The “Repair Man” Trap

Anyone who has ever worked in the electronics trade will almost certainly have been asked to repair consumer electronics products for friends, family and even random neighbours.  How do you deal with these requests? Do you politely decline or do you end up getting sucked in?
Rookies usually get sucked in.  I’ve been there, done that, and got the T-Shirt.  But give yourself a few years and you’ll soon learn that it can be a huge “trap for young players” (as EEVBLOG is fond of saying), and that once you’ve fallen into the trap it can be very difficult to get out!

I’m older and wiser now, so usually I’ll politely decline a request for this sort of work.  Occasionally I’ll agree to do the odd thing for close friends and family, but even then I only tend to agree if I feel confident that the symptom is indicative of a quick/easy and permanent solution.  If there’s any kind of uncertainty involved, or if it’s someone I don’t know, forget it – I’ll avoid it like the plague.  Why? Well, let’s have a look at it!

My main reasons for declining this sort of work are as follows:

  • Once you agree to repair something for someone, suddenly everyone in the neighbourhood will want you to provide a similar service for them too – and once you’ve agreed to do it for one person, it becomes difficult to say no to anyone else! How can you justify saying no to Mr. Jones at number 4 when you previously said yes to Mr. Edmunds at number 3? You’re almost obligated to become the local repair guy, and from then onward your spare time will be constantly eroded by other people’s problems.
    At least you can make a few bob for yourself on the side though, right? No! That neatly leads me on to my next gripe…
  • Nobody ever wants to pay you money for the work.  They think your technical expertise in this area is worthless, and in one way (as explained further on in this point) they are right!
    It doesn’t matter that you may have spent 4 hours tracking down a problem, and that the only reason you can do it at all is because you spent years (decades) honing your electronics skills – they’ll still want it done for free.  Or, at least, for a very small amount of money.
    In fairness, this kind of attitude has mainly been fostered by cheap consumer electronics products from countries like China.  Your diagnosis/repair work might be worth £80 an hour in terms of your expertise, but why are they going to pay that when they can just get a brand new one from the local supermarket for <£100? Cheap goods from developing countries have literally decimated the monetary value of a Technician’s work.  Products have become more complex and hence more difficult to diagnose, but the amount that consumers are willing to pay for their repair has fallen to a pittance.
    Naturally Mr. Jones won’t want to add £100 to his next TESCO shopping bill though – he’ll just want you to fix the one he’s got for free.
  • Once you’ve placed your hands on someone’s product, you instantly inherit any future problems it may present.  If Mr. Jones bought you a pint of beer in return for restoring power to his television last month, then he’ll bring it back to you when the colour goes down on it and assume that the two problems are linked.  “The colour was fine before you started fiddling with it”, he’ll say.  “It must have been something you did!”.
    Naturally, he’ll not only expect you to fix his colour problem as well but he’ll also expect you to do it for free.
    Sometimes you’ll even be blamed for totally unrelated things like, for example, poor reception.  You fix their dead television for a measly tenner (even though it’s not even worth 15 minutes of your time, and the job took you three hours!) but then they’ll call you back 3 months later because the picture on ITV4 is breaking up.  “It didn’t do that before you took the TV apart, Mr. Hoskins!” and before you know it you’ll be up on their roof fixing an antenna or adjusting their satellite dish.
  • Sometimes, if you don’t have your wits about you, amateur diagnosis work (and if it’s done in your spare time as an aside to a related but different professional trade, it is amateur – even if your skills are not) can even end up costing you money.  Faults (especially in the digital domain) can be very difficult to diagnose, and are littered with “gotchas” that you can inadvertently stumble into.   Fault symptoms will often lead you around the garden path.
    It can seem, for example, like a Microprocessor is to blame for your problem when in fact the firmware is simply hanging up because some other component is upsetting it.  But if you go ahead and order a replacement Microprocessor you’d better be damned sure it’s going to solve the problem, because Mr. Jones isn’t going to want to pay for it if it later transpires that the Micro wasn’t the root cause after all!
    If you work in the diagnosis trade (which, these days, hardly anyone does) problems like these are easily navigated – you can swap components on like products to see if the problem moves with them, and then you can be more confident of your diagnosis before you spend any money (even though at the very least it’ll certainly cost you more unpaid time), but if, for example, you’re a design Engineer who (by the very nature of your work) happens to also possess some skills from the fault diagnosis trade, you won’t have this luxury.  When Mr. Jones presents his faulty product to you it’ll almost certainly be the first time you’ve ever seen one.  If you’re lucky (provided Mr. Jones never brings it back) it’ll be the last time you ever see one! So the moral of this particular point is that if you order parts for someone’s faulty product, make sure you’ve made your disclaimer clear before you do so otherwise the cost could be coming out of your pocket, not theirs!
  • The final reason I prefer to decline this sort of work is that it just isn’t my specialty.  Yes, I probably could track down the fault on someone’s TV, or laptop, or PVR.  Given enough time and sufficient motivation I could probably fix any electronic product.  But unless you actually work in the trade, diagnosing these things day-in day-out, it’s always going to cost you more time and money than it’s actually worth.  For a start you’ll hardly ever have schematics for the products, and that means you’ll have to reverse engineer them before you even start diagnosing the problem.  You won’t have spare parts hanging around so you won’t be able to follow hunches by swapping bits out,  and finally you’ll never have the opportunity to reap the rewards of a hard-earned diagnosis.  What do I mean by this last point? Well, no Technician wants to see a one-time fault.  Obscure one-time faults do happen occasionally, but usually (if you work in the trade) it’ll be something you or one of your colleagues have seen before.  So you invest the time in a diagnosis once, and then you apply it instantly to any future occurrence of the problem. In that way, you start to make money on your investment.  If a product costs you six hours of diagnosis time, most of which will end up being unbilled time, then you hope that it’ll pay you back when you see the problem again in the future.
    When you do these things as a side job, you typically only ever see the problem once, even if it’s a relatively common problem for that particular product.  So each time you complete a diagnosis you invest significant time, but never see its return.   Even if people were still willing to pay good money for diagnosis work (which they’re not), it would hardly be worth it for someone who just does odd bits on the side.
No I will not fix your computer!
No I will not fix your computer!

So that’s why I will almost certainly decline any request to fix someone’s consumer electronics product for them.
What about you? Are you a design/development engineer who has been asked to fix other people’s stuff? Do you agree to it or do you decline? What stories can you tell?!