Often I have said I would
like to have been born three decades earlier to have lived during the golden era
of radio and TV, and owned a local service shop. Having arrived on Earth in
1958, by the time I was old enough to consider electronic servicing as a career,
the industry was in full transition mode to solid state electronics. I remember
the TV repair guy working in our living room with tools and test equipment
spread out on the floor. Growing up in a lower middle class (or maybe it was an
upper lower class) household, our television and radios (both in the house and
in the old 6−cylinder Rambler) used vacuum tubes until sometime in the 1970s.
Transistorized stuff was for the rich folk in the neighborhood over. Upon
enlisting in the USAF in 1978, the air
traffic control radar I worked on used vacuum tubes for the primary airport
surveillance (ASR) radar and for the precision approach radar (PAR), but the
secondary radar (IFF - Identification Friend or Foe) and ASR displays (PPI -
Plan Position Indicator) were solid state. The vacuum tube equipment was
typically much easier to troubleshoot and repair due to all point-to-point
wiring in a chassis with enough room to work. Of course the high voltage and
high temperatures were a constant hazard to be minded. Anyway, when I read
stories like this episode of "Mac's Radio Service Shop," it reminds me that the
potential headaches of dealing with pain-in-the-poop customers can take a lot of
the joy out of doing the kind of work you really enjoy.
Mac's Radio Service Shop: Handling Complaints
By John T. Frye
On the way back from his lunch hour, Mac took a short cut and quietly ducked
in the back door of his service shop. As he stepped inside, he could hear his assistant,
Barney, talking with a customer out front. Mac's forehead creased in a frown as
"Now I hope you're satisfied, Mr. Carney," the youth was saying. "You've got
a tube for nothing, just as you wanted, even though you didn't have it coming."
"I got it because you weren't able to wiggle out of giving it to me," the customer
said angrily as he slammed out the door.
"Man, those characters kill me!" Barney complained bitterly as he came back into
the service department. "A week ago we put a new 50C5 in that joker's set, and today
a 35W4 went out. In his book, that's our fault; so we owe him a new tube for free.
Finally I got so fed up with his bellyaching I gave him the tube to shut him up.
Was that OK?"
Without answering Mac seated himself on the service bench stool and waved Barney
to his favorite perch on the end of the bench. "I think it is high time we had a
little heart-to-heart on the general subject of handling complaints," the older
man said. "I was listening to that little skirmish you had with Mr. Carney, and
I think the technique you displayed leaves a little something to be desired."
"Guess you're right," Barney readily admitted. "I was too soft. I should have
tossed him out of the store."
"Overlooking the fact that Brother Carney outweighs you by at least sixty pounds
and could play you like an accordion, that's not exactly what I had in mind," Mac
answered; "but let's examine the whole thing from the beginning:
"In the first place, we may as well face the fact that every service shop is
bound to have some complaints. This would be true even though Marconi himself did
the service work and the angel Gabriel sat in the front office to handle public
relations. In fact, we may go a step further and admit that some of these complaints
will be justified - at least from the point of view of the average customer who
knows from nothing about electronics."
"Let's not admit any more than we have to," Barney cautioned.
Mac grinned and went on: "You know as well as I that sets have a fiendish ability
to perform perfectly on the test bench and then to misbehave most shamefully as
soon as they are in the customer's house. Quite often there are natural explanations
for this perverse behavior. In many cases a difference in the line voltage present
at the shop and at the customer's home is at fault. For example, the oscillator
of a three-way portable will often quit dead when the line voltage falls below a
certain critical value but will run merrily all day long on a line voltage that
is only two or three volts higher. There are other cases in which an output tube
that is being worked right up to the limit of its voltage ratings will start secondary
emission from the screen if the line voltage rises five volts, and you know how
much trouble that can cause. Finally, we are both familiar with the host of changes
that can take place in a TV set when the line voltage hops up or down a few volts.
Yet most customers think the line voltage is identical in all parts of a city.
"Still worse, though, is the fact that the voltage can be all right and yet individual
house wiring can have a pronounced effect on reception in a set, especially if that
set uses a built-in loop antenna. I have seen many cases where switching on a certain
house circuit will produce very noticeable changes in the strength of a received
signal. Part of this may be due to a condition wherein adding or subtracting one
circuit from the house wiring can throw the whole wiring system in and out of resonance
with a broadcast signal or change the position of standing waves on that system.
In other cases the various wires and grounded conduit in the ceiling and walls may
exert a shielding effect on the loop antenna such as is produced by the girders
of a steel bridge on a car antenna. At any rate, I know of two houses in which a
loop antenna receiver will not work satisfactorily. If the set is put on an extension
cord and taken outside, the signal comes up the instant you step across the threshold;
but inside the house, reception is very weak. The only solution is to install an
"And finally there is the plain cussedness of inanimate objects - and every true
technician believes devoutly in this - that causes a receiver to fail between the
time the service technician switches it off and the time the set owner turns it
on. The technician who has not had this embarrassing, hard-to-explain experience
happen to him has not been in the game very long."
"On the other hand," Mac continued, "there are many complaints that are not justified
"Go on!" Barney urged eagerly. "This is the part I like."
"Well, all of us have customers who seem to think that once we have worked on
a set and collected a service charge we are obligated to keep it running from that
day forth without any further compensation."
"Yeah," Barney agreed. "Those guys remind me of something I was just reading.
It seems that if you save a man's life in China his life then becomes your sole
responsibility, and you are supposed to feed and care for him the rest of his days
- or yours. Those customers you are talking about try to apply the same line of
reasoning to their sets."
"The thing to do with these people is to impress on their minds the real facts
of your service guarantee. Make it clear you only stand behind your own work, and
even here your guarantee is for a reasonable length of time and not for life. Point
out that when the radio was bought brand-new, it was very likely guaranteed for
only ninety days. Compare that with the full one-year warranty most service shops
put on any parts they install. Above all, however, make it crystal clear that your
guarantee applies only to the parts you replace and not to the whole set."
"A big trouble there is that widely different causes can produce the same symptom
in a receiver," Barney suggested. "An open voice coil, a shorted condenser, an open
resistor, or a defective tube could all result in a receiver that would seem exactly
the same to the customer. It's not like a car. There any fool can plainly see that
engine trouble, transmission trouble, or differential trouble are entirely separate
"That's a good point," Mac applauded, "and it should always be kept in mind.
On the other hand, we get some complaints in which there is obviously no connection
between the original trouble and the new complaint. For example we repair a set
that is completely dead because of an open voice coil and two or three weeks later
the customer returns with the set that is now humming badly because of a filter
condenser that has suddenly opened up. He argues that since he had the set repaired
only a short time ago, you should take care of this new difficulty at no charge.
Often he will try to justify this attitude that he secretly realizes is unreasonable
by saying the set never acted right since it was repaired but that he simply has
not had time to bring it back or call you on the telephone.
"In a few cases a customer will have the gall to return a set that he says significantly
is 'dead again' when that set shows definite evidence of misuse. I mean things like
two or three tubes that are rattling around loose out of their sockets and a cabinet
that is badly cracked from the set's being dropped, or a speaker cone that someone's
little darling has punched so full of holes that it looks like a colander."
"What can you do with people like that?"
"The best insurance against complaints, justified or otherwise, is to keep a
complete record of every set that passes through the shop. When a set comes in,
write down exactly all the troubles the customer mentions. Record what measures
you took to correct them. If new parts were put in, describe them by make, part
number, and use. List your charges. If your customer forgets every other detail
of the transaction, he will remember this! Possibly you recommended that a slightly
noisy control be replaced or that a low hum be reduced with new filter condensers,
but the customer did not want to go to this expense. Be sure and note that the recommendations
were made. Put down the date when the work was done. It will amaze you the way time
shrinks in some customers' minds. A repair job done over a year ago will be described
as work you did 'a month or so ago.'
"Then when a customer comes in with a complaint, pull out this card immediately
and compare the facts on it with what he tells you. If the new complaint bears no
relation to the old, point that out as tactfully as you can. If the parts you put
in before can be checked easily, such as tubes, identify them in your record and
in the set and test them first while the customer is looking on. If they are bad,
replace them promptly and cheerfully. If they are good, the customer can see for
himself that the parts you put in are not responsible for his present trouble.
"More important than what you do, however, is the way you do it. To get into
the proper frame of mind, try to imagine just how the customer is feeling: In the
first place, he is unhappy because the device he had repaired is on the blink again.
Quite likely he is secretly ashamed of having to tell you he thinks you did not
do a good job. Probably his wife has nagged him into bringing the set back. Remember,
though, that when a man has to do something of which he is not proud, he bolsters
his resolution with anger and stubbornness. At such a time he is doubly quick to
resent the slightest reflection on his motives or behavior. A man with a service
complaint is a man with a chip on his shoulder.
"That is why it's especially important that you do or say nothing to give the
impression you consider the complaint unjustified - at least not until you have
had a chance to check the facts. Receive the complaint as cheerfully as you did
the original service job. Thank the customer for bringing the set back to you. If
he makes any small apology, quickly assure him you want any sets that are not completely
satisfactory returned. Then, if at all possible, make an immediate check to see
what the trouble is. Always give a returned set precedence over any other receivers
you may have in the shop.
"To sum it all up, the first thing to do with a complaint is to determine with
all possible speed if it is justified or not. If it is, correct the trouble at once
with no charge to the customer. If it is not; try to demonstrate to the customer
through your records and checks made in his presence that there is no connection
between the work you did and his present trouble. Try to maneuver him into a position
where he will say that they are entirely separate things. It is much better for
him to say this than for you to do so. If he will not listen to reason, you are
forced to decide whether you want to placate him by yielding to his unfair demands
or to stand fast. Personally, I prefer to stand fast. While I know that it is supposed
to be a good business practice to assume 'the customer is always right,' I simply
can't force myself to become a party to a fraud through weakness. If I do give in
after I have explained that the fault is not mine, the customer has every right
to doubt my sincerity."
Mac paused briefly and then concluded, "There are two points that should be kept
constantly in mind in dealing with complaints. First, there are these wise words
'We cannot always oblige, but we can always speak obligingly.'"
"Second, there is this: If you are going to accede to the complaining customer's
wishes, you should do it promptly, cheerfully, and in all good humor. If matters
deteriorate to the point where he feels he has forced you to make an adjustment,
any good will that could have resulted from your act has gone glimmering."
Posted August 25, 2021
Mac's Radio Service Shop Episodes on RF Cafe
This series of instructive stories was the brainchild of none other than John T.
Frye, creator of the Carl and Jerry series that ran in
Popular Electronics for many years. Mac's Radio Service Shop began life
in Radio & Television News
magazine (which itself started as simply Radio News), and then changed
its name to Mac's Service Shop after the magazine became
World. "Mac" is electronics repair shop owner Mac McGregor, and Barney
Jameson his his eager, if not somewhat naive, technician assistant. "Lessons" are
taught in story format with dialogs between Mac and Barney.