How to deal with crackpots

July 27, 2006
I once had a physics professor who served as a referee on a peer-review journal.

The journal would occasionally get papers from nonacademics whose theories could only be described as lunatic fringe. Journal reviewers would typically send these people a brusque rejection letter. That policy changed the day one of these cranks showed up in the journal offices. He caused a scene with the receptionist and had to be removed by the cops.

At that point reviewers came up with a form letter for submissions from obvious nuts. Written in an apologetic tone, it said the journal couldn't accept the paper because there were no reviewers available qualified to evaluate it.

Companies that supply engineered components generally don't have to deal with individuals convinced they are undiscovered Einsteins. But buyers of motion-control equipment occasionally know little about engineering and suspect even less. As with crackpot theorists, diplomacy comes in handy when faced with the would-be machine builder who is well intentioned but cheerfully unlearned.

"Some of these people have no idea what they are doing. On top of that, they may be looking for the wrong thing entirely," says an engineer at Lin Engineering, a motor and drive supplier in San Jose. Application engineers there say they try to be patient with phone calls that start off something like this:

"So how fast, exactly, do you want the motor to turn?"

"Oh, real slow." Forbearance is also the byword at Galil Motion Control

near Sacramento. Galil has been making motion controllers for some time, long enough that some of its equipment winds up on eBay. So it often fields calls about products that haven't been in its catalog for years. The fun starts when a backyard mechanic gets hold of an old Galil motion board and quickly gets in over his head. As it becomes clear the conversation is going nowhere, Galil tries to gently point the caller to the tutorials on its Web site.

Problems come if callers don't get the hint. If somebody is abusing its help desk, Galil engineers tell them they need to buy support.

But sometimes they just don't get it. Occasionally these conversations turn into calls nobody wants, distinguished by screaming and verbal abuse. Thankfully, most don't get to this point. The vendors we talked to say the few that do go down this path get a forceful response. It is one of the few cases when the customer most definitely isn't right.

Oriental Motor in southern California adopts a zero-tolerance policy on these situations that is typical. Application engineers there end things fast at the first sign of verbal abuse, and a company vice president usually calls back and invites the caller not to contact the company again. It might have been nuisances like this that Will Rogers had in mind when he said diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

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