Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: "It's Anything But THAT!"-Detecting the Motive Behind the Exclamation-Part Two

Phil Coconis
by Phil Coconis
memoirs of an independent repair shop owner it s anything but that detecting the
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 (as with Part One) is one of the exceptions. I still wouldn’t mind “hearing” your thoughts, though

Once upon a time, when my little repair shop microcosm was a much safer and secure place to tread, I would rarely get a customer request for a repair procedure that was unlawful, unsafe, unprofitable, unfair, or just downright unrecommendable. And if their request was any of these, it would take very little effort on my part to dissuade them from their skewed request and get them to embrace my recommendation for properly solving their problem.

Or, did I DREAM that?

Based on a downward trend toward the lowest common denominator of customer requests, which seemed to start shortly after “once upon a time”, I’m wondering if I must HAVE dreamt it!

(As a matter of fact, I think that the next couple of entries are going to relate some of the truly infamous customer requests I have ever received.)

Staying true to theme, today’s entry really centers on my perception of a customer’s motive for making a particular request, and the lengths this customer went to get me to fulfill it.

The customer came to me with a straightforward request to replace his catalytic converters on a early-millennium Pathfinder. Not a request to run some tests to determine why his “Check Engine” light was on (which it was), or even to verify that his cat’s were in actual need of replacement.

When I asked him why he thought the cat’s were bad, he didn’t even try to answer the question, but instead countered by questioning me as to why I couldn’t just fulfill his request and get him on his way.

I informed him that firstly, it was (and I believe, still is) unlawful in the State of California to replace a cat unless it is experiencing a verifiable failure, or has been in any other way damaged internally or externally to the point of inoperability.

I also noted that the replacement units for his P/Finder were quite expensive, and if replacement didn’t solve whatever the problem was, was he going to be able to take responsibility for his request. Or was he going to attempt to make me “eat” the cost (which, based on the State Law just referred to, would have been the case) if the causal symptom wasn’t eliminated?

I reminded him that I really needed to know WHY he wanted me to replace the cat’s, before we could go any further.

He finally coughed up the fact that the “check engine” light was indeed illuminated, and the “dealer” he had taken the vehicle to had told him that the catalysts were inoperative and needed to be replaced.

When I requested a copy of the work order from the “dealer” he had gone to—so I could verify the validity of his request—he again balked, finally admitting that he didn’t have it, and that in fact, there wasn’t a work order at all!

At that point, I told him that I really couldn’t help him unless he let me perform the tests necessary, and we’d have to go from there.

He finally acquiesced, and I saw the ‘finder the next morning.

Sure enough, after interrogating the engine management system, I verified that both left and right side cats were showing “low efficiency”, potentially suggesting the need for replacement.

I decided to go a little further in my testing, and engaged my scanner’s “Troubleshooter” feature to check for vehicle-specific information about the cat failure codes that were present.

I found an interesting “surprise”: Regarding the particular year and emissions group, this ‘finder had a “service bulletin” in connection with the failure codes present. Apparently, there was a potential programming fault that could cause such failure codes when there was no actual problem with the cat’s whatsoever! The recommended course was to have an authorized dealer connect their proprietary equipment to the management system and determine if it was in need of a program update. Once, and ONLY once this procedure was completed, could the need for cat replacement be properly assessed!

I would otherwise be in violation of The Law if I replaced the cats without confirming this procedure had been done!

When I informed the customer of these facts, he seemed more upset than ever, actually saying some form of “It has to be anything but THAT!”

What made this especially puzzling, and confirmed that this customer had some sort of unfriendly “agenda” was that, by taking the course I recommended, he could be potentially saving himself quite literally THOUSANDS of dollars! The math wasn’t difficult: $200 for a check and reprogram, or more than $2000 for a cat replacement!

But, instead of thanking me profusely for the information, he was visibly displeased with the whole experience!

I never heard anything more from this “customer”, and I can only guess at what his “agenda” was.

Was he an agent for some consumer research or “watchdog” agency?

Was he just doing a little private investigation on his own?

Was he trying to score a set of free catalytic converters, at my expense?

Or was he trying to exercise his freedom of expression or “manifest destiny” by requesting a potentially unnecessary repair procedure just because he felt that, in the good ol’ U.S.A., he COULD?

I’ll probably never know.

Had I done it his way, though, I likely would have been in a world of trouble.

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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2 of 15 comments
  • Felix Hoenikker Felix Hoenikker on Oct 08, 2012

    Perhaps the car was stolen, and the customer did not want to go to a dealer where the serial number would be traced as part of the software upgrade.

  • Carbureted Carbureted on Oct 08, 2012

    I think personal pride is a big issue in these situations. It is easy for the trained mechanic to rationalize the situation, based on training, and expect the owner to follow suit. However, people in general don't work that way. I can personally account for my own wrong-thinkings in issues past, due to what I knew HAD to be the problem [Luckily I never voiced those thoughts to a service technician, but only to myself as I was wrenching alone.]. The human ego is a hard thing to break--especially when it has been bolstered by the congruent thoughts of others. On a somewhat related note, I enthusiastically read this column whenever a new post comes out. I am striving to open my own motorcycle shop within the next couple years, and your stories/opinions/knowledge are priceless. Thanks!

  • Jdt65724922 How can a Chrysler E-Class ride better than a Chrysler Fifth Avenue?
  • Lorenzo This series is epic, but I now fear you'll never get to the gigantic Falcon/Dart/Nova comparison.
  • Chris P Bacon Ford and GM have decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Odds are Chrysler/Cerberus/FCA/Stellantis is next to join in. If any of the companies like Electrify America had been even close to Tesla in reliability, we wouldn't be here.
  • Inside Looking Out China will decide which EV charging protocol will become world wide standard.
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