Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: "You Want Me To Do WHAT?"-Customers Seeking Partner In Pushing What's Possible (Or Prudent)

Phil Coconis
by Phil Coconis
memoirs of an independent repair shop owner you want me to do what customers

“Have it Your Way” was a popular TV ad campaign some years ago. While it seemed to work for the world of fast-food burgers, it certainly wasn’t universally applicable in others.

Like in the world of Auto Repair, for instance.

Maybe especially in planet Los Angeles, home of what I call “The Hollywood Effect”: that insidious and seemingly all-pervasive spirit-force which motivates people to jettison logical and rational thinking, and instead concoct and attempt implementation of a personally acceptable “reality” for any potentially unpleasant circumstance.

Like a costly repair scenario involving their personal motor vehicle, for instance.

Granted, I don’t like to spend money unnecessarily; and I will explore other possibilities before accepting any unpleasant circumstance that comes my way. But when all else is explored, and it looks like “God Has Come” truly, I will either give it up and turn it loose, or bite the bullet, man-up, and take care of the situation. Call it perfecting the “craft” of sanity, if you will.

If all of my customers rolled by that standard, not only would my life experience not be the richer for it, but you wouldn’t be reading this particular entry, either.

Here are a couple examples of not completely irrational responses to the aforementioned repair scenarios.

A customer approaches with an underhood noise that turns out to be a water pump bearing failure. I would show them that the pump had indeed failed this way by grabbing the pump pulley and shaking it from side to side. Often, their initial response to this would be asking if I couldn’t just “tighten-up” the bearing quickly, and get them on down the road.

If the customer were informed that their car’s MacPherson Strut damper had failed due to loss of damper oil, they would of course request that I just add some oil to it, so it would work a little while longer.

If they understood that their vehicle’s timing belt had failed because the drive teeth were sheared-off, they’d ask if I couldn’t just get some replacement teeth for it.

Often, any of these kinds of statements would be preceded by “I’m no mechanic, but…”

Indeed. And it would completely explain the nature of their request—which was totally understandable, from my point of view.

Usually, after a little additional explanation about the impossibility of their request, they would listen to reason, and either “fish or cut bait”.

Sometimes, though, they would persist in their line of “reasoning”, maybe even adding that a shop down the street would be willing to fulfill their request—and for next to NOTHING, on top of that! What were they doing standing in my shop, then, I’d say?

Sometimes, though, this “ Hollywood effect” would shift in motivation from that of fantasy, to that of “future shock”. I’d get a customer who felt their backs were against the proverbial “wall”, and they neither had the funds to repair their car properly, nor did they have any other viable alternative to their impending transportation dilemma.

One such memorable occasion involved what certainly appeared like a borderline-homeless person and their somewhat tattered Mustang II.

He pulled up to my open door and parked, as I was working just inside at the back of a vehicle in my repair bay.

I soon realized that I had been in more danger by such close proximity than I had imagined.

He requested that I change the front brake pads, and informed me that he had the replacement set with him; and showed me the almost equally tattered box that apparently housed the new pads.

I told him I had to move his car over, so I could back the vehicle I had just been working on out of the bay in order to pull his in.

He seemed a little uneasy, but handed me the keys.

As soon as I got in the car, started it and covered the brake in order to select reverse gear, not only did I understand his uneasiness, but I also fully appreciated how precarious my earlier position between the back of the vehicle I had in my bay and the front of his approaching vehicle had been. There was virtually NO brake pedal!

I didn’t even bother moving the little ‘stang; opting instead to shut the engine off and lift the hood. As I was doing this, I asked him about the nonexistent brake pedal.

He said that that was not a problem to be concerned with, and reiterated that he just wanted the brake pads changed, only.

I told him that, it was a concern of mine, if I was going to work on his car. I asked him if I could check a couple of other things before we proceeded with even having a repair order written up. He reluctantly approved.

When I lifted hood, I focused attention on the master cylinder, firstly to check if the lack of brake pedal was related to fluid loss. Before I could get even that far, I was greeted by a brake booster hose that had been removed from the booster and plugged with the threaded end of a spark plug! Add one brake booster to the pre-estimate.

The master cylinder was plenty full of fluid, suggesting an internal failure of the cylinder. Add a master cylinder to the pre-estimate.

I checked the preliminary condition of the brake rotors by visually inspecting through the openings in the styled-steel wheels. Not surprisingly, there was major evidence of metal-to-metal contact—and not from the pads that were presently installed!. Add two brake rotors to the pre-estimate.

The customer didn’t appear to be impressed by any of this, but instead restated his original request!

I informed him that if I did what he wanted, the already beleaguered braking system would likely provide even LESS stopping power than it had at present. Besides that, fulfilling his request would not only be unprofessional, but also in fact, be illegal by State standards!

He said he wouldn’t hold me accountable for any of that.

I told him I appreciated his word, but there was just no way his request was going to fly without a complete inspection of his braking system, and all necessary repairs being performed.

He thanked me and drove away.

Wonder if he ever got it “His Way”…

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.

Join the conversation
5 of 56 comments
  • Manbridge Manbridge on Oct 21, 2012

    Two ways to go through life. 1) Screw anyone you can to make/save a quick buck. 2) Maintain as much honesty and integrity as possible. BOTH ways contain car owners and service techs.

  • Colinshark Colinshark on Oct 22, 2012

    I figure there are two types of customers. Type A has a new-ish car. They have a hard enough time making their loan payments on it, and they are surprised it would even break in the first place. If they had taken a smart approach, they would have a cheaper car and would be doing pro-active maintenance. But they have an expensive car that just gouges them when something finally does go wrong (at least they feel that way). Type B has some form of beater. The mechanic is interested in fixing the problem, but the driver is interested in the overall value proposition. A mechanic will not bat an eye at a $1000 repair on a $2000 car. The customer is wondering if it's worth getting a new car. If the mechanic can just do a cheap band-aid fix and extract the last ounce of value from that beater, the driver wins. Add some healthy ignorance of car technology, and the mechanic's life is explained.

    • See 2 previous
    • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Nov 05, 2012

      @corntrollio Or the folks who could afford the car but not the massive stereo and pie plate wheels plus tires - but buys them anyhow. When something doesn't fit or rubs or wears collateral parts out prematurely they use a BFH to "alter" the car so it'll fit. When it all goes to pieces b/c the shiny stuff was meant to be shiny and not really last or maintain the durability of the vehicle - then the vehicle brand is at fault, not the owner. Or like at a car forum that attracted it's share of the Fats and Furious crowd - they spend-spend-spend-spend - and change everything at the drop of a hat. Here I'm budgeting for life's requirements and to save a little cash and there are people places like that who buy 3 or 4 or 5 different sets of wheels over a year or two's time. Only to sell the whole thing and start over with something else. Boggles my mind. The cash they lay out as opposed to investing in a house or a college education or simply putting in the bank... ;) Can't figure out if these folks are putting it on a credit card, Mom and Dad is paying for it all, or they are selling drugs. Of course everything might be a little different now, it's been a a few years since I looked in on parts of the web like those. It was before the crash/recession that I used to read those websites. I grew up with a different crowd - the ones that got to go to college but who needed to watch their nickels and dimes to accomplish it without $150K worth of student debt. But then again - I worked my way through college - military plus all the typical college jobs.

  • Inside Looking Out You should care. With GM will die America. All signs are there. How about the Arsenal of Democracy? Toyota?
  • DenverMike What else did anyone think, when GM was losing tens of billions a year, year after year?
  • Bill Wade GM says they're killing Android Auto and Apple Carplay. Any company that makes decisions like that is doomed to die.
  • Jeff S I don't believe gm will die but that it will continue to shrink in product and market share and it will probably be acquired by a foreign manufacturer. I doubt gm lacks funds as it did in 2008 and that they have more than enough cash at hand but gm will not expand as it did in the past and the emphasis is more on profitability and cutting costs to the bone. Making gm a more attractive takeover target and cut costs at the expense of more desirable and reliable products. At the time of Farago's article I was in favor of the Government bailout more to save jobs and suppliers but today I would not be in favor of the bailout. My opinions on gm have changed since 2008 and 2009 and now I really don't care if gm survives or not.
  • Kwik_Shift I was a GM fan boy until it ended in 2013 when I traded in my Avalanche to go over to Nissan.