Apologies for the title, but I've got to beat Mike in this contest we have of whose blogs get the most readers. He always name drops and does all sorts of dirty pool to get ahead, but in this case the title really is the absolute meat of the topic.
So, it's not about the bike, or the wheels. What do I mean by that? You can go out in the world and, with a big enough check, buy yourself and your friends several lifetimes worth of the same frames we sell. You could go into business the exact way we have, or some similar way. It would be pretty easy to replicate our wheels as well - especially our aluminum ones. We tell you where every part of them is from, after all. So we're sure as heck not talking about our exclusive or proprietary this, that, or the other thing. We know that everything we sell is composed of components that are really really good and usually great, but the market is full of really really good to great products. We're in a crowd as far as having good stuff goes.
A lot of companies obfuscate the origins of their products. One company sells the exact wheels we do, except that their rims are made expressly for them. This exclusive process involves removing one sticker and replacing it with two others. I have to give a golf clap to the company that is turning their complete use of standard stuff into its own exclusive thing - complete with an acronym! Talk about flipping the script. Maybe we should call our exclusive process "OSBS" for "Off the Shelf Bike Stuff."
Anyhow, we think that the "product" part of our differentiation comes exclusively from our work as filters. We don't have any interest in selling anything that we wouldn't happily use if we were far better cyclists than we are, and we put in a lot of work to ensure that that's the case. Inasmuch as it is about the bike, or rims, or spokes, or hubs, that's it.
We think our key point of differentiation is how we do what we do. You put in one of those "contact us" forms, and it's either Mike or me that's getting back to you - usually with stunning promptness. Basically, all of November's institutional knowledge and ability will be brought to bear on whatever your question is, quickly. I had to chuckle when I read one of the forums this past weekend, and someone (now a customer) posted that he'd sent Mike a message about something at 1pm (on the Sunday of a holiday weekend) and hadn't gotten a response back at 6pm that day. That's expecting a bit much of us (we do have lives and families, go on bike rides, build wheels, pack boxes, and all manner of stuff that prevents us from instant response), but it wasn't too too far from realistic. And as quick as we like to be with response, we also like to have quality responses.
Quality of response is really important to us. The components of a quality response include but are not limited to timeliness (not redundant - a perfect response delivered after it's relevant is not a quality response), how much we addressed the actual question/issue being raised, how much benefit the response has to the person being responded to, the honesty of the response (enormous), the knowledgeability of the response, and the general integrity of the response. Sometimes (but not too often) "we don't know but we'll look into it" is an awesome response. I've called HUGE bike companies with questions that I would have thought would be so dead simple I never would have thought it would be anything other than a layup. In my favorite example, I got an "I don't know" (but anyone answering a customer service line should have have EASY access to the info, except that this guy didn't have any idea what I was actually asking about), and then 4 days later got the wrong answer to a question I didn't ask. If a COMPANY has the answer to what you need, but you can't get ACCESS to that answer, they might as well not have it.
We recently got a picture of a cracked rim in our inboxes. The picture wasn't really all that great, you couldn't make any judgement about what had happened from the picture, and the customer had no idea when or how it had happened. The crack wasn't fatal, and who knows how long it had been there. Mike and I have come to know this customer a bit, and we were comfortable with the fact that there was zero chicanery that was going on, and the customer in fact was only asking us about the process. There was room for it to be either a defect or not, but we made a quick decision to replace the rim, and told the customer so. As you'd expect, he was pretty happy to hear it. I just got a look at the thing yesterday and it seems to me that the spoke hole wasn't drilled at the correct angle. It's not an epidemic thing (remember, there are PLENTY of brands building wheels on the same rims we do), but it's something that could possibly happen. And if it had, this might be the result. Good enough for me. He'll have a rebuilt wheel real soon.
That's not to say that we'll cover anything that could happen. I was doing a cross race a few weekends ago and there was this section of the course where you went through one little mud puddle, then out of it, into another, and then crossed over a paved path. The lip to the path from the mud puddle was pretty ridiculous, and because it came right after the other mud puddle, you really couldn't unweight the front end in time. Throughout my whole race, I thought "someone's going to break either his fork or his neck on that thing" every time I went over it. As it turns out, one of our customers cracked a rim on it. He was following another guy, the guy in front bobbled something, and our guy went into the lip in the worst possible way. He stacked it up pretty hard, and his front rim was toast. That's what crash replacement is for, and ours is as generous as we can possibly make it. He'll have a rebuilt wheel real soon.
Now, consider this: how many other places would even show you this kind of laundry. These things happen every day with bike stuff, at every brand, but I'm sure there aren't too many who would talk about it like we do.
If we're going to air dirty laundry, I'm also going to air some clean laundry. I'm pretty sure that our wheels are put together as well as any out there. I am compulsive about checking out spoke tensions and general build quality of wheels, and the more I see, the more I like how we do things. The number of wheels that are out there where the spokes aren't even in the correct holes is freaking staggering (yes, there are left and right spoke holes, and it's important - your rims will crack like our customer's above, even though his spokes were in the right holes as is always the case in our wheels), but more subtle things that will soon become big errors are out there in force. It says a lot that you'll often hearing of people being "generally happy" with a set of wheels that badly needed truing after the first ride. How? Isn't the wheel being put together as well as is possible a huge part of what you're buying? Likewise people buying frames and then needing to find out what size seatpost clamp or headset to get, or where to find an appropriate cable guide. Who could sell you a frame without either including that stuff, or making it explicitly clear that these things would be excluded and telling you what and where to get what you need? As Mike said someplace else recently, with our frame set you get almost as much set as you do frame.
This kind of stuff results in the actually sort of regular but still thrilling emails we get where people just write us to thank us for selling them a great product. We think the whole service portion is a vital part of the product, and we're really proud that people think of ours what they do.
Okay so this is already halfway to being a book and my arm sort of hurts from patting us on the back.