Handshakes are history; read the fine print, consultant says

Product purchase gone wrong burns veterinarian

August 26, 2008 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Poland, Ohio — When Dr. John Daugherty encountered a company selling EKG and blood pressure monitors at a June conference, the equipment appeared to be just what he needed.

Not one to make irrational purchases, the Poland, Ohio, veterinarian thought he had researched the $5,000 investment. A handshake with the salesman and some paperwork sealed the deal, and within days, Daugherty signed a lease to receive the equipment.

Yet it wasn’t long before the small-animal practitioner realized the purchase failed to meet his expectations. Believing there was a return policy based on initial sales conversations, he spent $75 to insure his packages and mailed them off to the company, which refused the delivery.

“They told me the deal I signed was with a leasing agency and the company no longer owned the equipment because they had sold my account to them. They said I was stuck with it.”

Daugherty aired his encounter on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), and company officials eventually agreed to refund his purchase, at their expense.

But bad publicity isn’t a reliable means for settling consumer claims, says Jon Dittrich, VIN consultant and founder of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Profit Profile Corporation. While companies need satisfied, repeat customers to be profitable, Dittrich points out that its up to consumers to make smart decisions. That means reading an agreement before signing it.

“Legal documents are set up for the advantage of the person wanting you to sign the agreement,” he says. “Their attorneys make sure they get all the advantages in the deal. It’s critical that you read it. When most people who get surprised on something like this, it’s usually not a happy event.”

That advice might seem like commonsense, but Daugherty counters that most veterinarians aren’t apt to understand such legal language. “The lease was for 12 months, no interest. I thought it was simple financing,” he says.

Still, Dittrich contends that lease agreements are widespread in the equipment sales arena, so it’s incumbent upon consumers to know what to expect. The way the system works is that the company makes the deal with a consumer and sells the transaction to a leasing company in order to receive the proceeds up front, minus a fee. It’s a deal that increases a company’s cash flow, he explains, and it’s legal.

“Salesmen aren’t agents of a leasing company; they don’t have the authority to grant terms of the agreement,” Dittrich says. “That’s why it’s in your best interest to read everything before you sign and ask questions from there.”

He adds that the ultimately, the contract is between the lessee and the lessor, not the company where the equipment is sold or manufactured.

“This is a lesson to be learned from the school of hard knocks,” he says. “These lessons are usually very expensive, and the person always remembers them.”

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