By on September 19, 2012

If I had a dime for every time a customer said that to me while in the process of Repair Order composition… I would have made a lot less money off the ensuing job!

I mean, the whole idea of the pre-repair consultation—at least from my point of view—was and is to get as good an idea as possible about the nature of the vehicle’s problem, so a proper repair can be performed in an expedient, efficient, and cost-effective manner.

The fact that many professional people—including those in the auto repair field—don’t take this approach, and why they don’t, will be a subject for a future entry.

In my earlier, more naïve and trusting days, when a customer would tell me what a problem WASN’T—often with an intimidating amount of conviction—I would give their assessment a fair measure of credence as I approached a solution to the problem.

It was kind of an “innocent until proven guilty” sort of dynamic.

After a couple of jobs where I would have been happy just to have made a dime on the process, I sensed what I considered at the time to be a bizarre pattern being defined.

Over the years, the pattern continued to be supported and proven, to the point that it could actually be stated as some sort of natural law, like the ebb and flow of tides, the lunar phases, or even the rising and setting of the sun:  if the customer said the problem with their vehicle was “anything but THAT”, it would, in fact, be NOTHING OTHER than that! And this fact would be further set and emphasized proportional to the amount of conviction the customer would use to make their point.

I learned not to argue the point of my ironclad “discovery” with the customer, as sometimes I would find that I had talked myself out of a job! The best method would be just to include what I thought it would take to actually get the vehicle running right (at least for demonstration purposes) in the initial estimate price. When I’d show the customer how the problem had been corrected, the perceived contradictory nature of the repair would be a little easier for me to explain, and for them to accept.

Since I’ve been covering some of my experiences with British Cars in the last several entries, I think it’s only fitting that the first germane tale I relate should be about one of them.

It was a mid-eighties Jaguar, not surprisingly. What surprised me a little was that the customer was a tech that had specialized in British Cars for some time, although mostly on older models. Examples from the “Marque of the Leaping Cat” were especially trouble-ridden during the period before the Blue Oval bailout, and I had gained some local renown for performing exceptionally well on such offerings.

While consulting with him, he of course told me about all the things he’d done to address the problem—all of the time, blood, sweat and tears. He was especially proud of the Lucas “Speedlead” spark plug wires he’d installed. In earlier times, I knew those to be the correct wire to use on the XJ-6 models, but I also knew that later models used a different version of the wire he’d installed.

When I raised this issue, he bristled, and I backed off and said that he was probably right, and that it must be something else. In any event, he knew I’d hook it up to my ignition system Oscilloscope, and I’d get a better idea then.

He was right about that, at least.

What the ‘scope pattern indicated was that the aforementioned “pattern” related to customer opinion as to the nature of the problem was again, indeed, repeating.

Apparently, the resistance value of the wire set he installed, while being ideal for earlier contact point-type ignition systems, was not allowing the electronic system this XJ was equipped with to generate the correct spark quality needed.

I installed the proper wire set, and the problem was solved!

The customer was duly pleased—our initial disagreement over the nature of the problem being forgotten. That highlights the real truth of these types of situations: the customer just wants their vehicle FIXED—opinions counting for very little in the final analysis.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Stay tuned for the next entry, where I will cover a couple of them.

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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9 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: “It’s Anything But THAT!”— Famous Last Words That Have Provided More Help Than Hindrance...”

  • avatar

    I agree that if a customer says a problem is “anything but that” and doesn’t give a reason or betrays a lack of understanding, then a more assertive approach is sometimes necessary.

    I recall an old sign in a shop in my hometown that went something like:


    $50/hr if you watch

    $60/hr if you tried to work on it first

    The only thing I find helpful about discussing the problem with the mechanic is that he knows that I’ll be asking about said issue later and I’ll be cognizant of them similarly spitballing on an issue.

  • avatar

    This thread is spot on ! .

    I don’t mind working on old beat to crap vehicles so much , it’s the damned cutomers that screw up the day .


  • avatar

    Absolutely spot on.

  • avatar

    Well repair shops aren’t perfect either. I usually change my own fluids, but I’ve been busy so I had the dealer recently change the differential fluids in my wife’s Jeep. Two weeks later, when I’m driving the Jeep I hear some noise from the rear diff., so I go by the dealer to drop it off since they just serviced it. I was honestly bothered thinking it was going to be expensive. I told the service writer, “You guys just changed fluids,” and he barked at me, “That wouldn’t cause the noise.”

    The next day he calls me as they didn’t hear anything. So I tell them to keep the door open and begin to drive forward or reverse while turning the steering wheel. “Fine,” and he hangs up. Later he calls me to apologize that when the fluids were changed, they forgot the limited slip additive. Personally, I knew that it needed it, and would have done so if I had changed the fluid. I was frankly shocked that the dealer didn’t do so. This limited slip (TracLok) has been in a number of Jeeps over the years and they all need that additive. Did they even open it up and notice it had TracLok, or just pump out the old fluid and dump in new? Makes me wonder?

    • 0 avatar

      You are forgetting the basic fact that Dealers have a pretty much captive clientelle that never asks why nor questions thier judgement , combine this with the fact that 90 + % of Dealer
      ” Mechanics ” are only parts changers and have no real idea how the damn thing works…..

      When I was a Dealer Mechanic , we were told not to waste time (and therefore money) diagnosing or fixing anything , just slap on a new part and call it a day , if it came back , we’d make more $…..

      The ServiceWriters rarely know anything at _all_ about cars , they just make happy talk and say ” it’ll be fine , sign here please ” .

      The LOF guy we had , used to leave the 50 year old oil dispenser clicking away filling the crankcase (tranny , rear end , whatever) as he went off for a smoke , it of course always short filled eveything and this boob never once pulled a dipstick to check the actual fluid levels and he too got all pissy when asked why not .

      I could go on in detail for hours but I’m sure you get the picture .

      If ever you find an honest Mechanic or Dealer , treat them very well and remember to persnally thank the people who worked on your vehicle .


  • avatar

    I never know what’s wrong with my car- I just describe the symptoms, and let the mechanic figure it out. But what if your mechanic goes to the “dark side”? I trusted our mechanic for years, but slowly, ever so slowly, he started making “mistakes” in diagnosing problems. I eventually realized his “mistakes” were purposeful, planned ways of making extra money off of me, the stupid, long term customer. What hurt the most wasn’t that he ripped me off for thousands of dollars- the worst blow was the destruction of trust and friendship. Now, I am paranoid of ALL independent shops- which is too bad, because dealers are just as bad.

  • avatar

    A good pattern to determine the good mechanics from the bad is whether they are willing to negotiate and price match, like this GM oem parts online dealer. It’s not foolproof, but I’ve saved hundreds by negotiating.

  • avatar

    Well, as the ex-owner of a VW, (just traded for a Ford) I found my VW dealer was much more reasonable, knowledgable and much nicer facility to deal with. The independant shops all assured me that they were the experts and that I’d be much better off with them. After getting burned at 2 shops, I went back to my dealer and discovered who the sucker was – me!

  • avatar

    Man, I think the worst are customers who come in armed with a bunch of paperwork from another place and filled with absolute conviction.

    Two incidents stick out in my mind;

    a) a lady with a Del Sol who said she religously had her tires rotated by the Honda dealer, armed with a pile of papers about a quarter inch thick, she demanded a mileage warranty. I went to check the tires and the fronts were worn past the treadwear indicators and the rears were beat up and scalloped across the tread face, a classic case of not having rotated the tires. I told her no, and an upper manager relented and gave her the warranty. I was fine with the customer appreciation part, but I cant help but feel that the world was made a little bit dumber by a lady now armed with the knowledge that bald front tires and scalloped rear tires are a warrantable defect.

    b) A local alignment shop specialist who has a very good reputation consistantly tells his customers to run the maximum inflated pressure branded on the sidewall of the tire in order to get the most wear out of the tire and people slavishly follow his advice tire placard on the car be damned. Per our operating procedures if a customer wants to inflate their tires to a greater pressure than what is listed on the vehicle manufacturer’s tire placard we can do so but if there is a split in the air pressure (which a great many vehicles have) we can increase the pressure but have to maintain the split pursuant to the maximum pressure branded on the sidewall (which in the case of some trucks means we cannot raise the pressure since the rears are typically inflated to the maximum pressure per the placard), tell that to the customers of the alignment shop guy and they are quick to tell you how he’s an expert and that we dont know what we are talking about – nevermind having gone through the whole spiel about how the factory tuned the vehicle to operate with those air pressures and deviating from them could create inconsistant handling (which btw makes a great case for low speed limits in the US).

    Oh and here is a third now that I’m thinking about it. As a matter of safety, the RMA – the governing body for the tire industry reccomends installing new tires to the rear if less than a full set is installed in order to create the safest driving under that condition.

    Try telling that to sombody who’s dad was/is a mechanic or somebody who competitively operates their car or generally older drivers who grew up when the reccomended placement for less than a full set of tires was the front (I suppose when Fred Flintstone was driving).

    I’ve been cussed out, told I didn’t know what I was talking about, that god built the ark and engineers built the titanic (as in tire engineers don’t know what they are talking about), threatened with a lawsuit for not doing what the customer wanted and so on.

    Heaven forbid a front tire blowing out when you put the new ones on the rear – that was a thirty minute conference call between a woman and a father and how I could be so damn stupid and how my company was going to install a new set of tires and pay for any extenuating damages.

    Man I could go on from how catastrophic tire desctuction due to low air pressure is a defect to how tire warranty exclusion should not be subject to bad alignments.

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