What is the difference between healthy skepticism and denial? What does the theory that the Earth is flat have to do with the plumbing and heating industry? Look no further than the returns department.
The Earth is a sphere. I know that, in part, because I’ve watched a boat sail away from me in the ocean and eventually disappear down over the horizon. The boat didn’t sink. It sailed far enough away, at sea level the entire time, to be out of sight due to the curvature of the Earth. If the Earth were flat, you would be able to watch a boat sail from North America to Europe on a clear day.
Aristotle may have been the first to propose that the Earth was round (https://bit.ly/327njPX). He cited things such as the planet creating a round shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse and suggested that a constellation of stars may only be visible at certain latitudes. This healthy skepticism of the flat Earth concept led to much research, tests and peer-reviewing.
In the last few years, there has been a movement to prove the Earth is actually flat. In the documentary “Behind the Curve,” a handful of Flat Earthers are interviewed. Collectively, they have a mix of skepticism and denial about the round Earth.
One of the physicists interviewed in the documentary is named Spiros Michalakis. He does a good job of being a voice of reason, explaining the larger conversation well: “Someone who is skeptical is willing to test their own hypothesis, their own assumptions. They are actually looking for the truth, even if it turns out that they were wrong.”
Denial is the refusal to test your hypothesis or the failure to believe results that don’t confirm your skepticism. The fine line between healthy skepticism and denial crosses all industries.
Investigating product returns
This brings us all the way around to the plumbing and heating return bin. You know, that dust-covered set of poorly boxed, used parts in the corner of a wholesale warehouse. Generally, at least one of the boxes claims something like “defective” in ink on the outside. The pile grows. Then someone in the office will take a slow day to wrap up paperwork and ship these products back to the manufacturer for analysis.
I worked in a global return department about 10 years ago for Caleffi. We would be on the receiving end of these ratty cardboard box shipments. We would painstakingly go through the products and try to use plumbing “crime-scene investigation” tools to find out what happened. We kept an open mind about claims of faulty product and did not approach the task with preconceived conclusions.
In my experience, 99 percent of the returns I encountered were victims of poor water quality, dirt or misapplication of the product. I’m sure this will make contractors groan because it seems to cast blame back on the installer, but it isn’t entirely fair either. Sometimes misapplication of the product is a result of incomplete installation manuals.
At one point, I saw photos of a wall-hung boiler deemed faulty by the installer. It had been installed flat on the ground, on the wooden shipping frame it came on instead of how it was intended to be installed — on a wall. In the manual, it clearly showed how to mount the boiler.
Because of this incident, the boiler manufacturer added another label on the shipping crate with mounting instructions to double-confirm the right way to do the task. It may have been the installer’s fault that the product was installed incorrectly, but the manufacturer learned from the situation and took further steps to prevent future misapplications.
On the other side of the coin, hasty analysis of a return by a manufacturer can overlook an underlying product design issue. This is where healthy skepticism from a contractor is helpful for all parties. If a contractor did follow the installation instructions and paid proper attention to water quality/voltage issues, the manufacturer may be in denial about a return trend that is building with certain applications or product attributes.
The best manufacturers always keep an eye out for a trend in returns and jump into action. One of my bosses flew across the United States to a jobsite to check on a “product failure” — it was actually a bad installation practice causing a leak. If a contractor’s insistence during a return results in the identification of a necessary modification, there is an opportunity for progress for everyone involved.
For all parties, it is helpful to document a product that isn’t working well while it is still installed. A picture tells a thousand words in a return situation. A nonfunctional, atmospheric pool boiler sitting next to hundreds of pounds of open chlorine buckets could provide a hint that the environment may be causing issues for the heat exchanger of the boiler. Contractors also can build credibility for a return if they show that the product was installed well.
The best manufacturers take returns personally. Any time you find out that a piece of equipment you sold in a plumbing or heating system is nonfunctional, especially if it’s only a year or two old, your heart breaks a little. It is a bad day for the homeowner, contractor and wholesaler processing the return, regardless of fault.
Useful explanations, not jargon
The best path forward for manufacturers is to figure out what happened and offer an explanation in layman’s terms. An overly legal-sounding answer with no useful clarification of the potential causes doesn’t provide good customer service to the installer or building owner.
In “Behind the Curve,” they mention that when scientists provide super-complex explanations of concepts they have spent their entire lives studying, it may be hard for the average person to connect all the dots. If the scientist then shames the audience by giving them the impression they aren’t smart enough to get it, the trust breaks down.
This distrust in science is potentially the root of the Flat Earther argument. Sometimes scientists need to slow down and spend time mastering how to explain scientific concepts better. It can be the case in the PHCP world, too.
Reasonable skeptics move any industry forward. Denial holds the industry back or casts a bad light on the professionals involved.
The best manufacturers ask questions and want to get to the bottom of product returns. The best contractors want to learn what caused an issue and what can be done to address the root cause. The best manufacturers’ reps work as negotiators to move the conversation along.
Effective communication during the return process between all parties is critical. If one of the parties involved stops being willing to test the hypothesis and accept the answer, you could find yourself alone on a flat Earth.