The free diagnostic – a crutch for the weak, or protective armor for the business savvy shop?

Posted Sunday, July 15, 2012

This blog entry will deal with diagnosis fees, the reasons behind them, and our internal policies. I have always fought in favor of the free diagnostic.

What diagnosis fees usually cover.

I believe in free diagnostics. I believe diagnosis fees cover these two expenses which should have already been handled by a repair shop BEFORE they even open!

a) Education. How do we take this apart? How do we fix it? What are the warnings we should heed specific to this device? What are we likely to break while working on this device? What will impede our ability to provide a perfect repair? Unprofessional shops will be taking time to learn your device as they work on it. Instead of working on a device BEFORE offering services on it to the public, they wait until people bring them the device to work on it. Adding insult to inexperience, they have the nerve to charge for this.

b) Parts. What parts may be bad? Where can we find these parts with quality? They must be purchased to perform the diagnostic.

If you are a skilled technician who is specializing in a specific field, you should already have spare parts available, and the education to do the job. A diagnostic fee, to me, is as insulting as charging the customer by-the-minute for the body heat they are adding to the room that my Friedrich must chug electricity by the barrel to pump out. After all, I pay for electricity, why shouldn’t the customer in my store pay for adding to that bill by heating my shop with his body heat? If you micromanage your business’ time, assets, and service value you will find all sorts of costs you can pass onto your customer that are ASININE. It is  predatory in nature to do this, because you are charging the customer for what should already exist! Your skillset, and your parts repertoire are what they are here for! If you do not already have a finely toned skillset & parts collection, you are likely in the same boat as your customer. They could simply take that $75 they would throw away on the diagnostic, quote their time at $25/hr, buy the parts for $50, and fix it themselves in an hour following a guide.

Why we are able to not charge a diagnostic fee, and not waste our time.

We are a Macbook repair shop. If we were a different kind of shop that repaired televisions, diagnosing a Macbook would take longer. Let’s say you bring in a laptop that  turns on, but has no video. Is it the motherboard’s video chip? The screen? The screen cable? The backlight inverter wire? We’d have to order each of these parts to do the diagnostic. This would cost money, so a $20-$75 for a diagnostic would make sense here. This would also cover incorrect parts orders resulting in technician ignorance. For example, if we search for A1226 LCD Screen and purchase one, we may find an N154C6-L01, instead of the LP154WP2-TLA1. Both of these LCDs work in this laptop, but different A1226 laptops have different frames, and you must purchase the LCD unique to your frame. This costly mistake occurs when technicians unfamiliar to this laptop work on in, and these costs are covered with a diagnosis fee. This helps the business run smoother, but in our opinion it doesn’t make the diagnosis fee any less insulting.

We are primarily a Mac laptop repair shop. So, we have all of those components here. Also, since we are technicians specialized in these products, we do not need to take time out of our day to learn how to take apart your specific laptop. We know how it works. We do not need to learn what boobytraps may be waiting for us, nor do we have any issues sourcing these parts. In under five minutes, we can be in and out and know precisely what was wrong. No parts orders, or new learning required. I believe whatever your shop advertises it fixes should be matched with a parts repertoire and technician that make offering a free diagnosis no burden on your time.

How people skills help during the diagnosis process.

Sometimes, you simply will not have the parts or the knowledge to perform an instant diagnosis. In these cases, a free diagnosis opens you up to the possibility of having your time wasted. Some diagnosis may take a half hour and still result in your customer not wanting a repair. This is where you must combine your computer repair knowledge with your knowledge of this specific device, and your people skills. Yes, people skills – something many in this industry have long since forgotten about! Let’s talk more about people skills.

A troublesome diagnosis, and how people skills can prevent them from happening.

Let’s say a laptop comes in that is fairly old. It is physically broken down, and also does not turn on. It is six years old, its display is falling off a broken hinge, it turns on for 20 seconds at a time then dies. You needn’t open the laptop one bit to perform a proper diagnosis – the problem lies with the customer for wanting a repair on a six year old laptop. It is your job to get across to them that the data resides on a separate portion of the laptop and can be transferred to a new machine. Using your industry knowledge you should be able to recognize that this laptop is six years old, and worth $150 even if it works. Using your technical know how and parts knowledge from vendor relationships, you should be able to ballpark the problems with the laptop and the pricing to repair it. Using your PEOPLE SKILLS, you explain to the customer in a polite and non-condescending manner in plain English that any transaction other than data recovery makes no practical sense on this laptop. Explain to them that REGARDLESS of what is causing the problem, they are going to wind up paying $200-$300 to repair a $175 laptop.

Many will go ahead and toil and tinker and wind up FIXING the laptop during the free diagnosis period. Sometimes it is an older laptop that was high end at the time, still worth $450, with a potentially $75 problem. They will call the customer so happy that it works, and that it will be $270 after finding out it had more problems. That customer will turn around and say “but I didn’t want to pay $270, I don’t have that.” The shop owner will use this example to argue in favor of the diagnostic fee, and the story will be over. This shop owner has ZERO PEOPLE SKILLS, and is likely why this shop owner has a mediocre shop, with 3 star Yelp reviews, and meager annual revenue.

The proper thing to do in this situation would be to point out the likely issues this machine may have. Point out the market value of the machine. Point out that it may not be financially viable to have this done. If they take it back with a smile, you now have a HAPPY customer that has taken 2 minutes of your time instead of an ANGRY customer that has taken 2 hours of your time.  If you point out the different possible problems, you know to only check for “cheap” problems – saving yourself time. You’ve set the customer expectations accordingly. Should they decide to go ahead with the free diagnosis anyway, at least now you know to limit the time you put into it – should the problem exceed $45-$75, give up and move onto other machines.

Being a professional means providing insight, not yessing people to death. Customer service is about offering solutions, not nodding at everything someone tells you to keep them happy.

A downfall to novice technicians is to simply go along with everything a customer says, to agree every step of the way, and to toil away without analyzing their individual situation. They bring a laptop in, they assume they want it fixed. The customer says it’s probably a small problem, so the tech nods and figures sure, it may be. The customer says it is still a decent laptop, the technician agrees. People new to the service industry are typically on one extreme of the playing field – they are either too agreeable with the customer, or they throw too many of their personally biased thoughts into the fray that do not help the customer. A diagnosis is not simply assessing potential problems with the device. A proper diagnosis includes a cost analysis of which repair options are worthwhile, or if none are worthwhile. Sometimes, it is the technician’s job as a professional to be the voice of reason to someone who is looking for an outside opinion.

Oftentime people new to the service industry are scared to “rock the boat” by providing any of their own input and feel they are more in control of a situation if they let the customer do all of the driving, but this often ends in tragedy. They are here for you to custom-craft and provide them a solution. You need to do that!

Salesmanship; a critical trait, requires excellent people skills!

Let’s try another example. Someone comes in with an expensive laptop,  a 17″ Core i7 Unibody Macbook Pro. It doesn’t turn on after a coffee spill. Motherboard repair here is $250, keyboard swap at $175. We likely do both at a discount if you are a good customer, so total bill comes to $325. We put an hour into the diagnostic because this is a worthwhile laptop. We go through the effort to find out that it is these parts and they say no, which is a real kick in the balls. To do any proper diagnosis here you have to actually fix the machine, meaning an ultrasonic cleaning and replacing several difficult-to-work-on QFN & BGA packages on the motherboard. A true liquid damage diagnostic – the real kind, not the alcohol-and-a-toothbrush kind is going to take at least 45 minutes of our time, and since you have taken this job on, you will feel a need to bill for it. It is now your job as the technician to use your expertise, industry knowledge,and people skills to explain why this is the WRONG decision! Firstly, find out the reason for rejection. Do they simply not want to put anything into this laptop to make it work? Or, do they find your pricing to be too high? If you charge honest rates – not “competitive” rates, “market” rates, or “get what you can out of the customer” rates, you will find 99.9% of the time that they are simply disgusted with the idea of putting money into it. Or, they may have that money at the time. It is now time to sell them on the job. You are not upselling them – you are selling them the practical choice. This laptop is worth $1700 used.  Right now, it is a doorstop that no one on craigslist will pay over $250 for. If you put $325 into it, you can pay with a credit card and sell the laptop for $1700 before you even have to pay your Capital One monthly balance for the repair, so being able to put the money into it does not matter. In this case, they walk away with $1375 – which is $1175 more in their pocket then if they sell it unrepaired. They can use half of that $1375 to buy a lesser Macbook Pro from 2009, and have extra money in their pocket to cover life expenses. This isn’t ideal, but hey, you spilled coffee on your laptop. If your idea of hell is using a non-i7 Macbook, my heart pumps piss for you.

At the end of the day, if you are a KNOWLEDGEABLE technician with a PROPERLY SET UP shop, diagnosis should not waste any of your time. If you know how to talk to customers, you will not wind up falling into the numerous pitfalls regular repair shops fall into when dealing with customers. If you have people skills, you will avoid situations that would typically waste your time, and situations that anger customers.

Where we draw the line with the free diagnosis.

Everything said, there are some people out there that look to take advantage of the free diagnosis. They place no value, or thought, on the time of others. Let’s say someone gets a new laptop for Christmas because they broke their old one. They have renter’s insurance that will cover it, but it requires a written estimate. They take the laptop to us to receive the written estimate , asking that the estimate include all cosmetic damages as well as necessary repairs. It comes out to $450. We do not often recommend cosmetic repairs as the laptop will likely become damaged again anyway, and it is costly to replace entire casings. Alas, they ask for it anyway, likely to pad the check they will get from the insurance company. We give them the estimate which they submit to the insurance company, who then writes them a check for the estimate’s value. They have no intention of using it to get this laptop fixed as they have a new machine, so they cash the check and spend it on whatever else.

This sounds paranoid, but I wouldn’t be here writing this section if it didn’t happen to us before. We will go to the ends of the earth to perform a proper diagnosis, but we now charge $75 if you MUST leave our shop with your laptop after a diagnosis with a written estimate. To be clear, diagnosis is free. We will perform an accurate diagnosis, and give you back your laptop free of charge. It is only once you need the diagnosis in writing that we charge a fee of $75. If you wish to leave the laptop with us for repair, we will give you a repair ticket with an itemized bill so you know precisely what to expect to pay when you pick up your laptop.

Unfortunately, too many people have abused the free diagnosis for personal gain on laptops they have no intention of fixing, regardless of price, and even ask us to pad the estimate for insurance purposes. Written estimates serve no purpose other than for price matching other repair shops(no business for us), receiving a check from an insurance company/extended warranty(no business for us), or knowing the service price will not change when you come to pick up your laptop. The last point is the only valid one for us, which is why we give you the repair ticket with the price on it free if you leave your laptop to have it repaired.

You may be thinking, what about the people who will bring the laptop back once they have the check from the insurance company? We’ve thought this too – for over three years, which is why it took us this long to institute this policy. The reality is that everyone who intends to have the insurance company check cover repair cost is someone who leaves their laptop with us for repair while waiting for the check. We fix the laptop, put it in our outgoing-unpaid pile, and they pick it up & pay the ticket price once the check comes through. The people who take the laptop back with the written estimate have never come back – not once in three years, and we drew the line upon our store opening when droves of people came in admitting they had no intention of using our services besides the free diagnosis.