where the good is on par with the bad. The old saying was that if a customer has a bad experience, they are going to tell 10 times as many people as one who had a good experience.

If we apply this to the modern age, no one is really going to write an average review (as they shouldn’t; I do not believe in three-star Yelp! reviews), someone who is stoked, is too busy riding and high-fiving everyone to type up something, and almost anyone who feels slighted is going to try and let everyone know about it (whether they want to or not).

So, one yea and two nays probably equate to a real-world satisfaction rating of over 90 percent. Unfortunately, for us vampires, those nays get seen by a whole lot more than 9 or 10 potential customers, even though they aren’t the wooden stakes that the keyboard Van Helsings hope they will be.

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