Part 6: RV Owner is republished with the permission of the RV Daily Report (now defunct). Original publish date August 2016.
Part 6: RV Owners
The entire RV industry revolves around RV owners. They buy the motorhomes and travel trailers that keep manufacturers, dealerships and service centers employed. They stay at RV parks that keep amenity-filled campgrounds open. RV owners are a fun-loving bunch of people who are “living the dream” of travel and adventure they have seen advertised all over the internet, television and print publications.
They have a lot of untapped power. But, they too, are contributing to the demise of the RV industry. How can that be? How can they be the foundation of the industry and be weakening it at the same time? Let’s take a look.
RV Owners are Enablers
Anyone who buys an RV should be doing due diligence on the purchase by investigating the manufacturer that built the unit and the dealership that sells it. There are plenty of venues on the web where people can read what others are saying about products and companies. It won’t take much effort at all to stumble upon them.
Buyers can go on a host of social media platforms and simply post a question in active RV groups, go have lunch and come back to find dozens, if not hundreds, of responses. They can go to a campground, pay the $5 to $10 visitor fee and simply walk up to current RV owners to ask questions. Most don’t mind talking about their experiences. Often specific brands throw rallies that offer opportunities to find out more about their RVs.
So, there is no excuse for ignorance. If a buyer walks into a transaction blind, he does so by choice. But, when it comes to plunking down hard-earned cash, why do RV owners reward companies with the worst reputations for product quality and customer service? It comes down to cash.
“Yes, the forums say this brand has a hideous history of product quality right off the lot, but look at that price! It’s too good to be true! Indeed it is!
“I know that dealership has horrible reviews for service after the sale, but I can’t buy that RV anywhere else for that price!” Spoiler alert: There’s a reason for that, and we will talk about it soon.
“The reviews I read all say the RV breaks down repeatedly, but I just LOOOOOVE the floorplan and the cute little backsplash behind the kitchen sink!
If you want to know why some companies in the RV industry continue to sell junk, it’s because someone is willing to pay for it. Like huckster David Hannum so famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Don’t get me wrong. Some RV manufacturers with wonderful reputations for producing quality RVs stand behind the products they build. Sure, a problem might sneak out of the factory every now and then, but the companies quickly respond and make it right for the customers. These firms have a long-term plan for their companies that involve creating customers for life. They know if customers are happy with their first RVs, chances are good they’ll upgrade to a bigger or better unit within a few years. They understand brand loyalty and really, truly want to stake the success of their company upon a foundation of quality and service.
However, there are other RV manufacturers, which are quite easily identifiable on social media, that take a different approach. The more RVs the president sees driving off the factory lot, the happier he is. He doesn’t care if the customer ever comes back or buys another one someday, nor does he care if the dissatisfied owner trashes his firm on social media. His philosophy is “If we build it cheaply enough, they will pay–and pay–and pay.
When complaining about poor quality RVs, people often hear the phrase “An RV is a rolling earthquake traveling against hurricane force winds – you need to expect things to break.” It is true that RVs bounce around A LOT. The potholes on some highways and campground roads are big enough to knock the RV back to 1982. But winds aren’t considered to be “hurricane force” until they exceed 74 miles per hour, and most RVs aren’t driven that fast – nor should they be.
After repeated problems with broken buildings caused by hurricanes and earthquakes, government agencies in in many states insisted that building materials and structural designs be beefed up so that homes could withstand the wind and shaking with minimal problems. RV owners should insist that manufacturers do the same and use building materials and structural reinforcements to ensure that the products don’t fall apart when traveling one or two hours down the road.
Again, it all comes down to cost. Would you rather pay more for a quality RV that allows for joyful, hassle-free experiences and maybe one trip to a repair center a year? Or would you rather save money up front, but invest hours of time and thousands of dollars later having the RV serviced after every use?
Just like family members of addicts who look the other way at self-destructive behaviors or claim that the problem is being “managed,” RV owners enable poor quality and hideous service within the RV industry by financially rewarding those companies providing it. There is indeed a sucker born every minute.
Okay, everyone loves a bargain. I get it and I shop for bargains, too. But some RV owners are taking up the time of RV salespeople to demonstrate and test drive RVs at one dealership, then going home and buying the same unit from another online dealership that has absolutely no vested interest in the customer. The buyer shows up, signs a contract and drives off with an RV thinking it is exactly the same one he saw at the other dealership. They pat themselves on the back for their financial prowess. Then, a few weeks later, the new owner screams at the top of his lungs in frustration because he can’t get the new RV fixed.
[Note: eliminate this problem by always having the RV inspected by a Certified Inspector or at least a mobile RV repair person. The money spent ($300+) can save thousands on repairs later. It can also prevent you from buying a “lemon” with no way to get rid of it.]
Internet retailers proudly claim they are doing customers a favor by saving them significant money by selling RVs at $1,000 over invoice, or something crazy like that. Yet, they don’t truly inspect the RVs to make sure everything is working well when the buyer picks it up. The dealership washes the outside, dusts the inside, makes sure the lights work, the stovetop lights, the microwave comes on, the air conditioner starts, the furnace ignites and that there are no glaring irregularities that might catch the attention of a first-time RV buyer. But, that’s about all.
When doing business with these dealerships, RV owners beware! You are being duped and the money you save now will be spent later exponentially in fixing the RV. In fact, you’ll spend far more than you ever hoped to save when factoring in your time to transport and pick up the RV from a service center – if you can find one – and the time lost because you can’t use the RV.
There are RV dealerships in America that understand the greed of consumers so well that they actually price the RVs lower and lower based on how far away the customer lives from the dealership. Buyers will get a nice discount if they live 500 miles away, a significant discount if they’re 1,000 miles away and why? Because the dealers know darn well the buyer is highly unlikely to ever drive back for service, which means his firm won’t have to futz around with un-reimbursed warranty claims.
The dealer just chalks up another sale and the more sales his company makes, the bigger discounts it gets from manufacturers. Apparently, the builders could care less whether it is ethical to produce orphaned owners so long as the president sees another RV hobbling away from the plant at warp speed to replace the one just sold.
The industry tolerates these internet sellers and RV owners reward them, so why change?
Is Amazon Really Your Friend
Many RVers are turning to Amazon to do their shopping for RV parts and supplies. They can place an order online 24×7 and, thanks to Amazon Prime, have it delivered to their door within two days – if not the same day in some markets. Consumers enjoy the pricing and convenience up until the point they are traveling and need a replacement part or supplies.
Then, they appreciate the convenience of having a local dealership stocking product for immediate purchase. Some dealerships have $500,000 or more of inventory just sitting on shelves waiting for people to come in and buy the products. Yes, they need to mark up the price to cover the cost for store space, display equipment, people to staff the department and to make a return on the money tied up in inventory. So. . .owners shouldn’t balk at paying a bit more to walk into a store and walk out with products five minutes later.
However, if people don’t buy products from dealerships, the dealers won’t stock them. And when you really need something hours before you leave on vacation or after you arrive somewhere, don’t get upset when the local dealer doesn’t have the supplies you need on hand.
Social media “Experts”
I love social media, especially Facebook. I have found RV owners to be tremendously helpful when I ask questions and need advice. It’s like having a big family willing to share their experiences to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes.
Beware of the troll or fire-starter that often participates in these groups to feed his ego. Trust but verify by always finding at least one other verifying comment before moving forward on any advice. Bad information gets passed around for years even though it has been denounced many times by real experts. Get at least one other matching opinion before accepting the information as valid.
Camping is supposed to be a fun experience and people go camping to escape the stress of life and enjoy a memorable time with their friends or family. But campgrounds are like big crowded neighborhoods, especially on summer weekends – and especially when parks separate campsites by the length of an awning plus 8 inches.
That’s why it is essential for people to play nice, extend grace and work to maintain some semblance of community. For the most part, 98 percent of all people showing up at campgrounds are responsible adults who bring kids who may be rambunctious and full of energy, but generally understand rules and boundaries.
But it only takes that 2 percent to ruin a weekend or vacation for the rest of the families at the campground. They play loud music or keep their outdoor televisions blaring well into the night. They shout, scream, swear, berate their kids in public, throw trash into the fire pits or leave it all over the site. Their kids think they own the campground and begin to bully other children, take things that don’t belong to them, harass dogs, disobey street signs on their bikes, and cut through other campsites. Being parked next to one of these dipsticks for a night or two is enough to discourage RVers from using this park for their next outing.
Walmartians Go Camping
Stores like Walmart, Lowes, Flying J, Cracker Barrel and others offer a very valuable service to the RVing public. They allow people to spend the night in their parking lots at absolutely no cost – BUT THEY ARE NOT CAMPGROUNDS. People traveling from Point A to Point B over a few days just want to pull in and get some rest before heading out again at the crack of dawn. They are very appreciative of the no-cost option.
They generally go in the store and ask for permission first. Then they reward the generosity by purchasing a few groceries, tools or other supplies. They next day, they pull out without any fanfare and head on down the road.
But dipsticks are ruining it for the rest of us. These people show up, park wherever they want to, drop the levelers, extend the slides, pull out the awnings, plop down ground mats and fold out camp chairs – and bring their loud music, all-night generators and trash with them. They may spend a night or two – or three – in the parking lot applauding themselves for their frugality. Not only don’t they buy anything at the stores, they leave behind all their trash in the parking lot for employees to pick up.
Proper waste disposal
It is just wonderful when RV owners find it too inconvenient or too expensive ($10) to dump their holding tanks in an appropriate place and simply open up the valves in parking lots, highways, rest areas and residential neighborhoods. Some have even dumped tanks on campsites that don’t have sewer connections just before they drive away.
Not only is it a major violation of every health law, it’s just plain wrong and disgusting. I have heard stories about newbies accidentally putting the sewer connection in underground boxes where campground owners place water hookups to help keep them from freezing. That is bound to happen given the lack of proper education for RV owners.
What I am talking about is deliberate efforts to dump holding tanks and simply drive away leaving the stench and mess behind for others to deal with. RV owners need to be especially mindful of ensuring proper sewer connections at campsites. The dirty little secret is that there is so much fecal matter in the ground around some septic drains that if government health departments ever tested the soil, the site would be cordoned off as a hazardous waste zone.
I was at an RV park in southern California a few months ago where a woman was attempting to dump her holding tanks for the first time at the campground dump station. Rather than asking someone for help in connecting the hose, which she didn’t even have out, she just opened the valves and jumped out of the way as black and gray water poured out of the compartment and splattered all over the dump station, surrounding area and herself.
The industry should play a big role in teaching people how to dump holding tanks, but most dealerships don’t actually take customers to a septic station and allow them to connect the hoses under the valves, and the equipment has been known to fail or disconnect while in use.
But there are ample videos on Facebook that demonstrate the proper way to empty tanks as well – and the videos are accessible by smartphone right at the compartment bay. So, consumers really have no excuse for not doing it the correct way. In the end, it is consumers who bear full responsibility for dumping the tanks.
Yet, if the industry does not get serious about addressing this issue, it is only a matter of time before government agencies declare dumping tanks to be a health hazard. They will dictate that only trained technicians in hazmat suits be allowed to dump tanks for consumers. Just imagine the lines on checkout day as everyone waits for the one certified campground employee to dump tanks for dozens of RV owners at the only dump station on property.
You can expect that campgrounds won’t offer the service for free either, considering the regulatory red tape with which they must comply to create a certified and cordoned off dump zone.
Kudos to dealers like Lazydays RV Centers in Tucson, AZ and Tampa, FL. They offer a real training class to their customers as part of their service. It covers all the basics and allows the new owner to take charge right from the parking lot.
Community after community after community it seems is passing ordinances that prohibit RV parking in residential neighborhoods. This is especially true in southern California and major metropolitan areas. Often the laws are passed to prevent vagrants from parking RVs in residential areas for days or weeks at a time.
Other times, the laws are passed because non-RV owners run to elected officials to complain about the “unsightly blight” caused by an RV parked in the driveway, front or back yard, or along the side of the house. In these cases, it is RV owners that bear the brunt of the blame for not being good neighbors.
It is, in fact, difficult to see around RVs parked on the street, and nobody likes seeing RVs parked in yards with 3-foot weeds growing around them. It is because the storage problem is so prevalent in some areas that people simply opt to park the RV permanently at a campground, which diminishes the number of sites available for weekend and traveling RVers.
In communities that still allow RV storage at home, owners would be wise to be good neighbors and be proactive to ensure the RV is parked out of the way.
The Right Way to Make a Complaint
When problems come up, as they are sure to when owning an RV, there is a right way and wrong way to go about getting things corrected. The wrong way is to barge into a dealership or call a manufacturer and unload a stream of profanity at the first person encountered or whoever answers the phone. I assure you, receptionists are not paid enough to listen to your tantrum, nor are they in any position to do anything to resolve the situation.
The people who can effect change are often isolated behind multiple layers of bureaucracy and you’ll never get in front of them when you’re on the war path. They’ll stay at their desks pouring over balance sheets while their foot soldiers take the bullets.
It is true that you catch more butterflies with fruit than with acid. You’re more likely to get things done to your satisfaction by simply being nice. You can go “momma bear” later, if necessary.
The right way to complain is as follows:
Call or visit the business and calmly explain the problem and ask to speak to someone who could render assistance. When that person arrives on the scene, again calmly explain the problem and provide as many details as possible, but don’t ramble on and on and on. If you have called before, remind the person of that and politely point out you’re just trying to get the problem fixed
DOCUMENT each transaction. Get the date, time, person’s name and title and write down the response that was offered and, if possible, get the company to put the resolution in writing, too.
Even if you have to call again and again, get the name of every person you talk to. The business owner has to get involved, he or she will want to know where the weak link is in the process. If that didn’t work and the problem still exists, or the company failed to follow through on a call for the desired solution, chances are good this person has the power to ensure that a problem can be corrected to your satisfaction . In fact, you may be offered a perk for your patience.
If that doesn’t seem to do the trick, go public with the issue. Now is the time to vent on social media or go to the local media with your story–armed with the volume of documentation you’ve been collecting. You may learn others had similar experiences with the same problem. That gives you even more ammunition to push your case forward.
If the company still won’t back its product or deliver on promises, then it’s time to bring out the heavy artillery. The RV industry is, for the most part, self regulating and it wants to stay that way. Complaining to government regulators and consumer protection bureaus and by showing every documented step you have done to seek a proper resolution will be helpful.
Often the regulators can apply pressure on the business to force a particular resolution. If that doesn’t work and you get caught up in a barrage of red tape, then take the complaint to state AND federal elected officials. RV transactions may take place at the local level, but the products cross state lines to become a federal issue.
Elected officials are the key holders to the law books. Too many complaints will invite regulation the industry desperately wants to avoid. If all you get is a form letter reply or referral back to one of the agencies you’ve already contacted, then it’s time to go nuclear and hire an attorney.
If the industry refuses to voluntarily change and do what’s right in standing behind the products it sells, then it will be forced to do so by the courts through monetary judgments. If law firms sense there are many RVers with similar problems, then it becomes a class action case.
It won’t help you much, but it will bring the industry to its knees. Many times product liability lawyers will represent clients for free in exchange for a significant part of any settlement that is paid out. As the industry is made more aware of the problems consumers face, I don’t expect that to be necessary.
The big carrot is self-regulation. There is a lot of freedom in being able to set your own standards and rules. The RV industry will do everything it can to preserve that autonomy. The stakes are high for consumers who invest tens of thousands of dollars into buying recreation vehicles and other products. They may not be allowed at the discussion tables yet, but they do hold an ace in their pockets.
The fastest way to bring about change in the RV industry is to simply stop rewarding horrible quality and poor service. That’s harder to do with all the consolidation giving enormous power to a few key players. The bottom line is to remember that owning an RV is a luxury, not a necessity.
RV Industry Death Spiral Part 1: Introduction
RV Industry Death Spiral Part 2: Manufacturers Race to the Bottom
RV Industry Death Spiral Part 3: Suppliers in Tough Spot
RV Industry Death Spiral Part 4: Dealers Drop the Ball on Service
RV Industry Death Spiral Part 5: Campgrounds Lose Capacity