By on September 29, 2012

For the most part, I’m trying to avoid the whys and wherefores behind the topics I write about in this column. I’d just as soon hear from readers as to their opinions about the reasons behind. But there are going to be exceptions to that rule, as far as my postulating about motives.

This entry is one of the exceptions.

I still wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts, though

As I stated in my last entry, in the final analysis—in spite of the opinions voiced on the nature of their vehicles problem—the customer generally sincerely just wanted the problem remedied. There were no ulterior motives I could detect in their erroneous observations; I just appreciated that their scope of experience was limited in comparison to mine, and I took what usefulness I could out of their efforts to help.

But then, there were those occasions when I highly doubted the sincerity of the customer’s statements. In this entry, I’m going to relate a couple of those occasions to you.Customer mis-diagnosis has often related to the fuel system. I have had many people make the assumption that the fuel pump had failed, when in fact, the problem was nothing more than a lack of fuel in the tank—a fact that would often be wildly denied by the vehicles owner.

One customer seemed to have painted himself—certainly with some outside help—into a diagnostic corner. By the time he brought his problem to me—both his and his vehicles—I believe he was convinced that he truly had something unsolvable.

It was a mid-eighties Chevy van with the venerable 350 cubic inch V-8 equipped with throttle-body fuel injection (one of the most bulletproof F.I. systems in the history of the automobile, I might add).

It was experiencing long crank times before finally firing, when cold, and sluggish acceleration—worse during the warm-up process.

During the initial consultation, I mentioned that the problem sounded like it was something to do with fuel delivery and asked if he had ever had the fuel pump changed. He emphasized that he’d taken the van to numerous repair shops, including the local Chevy dealer—who had actually clamed to have tested the pump via a fuel pressure test (none of the other shops had reportedly even done this), and showed me a printout of their findings. They had entered a pressure value that indicated the fuel pump was fine.

When I questioned that finding, and stated that I was going to perform a fuel system pressure test, he got very uncomfortable with that. Some other customers might have felt similarly, perhaps because they didn’t want to pay for a procedure that had already been done; and indeed, this customer let me know that money was tight with him, too.

I emphasized that, based on the description of the symptoms, the fuel pressure test was the very first thing I was going to do, or I wasn’t going to touch his vehicle.

He relented, but not without a struggle.

Sure enough, my pressure test results indicated a pump that was operating at a steady pressure just about one-third of the required normal pressure!

When I informed him of this, he was in disbelief. I had to tell him that if fuel pump replacement didn’t cure the problem with his vehicle, I wouldn’t charge him for anything. He was very reluctant to agree to THIS, even when I low-balled him on the price of the job. He finally did approve it, but called back about an hour later to cancel the job.

It was too late.

I’d already had the fuel tank most of the way removed, and now he was facing the prospect of paying me for the diagnosis and reinstallation of the fuel tank, with the guarantee that the problem was STILL GOING TO BE THERE!

It was then that I was certain that he was actually having a big problem with the prospect of a normally operating vehicle!

What would there be to complain about NOW?

And since he couldn’t use the poorly functioning vehicle as an excuse to shirk responsibilities, what NEW story was he going to have to invent?

Now that this problem with his vehicle was going to be solved, what OTHER unknown possible problem was going to come up, next?

And would he have to go through the same agonizing process to address the new problem?

But then, the prospect of leaving money on the table—with nothing more than another mechanic’s opinion of what was wrong with his van to show for it—was not appealing, either.

I sensed some sort of a meltdown in progress, and the ensuing conversation took on the dynamic of that between a therapist and patient.

In the end, he expressed solidarity for our earlier agreement, and I was able to finish the job, with the van performing better than he could ever remember.

He seemed truly relieved; and I sensed that the fact that his van was repaired played only a small role in this. It was more like I’d helped him to reach a personal milepost. He trusted somebody’s word, in the face of numerous “obstacles”, and dared to move forward with his lifI hope he can maintain the momentum.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.














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26 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: “It’s Anything But THAT!”—Detecting the Motive Behind the Exclamation— Part One...”

  • avatar

    Many years ago when I used to be a Ford zone rep, I encountered a shocking amount out people who were flat out lying about problems they were having with their vehicle in an attempt to get me to buy the car back. The typical complaints were stalling and misfires, which were both difficult to detect and verify with the engine controllers of the time. Once the dealers made an attempt to fix the car, they kicked the door to lemon law open, especially if they made several more attempts.

    The bottom line with most of these customers was that they simply could not afford the vehicle they bought and they were looking for a way out. One could argue that the dealer shouldn’t have sold them a new car, and I’d agree. The problem was that the lenders (banks/finance companies) they worked with were complicit in creating the problem – these customers had no money for a down payment, so a finance company would not loan them money, even on an $8,000 used car. However, that same finance company would loan them money on a $16,000 new car because there was a manufacturer rebate that was being used as a defacto down payment even thought the customer came to the table with no money. Needless to say, the payment on the new car was far in excess of what the customer could afford, and the mysterious “problems” would start happening a few payments in.

    • 0 avatar

      In certain portions of the USA the newer unaffordable vehicle is parked along the ocean front as the hurricane arrives.

      The flooded, often float-away conveyance is totaled and the purchaser is off-the-hook.

      Note the number of new vehicles parked next to the beach the next time the media reports on the approaching hurricane.

      • 0 avatar

        Remarkably prescient on your part. Sandy hit less than a month after your post and remarkably destroyed a bunch of Fisker Karma’s parked next to the sea…and what’s this? Fisker is in financial trouble? Say it ain’t so.

  • avatar

    I had a Volkswagen repair shop in the 70’s.
    I had my share of “serial” bad customers.

    They usually fell into these categories:
    1. The negotiator…They can not even accept the standard price of an oil change posted on a sign.. What was worse is having to re-nogotiate a second time after the job is done when the bill is being paid.
    2. You caused… You tuned up my car 3 months ago and now my brakes went out.
    3. Cheap ass… You say my wheel cylinders are leaking, I need new shoes, turn the drums, and bleed the brakes. Then the customer says just to change the shoes! If you did the repair as the customer wants this same person would be back when his brakes goes out wanting you to fix the brakes, and at no cost. Each customer visit would go the same way with continuous negotiation that included searching for used parts.
    4. Troubleshoot it for free… You investigate the problem for an hour then call the customer with estimate. He says “never mind, I will change it myself!”. Then you fight about diagnostic charges.

    My solution was to have a cash slush fund box to either purge the repeat serial offenders or convert them.
    I would take the customer’s car to the corner of the lot and meet with the customer. I would then put a full cash refund in their hand if the bill was previously paid or say this present repair bill is free. Then say “I only want satisfied customers and I don’t seem to be able to make you happy. Please go to another shop with your business. This decision is final unless I get an apology and the bill paid in full. Please go now and think about it” Then walk away.

    90% would come back and turn into my best customers. If they did not come back it was still a win and you kept your reputation.

    • 0 avatar

      I brought my ’88 Pontiac in to the dealer when the SES light came on and the AC would not run. After sitting all day the car was undiagnosed and they were looking for my $25 GM warranty deductible. I told them no diagnosis no money – and then I walked the service manager around the car, showing him how the lower dashboard was still disassembled, and the greasy black stains on the door panel and rug. When I asked him if, in his opinion, this represented quality work, he gave me that “impossible to satisfy” line.
      This happened to be John McNamara’s Pontiac-Buick-GMC and the place was shut down shortly afterward. (Wiki it) Apparently maintaining a service clientele was not a priority; reading about his downfall gave me a little payback.

      • 0 avatar

        We always took care of new customers and our repeat customers even if we lost money on the transaction.
        If a customer can identify something you did wrong, you had better admit to it and jump on it to fix the issue.
        It was great satisfaction to have happy customers and you needed them for your long term business model.

        A customer that is just getting brake jobs, oil changes, and valve adjustments will eventually need an engine rebuild, front suspension, etc. (especially being a VW air cooled!) You need to keep that customer happy cradle to grave. That customer will bring you other customers.

        The “impossible to satisfy” and “ask to leave” comment was about serial offenders. You cannot keep your other customers happy with someone hanging around that is always creating drama. Especially the negotiators that made you appear to be over charging when in fact we were the lowest cost in town. You need to treat their bad behaviour like that of a child.

        It is funny, when I get the serial offenders to come back and apologize they then become your best customer. They usually do this after trying somewhere else and realize that we are a place they can trust. The converted serial offender will then even brag about your shop in the waiting room to the other customers and to their friends.

      • 0 avatar

        Do you still feel good knowing that McNamara was offered a plea bargain and is now living on your dime in federal witness relocation? It seems like having 436 million dollars in your pocket elevates you above the law no matter how you acquire it. I love it that GMAC changed their lending procedures and added personnel to help McNamara scam them by claiming to sell imaginary vehicles illegally to a foreign country. I don’t feel too good about GM living off our dime either.

  • avatar

    I don’t think the guy in the story was a liar or a “bad” customer.

    It sounds like maybe he had some bad experiences with a mechanic in the past and was really nervous about having one fix his van, especially replacing a part that the dealer had told him was fine. It sounds like once he got the van back all fixed up, he was happy.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve had my share of lousy mechanics and a limited budget. Time to start learning to fix your own vehicle and investing in some decent tools. You know what? Twenty years later I have some of those same el-cheapo tools and I haven’t had my car in the shop but once in 241K miles and my other car in the shop but once for an alignment. I have some change invested in tools but along the way I realized that I like working on antique cars and do that for a hobby. For years when i was single I’d buy a car, fix it up over six months or more and then sell it essentially driving for free all the time.

  • avatar

    As an ex Indie VW Shop Owner I wonder if maybe the VW Customers were the worst ? or perhaps just the cheapest ? .

    It was essentially the same for me back then .

    I remember one crazy old Lady who’s battered & mangled ’62 Beetle was barely running and she’d keep hanging around trying to second guess or negotiate a cheaper job even after the R.O. was signed and I’d begun working on it….

    She once said ” I used to take my Bug to the best VW Shop in Town ” , after the tenth time she said that in 15 mintues I tried to be polite and asked why then she was here at my Shop , she said ” they told me to never come back again ” and had no idea why…..

    Thankfully only a minute percentage of Customers were this way , I really appreciate reading your thoughts on this subject , keep ’em coming .


    • 0 avatar

      Never buy cheap cars from cheap owners. Every aircooled VW I’ve ever bought needed a full going over to correct the neglect or missing cooling parts. I basically yank the engine when i get the car home and strip down the long block, cleaning everything, new gaskets and seals, and new paint or at least degreasing. Amazing the amount of neglect those old engines would put up with.

  • avatar

    I just had a problem with my regular car. The yellow wrench light would come on and the radio screen would say “Engine Malfunction, service now!” Ran with a little less power and idle speed was a little higher. Turn engine off, restart, all was fine. It would repeat this every day or two. Took it in to the dealer, found no codes. I kind of think they didn’t believe me. Now I understand why. An hour later the light came on again, took it back in without turning off the engine, found the problem right away. Thottle sensor. I should add I just got the car back from them after they had pulled the transmission to fix a leak, so I was figuring they screwed something up.

  • avatar

    Being the resident gearhead within my social circle, I’ve spent a great deal of time wrenching on my friend’s cars. The one thing I’ve learned time and time again is to not take their lead when diagnosing a problem. Whenever I allowed their uninformed speculation, the opinion of their idiot brother-in-law or the wild-ass guesses made over the phone by another mechanic to guide my work, I invariably regretted it and ended up wasting a lot of time.

    Most of my pals have had the sense to let me do my thing, but for those who won’t, their visit will be quite short. I’ll give you my time, my expertise and even my garage space for free, but I’ll be damned if I’ll lose plasma arguing with you or taking abuse. Thankfully, very few have crossed that line.

  • avatar

    You don’t say, but I assume the van owner was a first time customer. Some people just reflexively believe dealers over independents.
    Unfortunately my preferred mechanic recently retired. He had an almost supernatural ability to diagnose problems, and after years of both myself and friends dealing with him, I trusted him completely. If my engine was burning and he said he needed to replace the rear bumper, I could be sure of two things. I needed a new bumper, and flames would cease shooting out from under my hood.

  • avatar

    I’m someone othe other side of this situation a lot and I can say that the original article is prettty stupid. Maybe the customer was crazy but there are a million reasons he might have been reluctant to have work done other than some deep psychological conflict.

    I’ve had my car in at least 6 different independent shops and four dealerships. Some of the shops have been very helpful and forthcoming and others have screwed me. After the first shop spent a couple years recommending repairs my car didn’t need, I was skeptical for a long time about repairs that it actually DID need. Diagnosis is the worst part because some shops want to charge $40 to diagnose the problem then either don’t find the actual problem and still want the money, or find the problem and then quote me twice what another shop wants to fix it. No thanks.

  • avatar

    While I have never run a retail shop, I worked my way up from mechanic to shop foreman to fleet manager in my industry over the years. We used to get a lot of “help” from operators and drivers, along with a lot of moaning and whining when we didn’t do an engine rebuild every time a truck wouldn’t start. Most people were great but we did have our “serial complainers”. I used to give them a shovel and point them in the direction of the grease trap in the wash bay, which is not an option for retail.
    We did do some commercial work in the form of maintaining smaller fleets for outfits that didn’t want to invest in thier own facilities. I ended up firing a few customers who didn’t want to pay for honest work or liked to argue about what needed repairing at certification time. The customer is not always right, and not all business is good business.
    A few years ago I was in an independant shop that had a nicely printed sign over the counter that read “We deal in value, if price is all you are interested in please deal elsewhere”. It probably puts a few people off but I sure understand the sentiment.

  • avatar

    I’m very lucky that I grew up in a family that consisted of a few car people and I grew up working on cars. I’m 50 years old and have never taken a vehicle to a shop for anything except front end alignments.

    • 0 avatar

      You can even do a front end alignment yourself with an angle gauge, a level surface and a chalk line.

      Having said that I have deferred to good mechanics a few times and they have saved me a lot of time and hassle. Sometimes you can’t beat equipment and no how.

      I had an infuriating scraping noise from my front brakes. Had the wheels off a few times trying to find it. The “Datsun Doctor” in Waterford, MI diagnosed it and only charged me $20 bucks. Apparently the rotors had built up enough rust to rub against the caliper bracket. Otherwise the brakes were fine. I replaced the calipers and the “problem” was solved. He also fixed an engine smell (valve cover gasket leaking) for a very reasonable price. Once you find a good mechanic you stick with him. I will be sad when I move and lose that shop.

      • 0 avatar

        @Disaster: I’ve worked a couple of good mechanics, and they can save you (as a client) a lot of time & money, sometimes even for stuff you can do. It IS really hard to beat equipment and know how.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, I know you can do a front end alignment if you have the proper stuff, but it would be more of a pain in the @$$ than it’s worth to do it at home. I always had my front end aligned after I replaced front end parts, which is easy to do.
        I have plenty of “know how”, and being a car guy I know things about cars that regular run of the mill mechanics don’t know.
        In the very rare instances that I replaced a few parts before finding the actual problem it still worked out cheaper than being ripped off by a garage. By the way, you would have been able to see the rotor rubbing the caliper if you had removed the tire and turned the rotor by hand.
        I have fixed cars for people that weren’t repaired correctly by mechanics in garages.

      • 0 avatar


        I have similar experience and do most things for myself. For the things I can’t do or don’t have the equipment for, I have a network of friends that can generally lend a hand.

        I had a similar experience fixing something on a friend’s 1996 F-150 that a Ford specialty shop screwed up. Once of his front hubs was clicking when turning and upon disassembly, I immediately spotted a washer they had installed backwards. It’s very satisfying to be able to spot things and correct problems with relative ease. Doubly so considering I hadn’t had the front hubs of a Ford truck apart in more than a decade.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      Thanks for reminding me of a great story related to front-end alignments! I’ll run it soon…

  • avatar

    Given the fact that the customer in this example was given a false (and possibly fraudulent) fuel pump reading from the dealership, his reticence to do it again seems perfectly rational. I’m not really clear what point was being made in this article…also, it was a bit hard to read, could definitely have used some editorial proof-reading.

  • avatar

    I tore apart my banana-seat Schwinn way back when and never could get it back together again.

  • avatar

    Every day I thank myself for spending many years and countless amounts of money learning how to diagnose and repair vehicles. I can’t even imagine being a “normal” person and driving the cars I drive without being either 1. Perpetually vehicle off road or 2. Perpetually broke.

    Now with a hoist in the shop in the back yard, I don’t even have the excuse of “ugh that’s hard to get at” or “it’s too cold out” to pay someone to work on my cars.

    I’m lucky I love the business and I love the products otherwise my life would be pure hell.

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