SPECIAL REPORT: Dateline NBC Investigates Garage Door Repairmen
© 2002 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Spring 2002
Author: Tom Wadsworth
Dateline NBC Investigates Garage Door Repairmen
By Tom Wadsworth
For the door and access systems industry, the new year started with a bang … a bang that delivered a black eye to the entire industry.
On Friday, Jan. 4, 2002, Dateline NBC devoted its hour-long newsmagazine show to exposing unethical practices of home repairmen, including garage door technicians. The hidden camera investigation, which began two summers ago, attempted to reveal if home repairmen were more likely to take advantage of females than males.
I wasn't watching Dateline that night. But four hours later, at 1:30 in the morning, I received an anonymous e-mail from a concerned door dealer.
He wrote, "As an independent operator in the door business, I found this broadcast … biased towards the industry. I hope your organization provides a swift retort to the depiction of our professional trade."
Since then, we acquired a complete transcript and a videotape of the program. We also talked to Dateline's producer and contacted all four of the Dallas area door dealers who were taped by Dateline's hidden cameras.
Three of the dealers welcomed our offer to present their side of the story. One of the dealers, however, AA Able Overhead Door, which appears to operate under as many as six different names, refused to offer any comment. When we asked, "You don't even want to talk to us?" they actually hung up on us.
In this exclusive special report, we will identify the specific allegations against the garage door technicians in Dateline's report, and present the other side of the story from the perspective of the three other door dealers involved. Our goal is to bring to center stage a serious problem facing our industry and hopefully initiate an industry dialogue that seeks ways to protect and improve our reputation as a professional trade.
What Started the Investigation?
Did Dateline NBC target garage door dealers? Lindsey Schwartz, the producer for the Jan. 4 Dateline segment, said no. "Actually, my boss' wife had a repair done in her home (in New York), and she suspected she was discriminated against because she was female," Schwartz told us.
Why, then, did Dateline conduct the hidden camera investigation in Dallas? Schwartz said they selected the Plano, Texas, area because one of their interns had access to a home there. Even though the area is an upscale area, that did not affect their location selection, she said.
After securing the homes, Dateline then sought a home inspection expert who could help them set up their investigation. They found Ron Brackett of suburban Dallas, a 60-year-old veteran home inspector and instructor at the American Inspectors Institute in Dallas. Brackett told us that he provided his services to Dateline without pay so that his role would be "totally objective."
Brackett said he soon became aware that, "The Better Business Bureau (of Metropolitan Dallas) was having an abnormal amount of complaints from different industries where repairmen were fleecing the customers. The largest problem," he said, "came from garage door dealers."
What Exactly Happened?
(Sidebar for this segment: What's The Worst?)
In the broadcast, Dateline said their investigation sought to test the honesty and fairness of home repairmen. To do so, they asked Brackett to create minor, easily repaired problems in four different homes in the Plano area. The problems involved basic household items such as a dishwasher, a stove, an attic heater, an air conditioner, a pool, a toilet, and the garage door system.
"And to record it all," reported Dateline's Lea Thompson on the program, "we placed hidden cameras all over each of their homes. Sometimes we saw some outrageous cheating."
In each home, Dateline placed four trained homeowners to receive the repairmen. Two of the homeowners were female, one passive and one aggressive, and two were male, one passive and one aggressive. Dateline wanted to discover if repairmen were more likely to take advantage of females, and if aggressive homeowner behavior affected the technicians' ethics.
Brackett created two separate problems with the garage door systems. In the first case, he simply cocked the photo-eyes out of alignment. In the second, he changed the transmitter codes so that the door could not be operated by remote control.
Early in the broadcast, Brackett explained, "The way we set it up was so simplistic, it would be corrected immediately without any other parts."
SPECIAL REPORT II
The Good Guys and The Bad Guys
Dealer #1: Plano Garage Door
Plano Garage Door's technician was the first repairman presented in the program, responding to a call from a passive female homeowner. "No taking advantage of the helpless woman here," reported Thompson in the broadcast. "This man quickly disclosed the problem, charged a reasonable service fee ($69.50) and was on his way."
Raymond Kimbrell, Plano Garage Door's owner, told us, "When we get a call with a simple problem like the photo beam, we will even try to save them a service call and tell them over the phone how to fix it."
Throughout the broadcast, Plano Garage Door's performance was exemplary.
Dealer #2: Plano Overhead Door
Phil McGregor's Plano Overhead Door similarly survived Dateline's test with commendable service.
"Two of our installers were shown on the show," McGregor told us. "We were the good guys. However, doing good doesn't get much press."
Dealer #3: Action Door & Repair Specialists
Action Door & Repair of Plano, however, didn't fare so well. And owner Gary Staats feels that Dateline's accusations were unfair.
In one televised incident, Action's technician told the aggressive female homeowner that the wires were pulled out of the photo-eyes. "We know that's not true," said Dateline's Thompson, "and we suspected he did, too. He charged … $137 to rewire when all he had to do was walk over and recock the electronic eye."
Staats, however, told us that the wire connections for some early photo-eye models were known for falling out easily.
He also noted that the invoice for that service call reveals that the technician provided a variety of services that Dateline failed to mention. He showed us the $137 invoice that clearly itemized that the technician tightened the bolt and wires on photo eyes, serviced the door, tightened the hardware, lubricated the door, hinges, rollers, and springs, and checked the safety reverse.
"If I were Dateline, and if I were going to smear a company's reputation on national television, I would first check everything, including the invoice, to make sure I had the story right," said Staats.
Later in the broadcast, Dateline brought together one of the male and one of the female homeowners. Lea Thompson, interviewing the two, noted that Action Door had charged the man $70, but charged the woman $122.50.
"Surprised?" asked Thompson in the broadcast. The man said he hated to admit it, but said he wasn't surprised. Thompson then turned to the woman, "Is that because you're a woman?" After a long pause, the woman replied, "Gosh, I hate to admit that. I really do."
Staats believes that Thompson was "leading the witness." Defending his company against the implication of gender discrimination, he said, "That's absurd."
He noted that Dateline failed to mention that the two invoices were from two different technicians who provided two different sets of services. He also noted that Thompson, in making the comparison of the invoices, failed to note that Action's largest invoice of $157 was to a man, not a woman.
The angry Staats faxed us a letter that his attorney wrote to Dateline in December, warning of a possible libel suit if Dateline were to proceed with their January broadcast. When the show was broadcast anyway, Staats said he then sought legal counsel from another attorney who deals frequently with the media.
That attorney, said Staats, advised that he didn't have a case because Dateline carefully worded their allegations and used disclaimers throughout the program. The program's expert, Ron Brackett, said, "NBC Dateline told me they ran it through their legal department and made sure the program was legal."
Staats is still upset. In our lengthy interview with him, Staats told us, "I really wish that I would've had this kind of conversation with Dateline where they were willing to look at both sides of this thing. We didn't get a fair shake."
Dealer #4: AA Able Overhead Door
(Sidebar for this segment: Allegations Against AA Able)
In the Dateline broadcast, AA Able Overhead Door was portrayed as a dishonest company that routinely overcharged customers (see Allegations, right). Even though AA Able had the most to gain from telling us their side of the story, they refused to talk to us.
The other dealers believe that AA Able started operating in the Dallas area about four years ago. The company now operates there under as many as five other names with many different phone numbers.
It appears that the company routinely purchases large Yellow Pages ads for all these "companies" in the coveted front section under "Doors". All of their different advertised phone numbers are apparently routed to one single home where the phone is answered with a generic greeting such as, "Garage door service" or "Garage doors." Their Yellow Pages ads reveal no physical address for the company, and it is believed that all of their repairmen are dispatched out of that one home.
In the broadcast, Dateline said that the company, "since our investigation began, has changed its name to America's Alliance." However, one of the other three dealers said the new name is actually "America's Choice."
Besides the Dateline investigation, the Dallas NBC affiliate, KXAS channel 5, broadcast its own reports of allegations against AA Able. On Jan. 4, the same night as the Dateline broadcast, KXAS reported several complaints against AA Able, interviewing one customer who was charged $600 to have a broken spring replaced.
In a follow-up report on Feb. 20, KXAS cited two other customers who were charged $400 and almost $700, respectively, for spring replacements. The report also mentioned that AA Able has a new general manager, Will Engle, who told KXAS that he's given refunds to 40 customers.
The Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Dallas told us that they had received 68 complaints against AA Able over the last 36 months. Jeannette Kopko, the Bureau's senior vice president, said that 68 complaints is a "whopping" number, and that AA Able is "definitely the most complained-about door business" in the Dallas area.
As of Feb. 25, Kopko said that 47 of the 68 complaints had gone unanswered by AA Able. Only two complaints had been settled.
It's likely that AA Able's approach to the door business is not confined to the Dallas area alone. The owner of the company is believed to have door businesses in other cities around the country, such as Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale. A former employee of the company told us that the firm also has operations in Fort Myers and possibly Jacksonville and San Diego.
SPECIAL REPORT III
What's Gone Wrong?
The Roller Controversy
In the hour-long program, Dateline cited three cases where a garage door technician replaced the rollers on the door, even though bad rollers weren't the "planted" problem. Action Door's repairman replaced the rollers in one case, and AA Able Overhead Door replaced the rollers in the other two cases.
After fixing the photo-eye and replacing the rollers, Action charged the customer $157. In the other two cases, AA Able's technician replaced the rollers, but their total bills were $406 and $338. In one scene, AA Able's technician was shown telling the customer that he charged only "$15 apiece instead of the (usual) $20."
In one of the cases of replaced rollers, Lea Thompson issued a stinging accusation against the industry: "He tried to sell him rollers, which in the garage door business, seem to be a quick, easy way to run up the bill."
In Defense of Rollers
Even though our three interviewed dealers showed no support for AA Able, the three did, however, defend the action of replacing plastic rollers while on a service call.
Phil McGregor of Plano Overhead Door said, "I tell my guys that if the customer has plastic rollers, the sleeve type, then the customer needs new rollers. But we don't automatically change them, we recommend them, and let them decide."
At Plano Garage Door, Raymond Kimbrell indicated that, if rollers are needed, it's a legitimate service. "Sometimes, selling good rollers is the right thing to do," he said. "They didn't say anything about that on the Dateline show."
"Rollers are the number one thing that causes doors to derail," added Gary Staats of Action Door. "If the rollers are questionable or bad, we recommend replacing them."
He, too, objected to Dateline's insinuation that replacing rollers is an easy way to run up the bill. "We've been here 18 years," he added. "We don't make it a practice to sell parts that people don't need."
Home inspection expert Ron Brackett, however, said he knows that steel rollers are better than plastic rollers. However, he contends that the rollers in the investigation were not worn out and did not need to be replaced.
"We checked that out in advance," he told us. Brackett noted that he has personally installed as many as 50 garage doors and openers.
Nonetheless, Staats is concerned that Dateline's show will discourage technicians from replacing rollers even if the customer badly needs them. He also thinks some homeowners may refuse new rollers and later get hurt when the rollers fail.
"Who's going to take responsibility then?" he asked.
The Evils of Commission-Paid Technicians?
Another stinging accusation on the program came not from Dateline, but from the alleged owner of AA Able Overhead Door. In the broadcast, Lea Thompson reported that this "owner" said, "Repairmen get paid strictly on how much they bring in, so there is an incentive to charge higher prices."
Using commission-paid subcontractors seems to be a common practice in the Dallas area. Even though all of Plano Overhead Door's technicians are on salary, McGregor said, "A lot of installers in this area are working on commission. They're essentially writing their own salary."
"When our guys make an add-on sale," he added, "they do not get a commission; they just get a pat on the back. He did the customer a favor."
Raymond Kimbrell of Plano Garage Doors uses both full-time employees and subcontractors to do service work. But he said that using subcontractors is not a problem: "These guys make enough money where they don't need to overcharge anybody."
Gary Staats also defended the practice, noting that he started out in the door business working as a subcontractor. And, ever since he opened Action Door in 1982, he has used subcontractors exclusively for all his service work.
Staats has determined industry standard prices, and he watches all his invoices to see if the technicians overcharge customers. If it happens, he noted, "they (the subs) know they'll lose their job over it."
SPECIAL REPORT IV
An Unhappy Ending
Was Dateline Fair?
Was Dateline's program fair to garage door dealers? That depends who you ask.
The anonymous dealer who originally informed us of the Dateline program "found this broadcast … biased toward the industry."
Gary Staats of Action Door certainly agrees. When asked if he thought the broadcast was fair, he emphatically responded, "No, I did not."
He then added, "There are some guys who needed to get burnt on that show. We got washed in with them, but we were no part of that."
The two dealers who provided good service in the program felt somewhat differently. Phil McGregor took exception to Dateline's accusation about the abuse of roller sales, but "overall, though," he added, "I think the program was a fairly accurate portrayal of what doormen are doing in this area."
Raymond Kimbrell also objected to Dateline's roller accusation, but felt the program was "probably" fair in that "they talked about not taking advantage of people."
Unlike the door dealers, home inspector Ron Brackett had the advantage of knowing more about all the footage collected by Dateline. "I thought it was a very fair and balanced story overall," he noted.
"I wish they would've spent more time on the good repairmen who went the extra mile for the customer. But I realize that doesn't make as good of press."
Assessing the Damage
As luck would have it, the Jan. 4 episode was one of the most popular Dateline NBC shows in months. Lindsey Schwartz, the producer for that segment of Dateline, told us the ratings were the best in at least four months. For the week of Dec. 31 – Jan. 6, 2002, in spite of competing with the popular New Year's Day football games, Friday's Dateline still made the top 15 shows of the week.
Specifically, that Dateline segment ranked #13 in the Nielsen ratings for the week, a leap from #28 the week before. The show reached an estimated 9.9 million homes and even surpassed the hit series, The West Wing.
"We had lots of viewers that night," said producer Schwartz. "And we got a ton of e-mail."
During the week after the Dateline broadcast, Action Door's sales dropped by about 60 percent, according to Staats. About two months later, his numbers had slowly improved, but were still not quite back to normal.
Even though Action Door was certainly damaged, "I believe this Dateline story hurts garage door dealers across the country," said Staats.
But dealers aren't the only ones who took a hit from the program. "NBC's Dateline story … is a shocking reminder that we still have a long way to go concerning who we are as an industry," added Ken Roehl of Chamberlain, DASMA's past-president.
A Black Eye for Everyone
(Sidebar for this segment: 15 Ways to Demonstrate Your Honesty)
"Crooks" was a term used in the broadcast. Near the end of the program, Dateline interviewed Professor John Banzhaff of George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. Banzhaff said, "People who do rip-offs, like any other crook -- and they are crooks -- try to look for opportunities of convenience."
Unfortunately, viewers may come away from the Dateline program concluding that many garage door technicians, too, are "crooks." DASMA President Richard Brenner of Amarr Garage Doors feels that's unfortunate.
"Most garage door dealers are ethical and upstanding people," said Brenner. "They coach little league, volunteer for charity, and help people with the largest moving object in their home and business."
"In some industries," he continued, "there are the bad apples that try to rip off consumers. They cause a black eye for everyone. This NBC piece means that door dealers and manufacturers must work even harder to improve our image and be professionals with all our customers."
Improving our image is a task that will be neither quick nor easy.
Got any ideas?