Read the fine print!

We’ve all been warned to scrutinize any written contract or policy before entering an agreement. The details are often overshadowed by the happy bells and whistles in advertising. Paying attention to every fine point minimizes future disappointments and problems, especially when it comes to warranties.

Like other contracts, product warranties are often hyped by sales and marketing to convey great advantages to the buyer, yet the precise wording can reveal that the benefits come with a price.

My personal experiences compare how two different retailers responded to their vendors’ warranties for the high-ticket items they sold. As a result, their actions impacted my satisfaction and brand loyalty, made me a savvier consumer, and raised the question of what the phrasing of such commitments says about true intentions and integrity.

A Tale of Two Warranties

Item #1: One Hot Refrigerator
- My husband and I purchased an extended, three-year warranty for a high-end refrigerator we bought from a national retailer.  
- Shortly before the warranty period ended, the freezer stopped working.
- The retailer promptly authorized a technician to detect the problem: a specialized part for our model had gone bad.
- While the part was on order, a store manager, under no obligation to do so, gave us a new, portable refrigerator-freezer as a loaner and reimbursed us for the cost of the food that had defrosted and spoiled before we’d detected the problem.
- Over the next few weeks, the manufacturer continually pushed out the part’s estimated arrival date.
- Deciding we had waited long enough, the store manager fully credited us for the original price we’d paid for the three-year-old refrigerator, which allowed us to select a similar, new appliance at no additional cost to us.
- In a final goodwill gesture, the manager also told us to keep the portable refrigerator-freezer.

Bottom line: We love doing business with the retailer—that store in particular—and have spent many times the cost of the refrigerator on other products and services we’ve purchased.

Item #2: One Tired Treadmill
- A manufacturer’s lifetime warranty convinced my husband and me to purchase a high-caliber treadmill.
- Years later, the deck and belt—the main parts of the treadmill—had become unstable.
- The parts were included in the warranty but not the labor to remove or install them.
- Upon submitting the order for the parts, the retailer’s technician was shocked to learn that the manufacturer expected me, the consumer, to cover the cost of shipping both the old parts back to the manufacturer and the replacement parts to me. Apparently, claims on newer machines were handled differently than those on older products.
- In our case, the freight bills alone would total $375. Based on the initial cost estimated for labor, we would be paying more than $700 to repair equipment under a “lifetime” warranty.
- I called the manufacturer’s consumer technical support line to negotiate a more fair-minded option. I would wait, for instance, until the manufacturer could ship the part on a truck with other equipment going to that retailer rather than make it a special order.
- As soon as I began speaking with a technical support rep, the line went dead. I tried again, calling the main number. The receptionist politely transferred me to a technical support manager. I left a message on his voicemail, which he did not return.
- A few days later, I posted on the manufacturer’s Facebook page that their “true objective is to dissuade the consumer from acting on the lifetime warranty.”
- My comment prompted a response from a company rep, who expressed regret over my dissatisfaction and messaged me with technical support’s phone number. I replied, informing the individual that my voice message left days ago had been ignored.
- The next day, the technical support manager called me. He offered an apology, saying he didn’t get my message. Supposedly, the phones were malfunctioning the day I’d called.
- Accepting his apology, I explained my predicament.
- He refused to budge on any of the terms. In fact, I’d have to return the old part to his company before a prepaid replacement part would be shipped to me. To disassemble the machine without damaging it, I’d need a technician’s help. Instead of one service call, the tech would make two, adding over $100 to the charges.
- When I asked why he wanted the old deck, the manufacturer’s tech support manager said the company might refurbish it.
- Learning I might receive a refurbished deck, I challenged him to explain the value of a lifetime warranty that now had me paying at least $800 to have my deck replaced with what would possibly be my original deck, only refurbished.
- He then backtracked, saying I’d probably receive a new deck but would not guarantee it.
- The retailer involved is the top regional seller of the brand, but when a store manager contacted his manufacturer’s representative on my behalf, he received the same pat answers. I don’t know if he could have done more, such as negotiating the shipping, but to the store manager’s credit, he did say he was sorry about the situation and offered “some sort of discount” on a new machine.
- Manufacturers of exercise equipment and similar items realize that most consumers do not keep their machines beyond a certain number of years. That premise delivers their first escape clause: the warranty applies only to the original buyer.
- Other escape clauses make freight and repair costs the consumer’s responsibility.
- Long-time owners find little incentive to make lifetime warranty claims. After paying for the shipping and labor to resolve one issue, they could easily face another expensive problem. By the way, if the electronics go bad, they are expensive, if available, and probably not covered!

Bottom line: We will not buy any other exercise equipment from this manufacturer as a matter of principle. While all warranties for products in this industry are limited, some are more worthwhile than others.

When scrutinizing the wording of a warranty, buyers should consider the following:
1. Time
- Is the protection period adequate for you to obtain enough value from your investment should the product fail one day after the warranty ends?
- Without predicting the future, do any signs indicate that the maker or seller will not remain in business?

2. Parts
- Are all parts covered?
- If you had to pay for their replacement, would they be available and affordable?
- Would you receive refurbished or new parts?
- Would all replacement parts you received be guaranteed for a reasonable period?
- Would you be responsible for shipping costs?
- Must you return defective parts?

3. Service & Labor
- Would servicing and labor be covered?
- If not, would technicians in your area offer such services at affordable rates?
- Would the service come with some guarantee?

4. Ownership
- Is the warranty transferrable to someone other than the original owner?

5. Language
- Is the wording straightforward, or do you need an attorney to explain the text?

6. Trust
- Do you have legitimate reasons to trust the brand and/or seller?

When issuing a warranty, makers and sellers should consider the following:
1. Language
- Are you creating unrealistic expectations by highlighting promises and downplaying constraints?
- Are your terms plainly stated?

2. Intent
- Are your promotional and legal promises realistic—i.e., can you reasonably follow through?
- Do your words match your intentions?
- Have any conditions changed, making you more or less equipped to fulfill your promises, thereby recommending that you alter the wording of your commitment going forward?

For the most part, individuals and organizations strive to operate in good faith, but frustrations and costly problems still arise from misunderstandings and unforeseen circumstances. Of course, buyers need to apply common sense upon evaluating their options regarding products, services and sources. After the sale, they (and I include myself) need to recognize what’s reasonable to expect or ask of a seller, maker or service provider.

In turn, those on the selling end do all a favor by making sure their promotional language sets realistic expectations. Expressions like lifetime warranty and 100% money-back guarantee stick in the brain. Clarifying any limitations upfront might seem like a good way to kill a sale, but speaking plainly is how the best in the business succeed as a trusted source.

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.