Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Second Visit with Electro Auto

I'm sorry this post has taken a long time to put up, but my visit with EA was followed by a two-week solar monitoring installation trip to Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, north of San Francisco.  Then it took about two weeks to catch back up on life.

My visit was a direct result of the poor communication and broken promises I've experienced by EA.  As you can read in previous posts, I've been waiting for about 9 months for a significant number of expensive parts and have had no luck getting any kind of response to my calls and emails.  An alert reader pointed out that EA was beginning to hold monthly electric car seminars in San Jose.  I emailed EA that I was going to drive up on the day of their March seminar and tell their attendees what kind of business they're running.  I also wanted parts or the cash equivalent refunded so I could buy them from other suppliers.  I also threatened to take them to court.

This got a response from Shari:

"The seminar would not be an appropriate time and place for this discussion.  When we are doing a seminar, our mental focus is completely on that course material, and even the "break" times are pretty much filled with answering student questions."  "The past couple years have been extraordinarily brutal, financially.  We went from $xx gross WEEKLY sales to the same amount as gross QUARTERLY sales.  We went from us plus a staff of 3 full timers and 5 part timers to just the two of us.  From what we hear from our suppliers, our situation was not unusual during this difficult time.  Finally, this spring, we are seeing signs of recovery, and we are pursuing every avenue of cash flow we can find in order to get caught up on our obligations, able to carry inventory, and to deliver promptly.  I believe we can be at that point this summer."

Then a flurry of parts started arriving, including the struts, shocks, springs, torsion bars and bushings, charger, DC/DC converter and contactor.  Maybe they were reacting to having income from the seminars, but maybe I was just the squeakiest wheel and I could affect their business by protesting in front of the following seminars.  I decided I was still going to go and told Shari by email.

On the morning of March 19, I left home around 6 AM and arrived at the seminar location in San Jose at about 9:30.  Nobody was there yet so I waited in the rain outside the building.  After a while I saw Mike from EA park and start walking towards the building.  He saw me and then recognized me and nearly stopped in the street, but kept walking to me.  Now I'm going to try to describe our conversation.  I'm sure won't get it exactly right, so any mistakes are mine.  You'll get the gist of the discussion.

I said "Morning Mike, remember me?"  He said he did and immediately got very defensive.  He asked me what I wanted and I said I wanted the rest of my parts for the car.  He said I just got a big shipment of parts, what was I doing there.  I explained that I hadn't had any email or phone calls returned in months.  He said, literally, "What do you want me to do, slit my wrists?".  I said of course I don't want that, but I do want you to understand that you owe a lot of people parts that they've paid for and haven't received.  He then said "Who made you God?".  I tried to stay calm and factual, so I said "Of course I'm not God, but a lot of people have contacted me because they are waiting for parts too."  He then started describing their financial problems.  He tried to get me to understand the difficulties of running a small business.  He asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was an engineer.  He then asked if I ever had to make a payroll and I said yes.  He then looked at me like I've been through the same kind of situation.  They have had some very bad problems due to the economy and a big drop in orders, but now with the seminars they have money coming in and are working to ship the backlog of waiting parts.  I said I'm happy that things are turning around, but you have a lot of very unhappy customers out there.  He told me a story that one of his former employees told him he was a "shitty manager", and it's hard to run a business if you're only good at building car designs.  I agreed that it's hard to be good at many different things, but I thought that Shari was handling the business side.  He just sighed.  He completely changed his attitude and seemed like all the air had come out of him and he was beaten down by the circumstances of the last year or so.

I then tried to take a different tack and said that as long as parts were flowing again, I would suggest that he work on communicating with his customers.  Return emails promptly and completely, answer the phone and tell the truth.  I pointed out the phone number listed on the web site wasn't correct and Shari's packing slip emails actually say

" If you have any questions about your order, please contact Bill Lentfer at bill@electroauto.com or 831-251-8656. He will get back to you by the next business day at the latest."  

The problem is Bill doesn't work for them anymore and doesn't respond at all at that email or phone number.  They need to correct everything and go back to notify all customers what the status of their parts is.  I asked him why they didn't simply answer the phone.  He mumbled something about "You just don't understand".  I later realized that they were probably getting calls from collection agencies and other nasty people and were

I said that I hoped I had helped him understand what he was putting his paying customers through, and to ship parts ASAP and stay in effective communication.  He thanked me for having a calm conversation about the issues and admitted when he saw me standing on the sidewalk "you scared the shit out of me."  I told him I was sorry that it had come to this, but I ran out of options, and I was lucky that I was within driving distance, something that many of his other customers didn't have the luxury of.  We shook hands and he went inside and I got in my car and drove up to start on my solar installation.

I'm hoping that other people have been contacted or have had some parts show up.  I know one person making one visit isn't going to change the world, but I hope it had some small effect.  Please let me know if you've been contacted or received some parts in the last month or so.  Fingers crossed!