Editor’s note: Sorry for the delay since the last posting. Talk about paying attention to detail! As a reminder, Debbie was telling us last time that “I decided that I needed to learn to read the service contracts that various companies were offering more carefully.” Enjoy.

One service contract that came from a company with a promising used scope was really good ... for them. For a large chunk of change, they promised to come clean my microscope twice a year and fix it on an emergency basis once. I only had to cover the travel costs of the technician, the parts, hourly rate for the technician if travel and service time exceeded nine days in the year, and all costs associated with any problems that were related to fluctuations in electricity, magnetic fields, unspecified changes in the environment, etc.

That contract, when carefully reviewed, seemed like an invitation to give them a chunk of change and get absolutely no confidence that I would have any idea of what it would really cost to keep the instrument running. As I was bemoaning this situation with someone, we realized that some companies would like it because it causes them to spend money in a regular way. It becomes easier to tell your boss that you need this money in the budget every year. It inflates the baseline maintenance budget, so it makes it harder for your boss to cut your budget too severely in the future. Great - I guess that might work for a large organization, but not for a very small company!

Well, the good part about all this, I suppose, is that as I force myself to read the details of these contracts, I see that every contract is different. Now I have a foundation for better negotiation when/if I get a new microscope. One thing for sure that I know I need to ask is “What do you mean by ‘providing service to ensure that the image quality is optimized’?” Something to that effect appears in the contract I have been signing for a few years now, and it is extremely rare that I have had anything resembling an optimized image. Maybe I need to try to work a series of images of a stable sample into the agreement. Just because the photos are pretty after the refurbishment doesn’t mean they’ll be pretty after they move the microscope.

Even if I purchase a new microscope, having a sample that is less than perfectly “photogenic” to check the image quality when the preventive maintenance is done is probably a good idea. As my son the law student tells me, the courts try to figure out the intent of the parties if there is a dispute. Maybe, but in my case, it isn’t really about going to court, which is too expensive and time-consuming for most things. It’s about understanding what the service or product really is. When we buy a professional service, it is obvious that in most cases the service provider is the only one who really understands the contract, and he/she writes it for self-protection from problems already experienced. 

At some point we have to trust somebody if we want that type of service or product, which is why learning to see connections between facts is so important. When we learn to see connections better, we also learn to spot things that are out of place more readily. They start to jump out at us, whether it is the certainty that a material imperfection is causing a part to crack or whether a contract is written in a way to favor one party excessively. It’s a lifelong practice, but fortunately nobody is giving grades. One lesson adds to another and another, and pretty soon you notice yourself making fewer really stupid mistakes.