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Monthly Archives: February 2008

After the last email from Jason at Backyard Buddy I thanked him for his replies and said he had provided me with valuable information (detailed here). The valuable information was all pretty bad, but I thought perhaps the poor guy had hammered enough nails into his own coffin. Unfortunately, it would seem that Jason hasn’t got the intelligence to know when to quit. He sent me a brief email about checking out the latest Corvette Fever article about lifts (which is where all this began). Then this morning I received two emails in quick succession.

The first was :

Email5

I don’t feel that my comments were condescending. I had a valid complaint about a shockingly bad website and responded to Jason’s hostility in a measured way – a direct opposite to his own somewhat histrionic communications. I also had a valid complaint about the tone of his responses and the facts that he stated in them. I also didn’t ‘slam’ Backyard Buddy; I think Jason has managed to do that pretty thoroughly without any help from me. If asking for decent customer service makes me an ‘idiot’ then I suspect most of Backyard Buddy’s customers would also fall into that category. As for why he’s never heard of me? Well, why should he have? I’m just a consumer writing about his personal experiences with an incredibly hostile ‘sales person’. I never made any claims to be anything else.
 
His claims that Backyard Buddy build the best lifts again is entirely irrelevant; at no time did I say their lifts were of poor quality – I simply pointed out the flaws in their misleading website, order process, and extremely poor business communications skills. Interestingly when I did a quick search online, I found a post on Corvette Fever regarding the dubious practices of Backyard Buddy’s sales force.

“There was one big difference however… the sales reps for BYB were the only ones that were denigrating their competition. I have been around lifts all of my life and I certainly know the difference between a good lift and a bad one. I also understand the concept of “puffing” in advertising and that it might work when dealing with the uninformed, but that alone convinced me to not buy their product. Too assume all of your customers are ignorant of quality was a little too arrogant for me. ”

It would seem that they like to denigrate potential customers as well as their competition.

I didn’t claim that the steel market and stock market were ‘parallel’; I simply pointed out that the stock market has heavily fluctuating prices and yet manages to keep people up to date on current prices. I could have used gas prices as an example, but let’s face it, it doesn’t really matter what example I used; the fact is that changing prices on a website takes about five minutes of someone’s time. If you’re crying about having to spend that time then you are pretty much the definition of ‘lazy’ and probably shouldn’t be in business. Here’s a thought: if you don’t want to market through the web just take your site down – believe me no one will miss yet another bad website.
 
The idea that somehow I am being ‘unfair’ is amazing and displays a paranoia that is as remarkable as it is unfounded. I specifically made the point of detailing the entire email conversation on both sides in its entirety. If this is ‘unfair’ then presumably any concept of what’s fair must be completely beyond Jason’s comprehension. Was it unfair of me to show him opening his mouth extremely wide and shoving his foot into it repeatedly?
 
Within ten minutes, he followed up with this. I hadn’t responded, as the sheer hostility and personal attacks had left me somewhat stunned. If this is an example of his business communication then I have to wonder where his talents lie.

Email6

Again I didn’t ‘slam’ his country. The typical American is not exactly renowned for their ecological and environmental concerns and I felt it only fair to have a little quip at their expense (note the use of the smiley in my original post). As for my Corvette, yes it is an ‘American made car’; the engine was designed by Lotus, in England. The transmission comes from ZF in Germany. But it was assembled in the USA. This seems to have little to do with my complaint about Backyard Buddy’s inaccurate and misleading website and the virulence and misinformation in Jason’s emails.
 
I also have to say that I find the sheer amount of racism displayed in these emails to be quite staggering; one can only assume that Backyard Buddy has no plans to appeal to future Chinese customers. I also don’t imagine that his comments describing Canadians as ‘typical liberal hypocrites’ is going to enamour the company to any potential Canadian buyers either ;-) . What makes his diatribe even more laughable is that although I live in Canada, I am originally from England with grandparents who were Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English – a true Celtic mutt :-) . Presumably all of those countries are full of ‘liberal hypocrites’ too.
 
Just to clarify some of the points Jason mentions repeatedly (perhaps he needs to follow his own advice “if you don’t know, then don’t speak about it”):
 
Recycling
Steel is one of the most recycled products anywhere, and especially in North America. The energy saved by recycling is around 75% over producing ‘new’ steel; not only that but about three-quarters of all steel produced annually is recycled and recycling has been an accepted practice for more than a century. See the recycling section on answers.com for more detail. That being the case it seems highly likely that the steel used by Backyard Buddy has a good chance of coming from a  ‘recycled’ source as any other steel in use anywhere else in the world.
 
Grade
Grade, in relationship to steel, refers to a scientific method of determining steel quality. It is not an arbitrary ‘judgement’ that fluctuates depending on who is assessing it. The definitions and standards for each grade are strictly laid down both internationally and in North America. If a particular piece is a specific grade, then it is that grade – regardless of source. More information on steel grades can be found in this article on wikipedia.
 
Canadian/US cars
Canada makes a lot of cars. Almost all auto manufacturers now are international concerns;, some (like GM who build the Corvette) have been for a long time (as with my ZR-1). As it happens the 2009 Camaro for example, is to be built in in Canada. The Buick LaCrosse/Allure, Grand Prix and Impala are also built in Oshawa, Ontario and the plant was recently rated as one of the most efficient auto plants in North America. In addition, Ford builds the Freestar, Edge and Lincoln; DaimlerChrysler builds the Dodge Magnum, Charger, Chrysler 300 and Caravan among others (by the way, DaimlerChrysler’s corporate head is in Germany). Honda and Toyota also have plants here building Civics, Acuras, Corollas, Lexus and Matrix. And the largest market for all of these is the US. See here.
 
Made in the USA
Many companies now exist and operate in a world-wide economy. While that might feel strange to people more used to dealing with ‘Mom and Pop’ organisations, it’s a fact of life that we have to deal with. Just because products come from another country does not automatically make them bad quality (anyone care to discuss quality with BMW, Audi or Mercedes, for example?), in just the same way that goods from the US are not automatically good quality (the examples here are numerous, but I guess I’d be ‘slamming’ the USA again to point them out). For what it’s worth, the vast majority of goods will have at least some percentage of parts made elsewhere, whether it be your TV, Computer, tools, auto lift or anything else you might care to point to. When we look at cars as an example, ‘Made in the USA’ is defined as having 75% or more of their parts made in the US or Canada. So that means anything stamped that way could have up to a quarter of its content sourced from anywhere else in the world. According to the Automobile Trade Policy Council (a lobbying group for GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler), most of their own cars only get to 73% (as an example the Ford Mustang only has 65 percent domestic content). See here for more information.

Presumably the workforce at Backyard Buddy only buys domestic TVs, washing machines, computers, phones, kitchen and bathroom appliances, linens, crockery etc.. If so, perhaps they’d be willing to share where they get all these goods domestically?
 
Certainly I support locally produced goods; from an environmental perspective it’s the only stance that makes sense (not to mention the long term benefits to the local economy). Sadly, the real world means that all too often this option isn’t even possible. The US economy is propped up by cheap Chinese goods and cheap oil for transporting them. The US has racked up a massive debt to China of several trillion dollars – that scares me and I don’t even live there! This has been largely created by greedy companies taking advantage of less costly workforces overseas without regard to the effect at home, and by consumers who choose simply on the basis of price, regardless of the cost to the economy or the quality of the product. My issue was never one of quality or whether I should pay more for that – it was about a highly misleading website that tried to take my credit card details without informing me of the price, incredibly bad customer service, and one extremely ignorant man’s unprofessional, offensive and racist comments.

In among my plans this year is building a garage and workshop for my Corvette so that I can work on it more easily and also continue to work on it year round, through our long (cold!) ‘off-season’. Although it is currently stored away with some good friends who are taking great care of it, the withdrawal factor has been pretty high and I’d rather not repeat the experience if possible.

As I do all the work on my car, one of the other items on my shopping list is a lift of some description. There are a large number of options out there and it’s quite hard to know what you’re getting, especially as prices seem to vary enormously; so it was quite interesting to see an article on lifts in one of the recent issues of Corvette Fever. In the article they made cautionary note of the quality of some of the lifts (including one of the few that seem to have local representatives here in Canada – DirectLift).

As my ZR-1 is just ever so slightly valuable to me, I felt that I should at the very least check out some of the more highly recommended suppliers and gain an understanding of the differences in quality and price – informed decision making generally being the better part of purchasing valour.

One of the lift suppliers given an ‘honourable mention’ was Backyard Buddy, and I have often seen their name mentioned with acclaim on the various web fora that I frequent. Thus inspired, I fired up my browser and quickly located their site.

The site provided me with a lot of information about their lifts and was greatly disparaging of lesser quality products. I’ve never been one to look for the cheapest option and firmly believe that quality is worth paying a higher price for; in fact I do it all the time on clothes, shoes, tools and more or less everything I buy.

Ahhh yes, and there’s the rub my friends. Although the site talks a great deal about online ordering, I see no prices listed. Even though I can add a lift to my shopping cart, no pricing appears. Even though I am invited to check out and hand over my credit card information – still no pricing appears. “Don’t forget that you can view automotive lift products with prices and even order securely online”, their contact page proclaims. Sadly the link to viewing these products with prices results in a “page not found” error; what’s more the contact form itself produces an error when I try to use it.

By now I’m somewhat irked. Yet another badly designed web site breaking basic design rules that have been known and well publicised for years – check out No. 10 on Jakob Nielsen’s Top 10. I persevere however and send an email to the contact email listed on the site; former experience tells me I’m not likely to get a response but what can I say, I’m just an eternal optimist. Here’s my email in full:

Email 1

Somewhat to my surprise, I actually received a reply. Perhaps I thought, as I opened the email, they are more on the ball than the website suggested. The reply in full was:

Email 2

I was somewhat amazed by the hostile tone in his reply. I can only imagine the results if I responded to clients this way and, working in the IT industry, believe me I deal with far more awkward customers than me on a daily basis. The response also contained a number of assumptions, the biggest being a complete refusal to accept that the site was at fault; so I felt I should respond and point out in more detail just what the problems were in relation to the site, the misconceptions and the tone of the response.

Email 3

A reasonable response I would say – all clear and valid points. Imagine my greater surprise then when I received this:

Email 4

I don’t have any ‘mad’ tools, but no doubt some of mine are of Chinese origin – sadly it’s virtually impossible to avoid these days, even when buying from well known companies. But again, look at the hostility here. I don’t pretend to be an expert on steel prices, but stock markets are pretty fluid and they seem to somehow manage to keep those up to date. Even if, for some reason, the pricing can’t be kept up to date then make that clear on the site; all it takes is a “due to the volatility of steel pricing we cannot maintain accurate prices on the web, please call for a quote”. That’s not great either, but at least you’re not giving me a site that pretends it will give me a price, that invites me to order online, that allows me to add the lift to the basket and that even allows me to check out and enter a credit card and still doesn’t let me know that pricing is not available online (and worse that the basket/checkout etc. isn’t even functional!).

The point he makes about how I would insist on paying the price listed on the Internet is certainly valid – I would expect to pay whatever was advertised. But is it really unreasonable to expect that the price displayed be valid? Or that if pricing isn’t available online, then this should be clearly stated and all reference to pricing, basket functionality etc. be removed/disabled?

And while on the issue of pricing, the accessories for the lifts – all made of steel presumably – are on the site. What about the volatility of pricing now?

The issue here is clearly that the company representatives are too lazy to keep the site pricing up to date and too lazy to properly remove the references on the web site. If I was running this company, I’d also have a big issue with someone in my sales team responding with such hostility to a potential customer, regardless of circumstances. Perhaps Backyard Buddy can learn something about courtesy and sales from the Chinese…

There is also an implicit assumption in his email that I should simply look at the website and then call for pricing. Surely the whole point of having a website is to communicate such information to customers? Why would I take the trouble to look on any site simply to be told “okay, now call us for the important information”. If that’s the way you’re thinking then perhaps you’re better off  not having a website at all…

The last comment in the final email links recycling, quality, and Chinese tools; there really is no link here. As I said in my first response “As long as the quality of steel used is not changed…” in other words, if the grade of steel is the same then the source, recycled or not, makes no difference – it’s still the same grade of steel. Recycling is a good thing because it saves resources (though I can understand how someone from the USA might not understand that point ;-) ) and (usually) helps keep costs down. Keeping costs down, helping the environment, while delivering an equivalent product to the customer at a lower price, all sound like wins to me. Of course, if the quality has changed, then that’s a different story. But I don’t see how US steel is somehow intrinsically better than Chinese steel (or Russian or British or Mexican or Canadian…); if it meets the required grade then that’s pretty much the end of it.

I’m sure that Jason felt really proud of himself as he cocked up the last sentence, crowing about my Chinese tools. No doubt he really thought he put me in my place with that final insult. :-)

I could go on; after all I was just a potential customer looking for basic information and also trying to avoid cheap goods of dubious quality, but here are three final points:

First, here are the screenshots showing the misleading pages on the site.

Screen 1 Screen 2 Screen 3 Screen 4 Screen 5

Second, I sent a similar email to another company, BendPack. They responded with professional courtesy, pointing out that they don’t sell direct and offering to provide me with the nearest dealer (which they did within ten minutes when I asked).

Third, perhaps Backyard Buddy ought to consider a name change. Backyard Bozo, maybe?

The big hot topic at the moment is the imminent arrival of the new ZR1. 6.2 liters, supercharged, 600bhp: what’s not to like? (Well if I were to be churlish I could say the fact that it’s still a wide-mouthed grinning frog C6!) Seriously though, there is a lot of technology in this car and a lot to admire about it (though the cheesy see-through hood does smack of an 11-year-old chief designer with a ‘Hot Wheels’ fixation).

Grinning frogs

Many owners of the older LT5 ZR-1 have given the car a lacklustre reception – myself included – after all we owe allegiance to the older ‘King’. Some have been pleased because they feel it will shine more of a spotlight on the special quality (and value) of the 90s car and many others have welcomed it as a sign that GM still loves the older cars and respects their position in history.

Sadly, I feel that the latter idea calls for more suspension of disbelief than I can honestly muster.

The new ZR1 and the older ZR-1 (careful with that hyphen!) have no real commonality, certainly not in terms of parts, but not even one of philosophy either.

The LT5 ZR-1 was a tour de force in engineering, the engine design – a masterpiece of mechanical efficiency and finesse born out of a maelstrom of blood, sweat and engineers’ tears. And not just the engine: the body work on the car was completely re-engineered from the doors back to give room for the extra wide tires. This wasn’t just the simplistic bolt-on wheel flares/body-coloured spoiler affair but a complete (and subtle) re-working of the entire vehicle. The transmission was selected from the best available rather than slapping in yet another GM off-the-shelf part originally intended for a granny-wagon. The tires were specially designed and constructed by Goodyear. It was, and is, an automotive work-of-art.

The new ZR1? Slap in a supercharger, rivet/glue on a couple of flairs and a tail spoiler, change out the ‘gills’. No one struggled to get this car off the block; no one did anything clever to make it happen. The only real question was – what’s the cheapest way to make even more power? GM has built this car for one reason and one reason only – they have learned that they sell every single Corvette they make. It’s the ultimate cash-cow for them.

And that, right there, to me is the big problem – not just with the new ZR1, but with pretty much every car that has been coming out of ‘Detroit’ since the 90s: the single biggest emphasis has been more and more power – to the point where the ZR1 (sans hyphen)  is beyond anything really practical for the street.

It’s a strange position perhaps, coming from a person who owns one of the legendary all-time fastest vettes around (180+ is NOT slow), that cars can have too much power, too much speed. But it’s not as incongruous as it first seems.

When the ZR-1 came out and I read all about the engine and the power, it undoubtedly tweaked my youthful testosterone strings. But that wasn’t the whole story. I was lapping up the stories of these, simply beautiful, cars grand touring all day through winding mountain roads. And in among all of this was the amazing fact that this car was not only powerful and extremely fast, but also efficient. As recalled in the ‘Heart of the Beast’ by Anthony Young, when Bob Schultz, General Manager, was informed that the LT5 met the new ‘gas guzzler’ tax, he responded, “You’re telling me we’ve got a 400 horsepower engine that can meet gas guzzler, and we’ve got a 245hp engine that can’t?”

Power. With efficiency. A completely different and infinitely more sophisticated approach than is usually the case in US car manufacturing. That was why I loved the car so much. There is an inherent beauty, a technological harmony present in something that is efficient, over and above any notion of sheer power. It’s the difference between a brawler and a master of the martial arts, or a hoodlum with a machete versus a graduate from Domenico Angelo’s l’Ecole d’Armes.

Making power has never been that hard. Auto-engineers have known how to do that since the very early days. The simplest way? Just make it bigger. This in fact was the ‘prime directive’ all the way up until the 70s and that was precisely what GM and every other manufacturer did. It wasn’t particularly clever; it didn’t have a lot of finesse. The maxim was simple: “there ain’t no substitute for cubic inches”. Sadly we seem to have been left with the legacy of this mentality even now, nearly forty years later.

It seems that nothing was learned from those black days of gas station line-ups and rationing. As soon as the artificially-inflated gas prices settled back down, what did Detroit do? They went back to the old ways of pumping out cars that were bigger, fatter, more powerful and less efficient.

Take the Corvette as an example. According to the standard testing procedures a base model 1990 Corvette made 16/25 mpg (19 combined), while a 2008 model gets 15/25 (18 combined). This is even using the new ‘cooked’ formula by the EPA designed to make the efficiency ratings look better. So the fuel efficiency of the Corvette has actually decreased (the 1990 ZR-1 was even more efficient) while the need for said efficiency has increased. Would anyone care to suggest that our oil supplies are somehow higher now than they were 30 years ago? That global climate change is less of a problem?

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. Performance. That same 1990 Corvette made 245bhp; the 2008 base model makes 430bhp. Slice it anyway you like: that looks like a 70 percent rise in power to me. (looking at fuel consumption figures for all vehicles Bezdek and Wendling showed, in a recent study for American Scientist, that average fuel economy for all new vehicles has declined from 26.2 mpg in 1987 to 24.7 mpg in 2004 – so the 6% drop is across the board.)

So a 6% fuel efficiency decrease, coupled to a 75 percent power increase. That certainly seems clear to me where GM’s priorities have been. Remember too, that’s the base model; if you look at the Z06s and the new ZR1 these figures will look even worse. Also worth noting; these fuel economy figures are in a vehicle now approximately 500kg lighter – making them even more unpalatable.

Look too at the LT5 engine in the ZR-1. In ’93 Lotus reworked the engine to produce 405bhp. It still made the same mileage but the power differential between that engine and the new base model is only 6%. What’s more, Lotus also had a 450bhp engine in the wings ready to go. GM essentially threw away a highly efficient engine design in favour of a ‘Billy Bob’ special.

With the new fuel economy regulations that the US will introduce – 35mpg (by the rather laughable target year of 2020) – it seems likely that the Corvette in its current form will not survive. There is much talk about reducing power but lightening the car to retain comparable performance. All of which could have been done twenty years ago. And if GM and the other car manufacturers can find a way of getting round the new regulations, they will. One look at the exemption on the old CAFE standards for trucks – the most populous vehicles on our roads -shows just how cynical Detroit is about such things.

GM has now to all practical purposes abandoned the old ZR-1. They support their flagship vehicle of just 17 years ago not one iota. Despite people paying the highest prices ever for a GM vehicle (taking inflation into account) they have thrown the owners to curb. The people who do own them, who should be some of GMs biggest supporters, are instead its biggest critics.

And as for the new ZR1 itself? It seems probable that it, like its earlier somewhat namesake, will have a short life. It is being pitched once again as an exclusive, high-priced vehicle for the elite with lots of money. The result seems obvious to me even now, before the car goes on sale. But as my favourite author, Robert Heinlein, once said: “If the lessons of history teach us anything – it’s that nobody learns the lessons that history teaches us.”

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