One of the trickiest parts of selling electronics kits, as we do, is how to handle customer support and returns. I'd estimate that 90% of the problems that users have with DIY Drones gear is due to user error: soldering mistakes, not following the manual properly, issues with their own PC/Mac, or simply misunderstandings and confusion about how to use the products (no doubt sometimes due to documentation that could be improved).
But perhaps 10% of user problems (and only a tiny fraction of all orders, of course) really are due to defective boards, which somehow made it out of our factory with a problem. Although every board is tested and demonstrated working before being shipped, there are some things that our test code doesn't check, such as what happens when that particular board is vibrated or subjected to cold temperatures. And there are other products that we simply resell and don't test, which could have come from their makers faulty (a recent batch of FTDI cables from China had the wires connected in the wrong order, for example).
So how to handle returns? The normal answer for companies that sell finished goods doesn't work for DIY kit sellers, since it's hard to tell whether the problem was due to a manufacturing error or user error. So most such retailers have a clause in their terms of service like this one, from MakerBot (which they discuss here), that pretty much says that the moment you power it on or touch it with a soldering iron, the manufacture's responsibility ends:
Returning Purchased Items. MakerBot Industries accepts returns for any unaffected item within 14 calendar days from the date of receipt of merchandise."Unaffected" means a device has never been assembled, powered up, programmed, or otherwise changed. MakerBot Industries cannot accept returns on purchased items that have had electrical power applied to them, or been otherwise programmed, changed, or affected.
The paradox, of course, is how can you know it's defective before you power it on? In practice, most of these companies will accept returns of products that have been powered on, but typically not if they've been soldered. We wrestled with this and decided to be more explicitly generous in our terms, while still limiting our liability:
Defective products manufactured in house will be replaced within 10 days of receipt, with the same item. All goods are checked before they are sent out. In the unlikely event that goods are faulty, they must be returned, to the DIY Drones store at the address listed on your order invoice. The DIY Drones store will not accept goods that have clearly been used more than the amount needed to evaluate their functionality. If the goods are found to be in working condition, and the lack of functionality is a result of lack of knowledge or assembly error on the customers part, no refund will be made, but the goods will be returned to the user at their expense
So this is a judgement call. Most of the time, when people ship us back "defective" boards, it's clear that they were simply soldered wrong or not defective at all (the user had plugged in their RC gear wrong or loaded the wrong code). In cases of soldering errors, if it's easy to fix we might do that, but if it's really been bungled, we may just send it back. We try to error on the side of being as helpful as possible, but there are limits to what we can do.
We've invested a lot in customer and technical support over the past few months and now have full-time employees doing both. As the MakerBot post linked above points out, this is uncharted territory for open source hardware companies like ours, and we're all trying to find the path that is right for the community but also allows for sustainable businesses. It will evolve over time. But I wanted to let our customers know how we're approaching this, and I welcome suggestions on how to do it even better.