One of the household services particularly prone to disappointment and complaint is appliance , repairs. Getting an appliance repaired quickly and at a reasonable price these days is not always possible and often completely uneconomical. I’ve been writing since 2000 on Washerhelp and Whitegoodshelp lamenting how so many appliances have become throwaway products. Even so, you can’t blame consumers for preferring to buy new instead of risking the stress and hassle associated with trying to get an essential appliance repaired these days.
We can’t manage without our cookers, fridges, freezers and washing machines for more than a few days, so having one out of action for weeks is just not acceptable, yet this is a common experience, and this article tries to explain why.
High Quality Repairs
Providing high quality repairs, with engineers possessing specialised and focused skills, with a van full of all the parts they are likely to need and plenty of time to repair and then test each appliance costs a lot of money. It’s usually only really doable with expensive niche products. You can’t run such a high quality repair system to repair appliances that are cheap to replace, people simply won’t pay the costs.
So as soon as you try to repair appliances costing only a few hundred pounds to replace you just can’t make much money on individual repairs, and need to repair in high numbers to make it pay. A sole trader covering a local area may be able to get by, but for larger companies employing multiple engineers this means lots of quick, simple repairs are essential. Appliances that need a lot of time to diagnose a fault, need stripping down to fix, have intermittent faults or need parts ordering are all big spanners in the works, and difficult or impossible to make a profit from. If a part has to be ordered there’s often a lot of extra work getting hold of the right part and there’s an extra visit required, little or none of which can be passed onto the customer.
The need for engineers to make profit (which is totally reasonable of course) when individual jobs don’t make much money, combined with the need to attract enough jobs in each day results in many engineers being expected to repair far too many different brands, too many types of appliance, and are given too many jobs each day. Customers don’t generally know much about how the repair industry works and often tend to have unrealistic expectations. The result is a lot of dissatisfied customers, and a lot of stressed engineers.
At one time appliance engineers often did specialise
I’ve been in the white goods repair trade since 1976, and things were different in those days right up to the mid-to-late 1980s. Many engineers did specialise in just a few or even one single brand, and as such became very competent at fixing them quickly and efficiently at relatively low prices. They were able to carry a lot more spare parts – even including parts that were only used once or twice a year. Cryptic and sometimes even secret error codes which can stifle repairs by anyone but the manufacturer hadn’t been invented, and some (like Hoover and Hotpoint) actively encouraged the independent trade by producing regular technical and spare parts information for independent engineers, which were cheap and easily available from spares companies.
I myself specialised exclusively in just Hoover automatics, twin tubs and vacuum cleaners for 15 years, I never touched anything else and yet thrived. If anyone telephoned me about a Hotpoint washing machine or a Zanussi I always said, sorry I don’t do them. It wasn’t because I wasn’t capable, it was because I believed in specialising exclusively and wanted to be a total expert. I didn’t want to have to order parts I didn’t have, or come across any machine or any fault I wasn’t totally familiar with. As such I believe I (and other independent repairers like me) could offer a level of service that’s just not achievable today.
In order to understand the current situation it’s helpful to look back at how repairers used to be before
In those days manufacturers only produced a small range of appliances that stayed pretty much the same year in and year out. Around once a year they brought a new range out, which was often mostly a face lift with a few small advancements, with many of the parts inside staying the same or hardly changing. This helped repairers by keeping their stocks of parts mostly still relevant and usable for many years to come, and made them more likely to invest money in larger stocks of spares for the future. It also helped engineers who ended up working on the same basic appliances for many years and got to know them inside out.
In the 1980s for example all my vans carried virtually every Hoover part they were likely to need to replace on any day. We had every possible carbon brush for every motor going back to the 70s because they were virtually all the same and hadn’t changed. Each van had a box which had every speed control module, and almost every programme timer we were likely to come across amongst the previous 15 years of Hoover washing machines. This would be impossible these days. We carried enough parts to make having to order a part very rare, almost all our part orders were just to replace used stock.
This was possible not only because we specialised, but because they used many of the same parts for different generations of appliances stretching over many years. So all the modules we were ever likely to need could fit into a small box, as could all the timers, and armatures we’d be likely to need – and at prices people would pay to have fitted.
In the workshop we carried extra parts that we might only ever need once in a blue moon so if we came across a machine needing one we wouldn’t have to order it, which can take several weeks for a non-common part. When I think about it, those were the great days of repairs and none of us (customers included) could appreciate those days would soon be gone for ever.
Even the manufacturer’s engineers had a much easier job because major brands were separate then. This meant a Hoover or Hotpoint engineer although having to repair all of their companies appliances still specialised in one brand and could therefore carry more parts and accumulate more focused experience.
These days most brands of appliance are owned by larger groups. This means their engineers have to repair many different brands meaning there could be several hundred different appliances they are expected to repair with limited stock. They are expected to repair multi branded appliances ranging from hobs and ovens to washing machines, dishwashers and all refrigeration. Many engineers these days are working under a lot of stress and impossible expectation, many employ survival tactics which result in them getting through a day’s work but sometimes at the expense of good customer service.
Some engineers do seem to thrive in this kind of environment, and show no signs of stress at all, but no one could convince me they couldn’t be even better if they were able to specialise and have less repairs to do in a day. My long experience shows me most engineers perform below par when expected to repair too many different products and are given too may jobs. Many quickly learn and adopt coping strategies, which get them through the days but at great cost to customer service.
Examples of survival tactics employed by some repairmen under too much pressure
These are all real examples that I encountered many times during a small period when I worked at a national company who did repairs under the circumstances I describe (mostly under guarantee).
- Engineer called out to a noisy washing machine. Didn’t look at the washing machine but told the customer it needed new drum bearings. Ordered a complete new outer tub and bearings. I was sent out to complete this job, took the lid off and found the top tub weight was loose. I tightened it up and cured the fault. The customer had waited nearly 2 weeks.
- Customer called engineer: Dishwasher stuck full of water. Engineer didn’t look at the dishwasher, told customer he needed to order a pump. A week later I was asked to fit the pump. I tipped the dishwasher back, took off the sump hose and removed a piece of glass jamming the impeller. The original engineer could have fixed this in 20 minutes. Customer waited over a week
- Engineer complained of a noisy Hoover washing machine: Engineer didn’t look at the washing machine and advised it needed new drum bearings. I was asked to fit them over a week later. Took the back panel off and discovered the drive belt was badly worn and damaged. Fitted new one and cured the fault.
There were so many cases like this I was astounded but I don’t believe they are confined to one company. I quickly found that virtually half of all parts I was asked to fit, which had been previously ordered by another engineer were either obviously completely unnecessary or did not cure the fault. Guessing which parts were needed, or just delaying having to repair an appliance by either assuming it would need certain parts, guessing, or even pretending they didn’t have the part were all necessary ways of getting through the day for many engineers.
This state of affairs was the norm, tolerated even by those in charge. Engineers rushing through the jobs to get through the day with no time to properly diagnose many faults and no time to check the appliance after they’d repaired it. The number of times we were recalled to a job to find something the engineer should have found by simply checking the appliance after the repair was also very high.
What’s happened to the appliance repair specialist?
Unfortunately virtually all the independent specialists have disappeared because there’s just not enough work around to be so exclusive. Due to the cheapening of finished goods prices and the ridiculous price of many spare parts people generally don’t spend much on repairs any more.
Many of the popular appliances become economically unrepairable at ridiculously young ages so there is far less repair work available. Generally speaking unless you attempt to repair virtually all white goods appliances and most brands in the home you don’t get enough work to keep going – this applies more to the big national repair companies. The nearest thing to a specialist now is often the manufacturer but as described above, even they are often not true specialists any more as they commonly have to repair a very large array of different brands and different types of appliance.
A good engineer can repair any appliance though can’t they?
In theory yes, but in practice standards and quality have to be lowered. There’s no question about it, repair engineers, no matter how competent they are can’t know everything, they can’t have all the parts needed or get hold of all of them quickly, and they can’t have all the technical information for every dishwasher, tumble dryer, washing machine, oven, fridge, freezer, fridge-freezer, hob (etc.) ever made.
Engineers forced into trying can’t possibly do as good a job as if they only repaired one brand and a select few types of appliance. When you add in the crazy amount of jobs a modern engineer is often given to do each day, combined with the sometimes very large areas to cover then they can practically have little more than half an hour to fix each appliance, so it’s no surprise that unless a customer’s appliance has a simple fault things sometimes don’t work out well.
Most breakdowns are straight forward and don’t need parts fitting or only need a commonly required part
This is how repairers get by repairing all makes and all types of appliance. It’s the reason most repair industries keep going because they survive on the majority of repairs that are simple to fix or don’t need any parts, or only need commonly available parts that they have on the van. Any time an engineer doesn’t have the part and has to make a second visit the chances are they will lose money. A good, competent engineer can fix the majority of appliances often on the first visit but problems tend to occur when one of the following is true –
- The appliance is an uncommon or minority brand, or one notoriously difficult to get spare parts for.
- The fault encountered is unusual, or intermittent (they rarely have enough time to resolve an intermittent fault and are likely to try and guess-order the part and come back or even deny there’s anything wrong at all).
- The part required to fix the appliance is not carried on their van and needs ordering, often even the spares companies won’t have it either and they in turn may need to order from the manufacturer.
- The only way to diagnose the fault is to replace a specific part and see if it cures the fault, or there are other faults that can only be found once the first part is replaced – but the engineer has to order the part. This can result in a customer waiting weeks for a part only to find when fitted, another fault is discovered and the engineer either says another part needs ordering or tries to persuade you to buy another appliance.
If anyone’s wondering why I’ve written this article, it’s my attempt to explain the realities of repairing modern appliances and maybe even cut some slack for some engineers trying to do an often very difficult job. Not all engineers are under this pressure but many are, it depends who they are working for. I suspect much of the general public is unaware of the complexities and difficulties presented to some engineers who are expected to be experts on a massively diverse range of products and who are generally expected to fix appliances often in awkward and inaccessible places in a ridiculously small amount of time. The realities are that for repair companies to make a proper profit, which is totally reasonable, they can only do so by either charging amounts no customer would pay (and they are already close to that), or by making engineers repair a lot of products each day under a lot of pressure.
The kind of service we all want, and used to get many years ago is mostly impossible to achieve today because most products are too cheap to replace. Consumers simply will not pay the amount of labour charges needed to be charged to sustain a more focused set of engineers who are given less jobs and more time to fix them properly.
As with all appliance repairs, if the appliance doesn’t need any parts, or only needs a part commonly used and carried by the engineer then most people get a perfectly good standard of service. It has to be said that the majority of repairs fall within this category. But if the fault is unusual, or needs a part that has to be ordered – that’s when there’s a fair chance things can go wrong, and sometimes over a protracted period of time, which makes the whole thing into a farce at times.