October 1, 2021 • By Dennis Beaver
“Jake,” a civil engineer, ordered a specialty laptop directly from the manufacturer’s sales department along with two pre-installed software programs that were essential for his work.
He was given one assurance after another of receiving the computer and activation codes by a specific date; but nothing was delivered until three months after the promised time. The activation codes were to be sent via e-mail.
“Despite calling ‘Rob,’ the sales rep, often waiting on hold for over an hour, and being told, ‘My supervisor said he will be sending that email immediately,’ I never received the activation codes.” Jake said, adding:
“For over a month I placed several more calls and Rob’s increasing frustration with his company’s screw-up was obvious. After wasting so much time all I had was a computer that could not be used for my business and I lost two jobs because I could not use the necessary software. I gave up expecting the seller to ever get me those codes.”
Finally, Jake phoned the software developers, sent them proof of purchase, and they provided the codes.
Happy Camper – When …
“I returned from an out of town job when my secretary tells me, ‘Boss, while you were gone, Rob called, apologized for the hassle, said that he has quit the company, but has made things right for you. The next day FedEx delivered a check from the computer company labeled refund. I deposited it along with our other checks, but in thinking about this now, I thought you were finally happy with the purchase.’”
Jake called the seller, left voice mails and sent emails offering to return the money and stating that he wanted to keep the laptop.
“But no one ever replied, and that worried me. I did not want anyone to accuse me of illegally obtaining a refund on the laptop that I still have in my possession and am using. Should I return the money? The computer?”
A Law School Professor Give His Opinion
I asked a friend of this column, Loyola (Los Angeles) Law School Contracts Professor Bryan Hull, “Given that my reader did not participate in obtaining the refund and has attempted to again pay for the laptop, if he does nothing, could this land him in civil or criminal trouble?”
“If the refund was a payment by mistake, the seller would have a right to restitution of that amount. But was it a mistake? It would seem almost obligatory for the sales rep to obtain authority before issuing that check and allowing the customer to still keep the laptop.
“But the purchaser has offered to send them the money, so there seems no argument that he is criminally trying to retain the funds. My assumption is that the refund check was not sent in error, rather as a way to compensate Jake for all the time he wasted in trying to get what he had paid for. His best bet is to do nothing and just continue using the laptop.”
Was The Refund Really Sent in Error? How Could This Happen?
I spoke with U.S. based HR and logistics managers at two large computer hardware manufacturers, asking, “Have you heard of anything as odd as this case? How could it happen?”
Logistics managers — on condition of strict anonymity — were in complete agreement as to, “The monumental flaw of ‘Just in-time’ manufacturing, where components are delivered to factories as they are required, which minimizes the need to stockpile them. But we all knew this was a disaster waiting to happen,” explaining:
“This concept was pioneered by Toyota, was quickly adopted by all auto makers and many other industries — notably electronics and pharmaceuticals — and leaving them vulnerable to shortages.”
OK, so that explains the delay, but what about Rob sending Jake a complete refund?
Sabotage! “I’ll Show You!”
The HR people revealed a touching, charitable attitude toward Rob, all of them feeling that, while technically what he did amounted to sabotage, “The pandemic has upended everything connected to sales,” 35-year HR veteran “Stacey,” told me.
“We rarely saw this behavior before and it would come to light after an employee quit or was terminated and their supervisor had a creepy feeling about them. We would do an audit of their sales and returns, on occasion discovering a refund issued but no steps taken to recover the hardware.”
I wondered if their industry is addressing these issues with employees or would prefer to not publicize the problems.
“You don’t want to plant ideas about ways of getting even with a supervisor who has caused you to be embarrassed – or yelled at – by customers. But at the same time, if you do not address the problem, one rep can cost you thousands of dollars!”
Concluding our chat, Stacey said, “Since COVID, the world of manufacturing has been turned upside down, employees are suffering burnout at rates we never saw before, and this requires far more compassion by management than, sadly, many who occupy the “C” suites understand.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.