Memoirs Of An Independent Workshop Owner: Two Can Play at That Game-Part One-Memorable Crooked Customer Capers

Phil Coconis
by Phil Coconis
memoirs of an independent workshop owner two can play at that game part

“You can’t cheat an honest man”, a quote I understand to have originated from none other than W.C. Fields turned out to be even more profound than I originally surmised.

I mean, I had for some time figured that being as straight as possible with myself, or anybody else—including, and maybe even especially customers, when I finally got into that arena—was the best way to go.

Of course there were real tests, trials, and defining moments along the way, but it always seemed to be a road worth staying on.

As it turned out, many of my customers were also determined to travel the same road, which made the whole experience of dealing and doing business with them an actual pleasure.

Then there were those that were traveling the Other Road.

The road of instant gratification and up front bottom-line savings; a road littered with lies, half-truths and a variety of cheap psychological ploys; of personal checks returned and stamped with “NSF” in all-caps red ink; of damaged credibility and little remorse to accompany it.

I first questioned W.C.’s wisdom in making a statement such as he did, since it appeared that I, an erstwhile, straight-up auto repair tech and business owner with old-school sensibilities and no glaring pertinent flaws in character was in fact, actually getting cheated from time to time by customers traveling that Other Road.

After much consideration, meditation and deep thought—combined with continued periodic contact with these “Other Roaders”—I finally came to a more complete understanding of the genius of Mr. Field’s statement. If you are absolutely, completely—REALLY—an honest man, you will be able to honestly asses any situation—including the accompanying human entities—and take the appropriate action so as not to get cheated! And you’ll be able to do it in a manner free of fanfare, histrionics, physical violence, or any other action signifying a loss of composure.

Briefly considering this advanced lesson in human relationships seems to put the rest of this entry into a fitting context. I am going to relate a few of the go-to ploys that Crooked Customers have used over the years, and how I was eventually able to “honestly” deal with them.

Bait-and-SwitchBy definition, this action involves a person not delivering on an agreed upon action.

Often, the customer would use other members of the family (or friends) to administer this tactic.

For instance, the daughter might drop the vehicle off for the repair I had discussed earlier with, say, the Mom. Then, when the work was completed, the Father would step in and declare that, since he was the one to be paying for the work, and since he was not included in the loop, he was not going to pay for it, and wanted me to release the vehicle to him forthwith. Elements of the “Shell Game” can be noticed incorporated into this form of B & S.

Other times B & S would involve a single customer denying giving approval to do additional work that they had, in fact, earlier approved.

This ploy would, again, be administered when the customer physically arrived to pick up their vehicle. It would usually be at the end of the day, often just at or slightly after official “closing time”; and they would be dropped off at the shop by a friend who couldn’t stick around to make sure that the vehicle actually got released to the customer.

Sometimes B & S would actually involve the customer having me inspect one vehicle, getting a preliminary estimate for a procedure, but then bring another, almost identical vehicle in with a similar problem, but needing a more costly procedure for it’s repair! More Shell Game shenanigans.

Ultimately, what proved to be the best way to avert all of these problems, or at least mitigate loss to me, was to work out all—and I mean ALL—important details in advance, and in writing, and holding the customer to the agreement.

Letter-of-the-Law Dodgers—These were customers who would look for relatively small but critical infractions in my procedure for admitting their cars into my shop, and not call it to my attention until it was time to pay for the repairs; which they would insist—sometimes correctly by legal standards—they were not required to pay.

Usually they would try to find some way to prevent me from properly writing up their repair order. It could come in the form of not adequately describing—or letting me pursue assisting them in doing so—the problem with their vehicle. They’d basically throw me “curves” or attempt to block my professional efforts in hopes of getting me to make a mistake in the diagnostic or repair description.

Or they would ask to fill out their personal information on the work order, hoping that they could leave out critical information, or just avoid pressing hard enough on the pen in order to make legible carbon copies (including their estimate copy).

Or they might do everything right and try to find a way to avoid putting their signature on the bottom of the work order. Sometimes this would be practiced in an overt fashion “I’m not going to sign this”, or in a covert fashion, where they would fake like they were signing the repair order and hand the clipboard back to me with either NO signature on it, or one so lightly written that it was barely legible on the top copy, and not at all on any of the other copies.

What proved to be the best way to deal with these folks was to stick to the professional and legally approved routine, regardless of what they tried to do to trip me up. Usually, if they were really fully intending to crook me from the get-go, they’d full examine the work order before signing it, and if everything looked correct and there was no legal way for them to beat me, they’d just decline to sign, get in their vehicle, and drive away.

In any case where I had to deal with these would-be crooks, the worst I’d come off was the loss of time it took for the initial consultation and writing whatever fraction of a work order I’d have to in order to expose them. To me, though, it was like money in the bank, literally or figuratively.

Wisdom works that way, doesn’t it?

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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  • Syke Syke on Nov 05, 2012

    My background is in the motorcycle/powersports venue, not automobile, but like most service writers, the stories I could tell. 1. BMW motorcycle owners can usually be classified in one of two categories: People who love their bikes and spend lots of money on them, have them serviced regularly, and take the cost is no object attitude to their prides and joy. Alternately, the other half are the absolute cheaper m-f-ing sob's you will ever run across. Their loyalty to BMW is totally based on it being the only motorcycle that you can buy used for $3000.00, ride across the country in comfort, and be sure of parts being available for the bike, as long as its newer than a 1946 /2. 2. In the annals of powersportsm there is absolutely no bigger asshole than the personal watercraft owner. Seeing that they are the one item my current employer sells that has no non-toy use whatsoever, it is amazing how these people can beat the crap out of a unit and then expect you to turn it around in three days at the height of the season because they absolutely dare not go thru one weekend of the summer with the damned thing.l 3. The normal customer definition of "warranty": I don't feel like paying.

  • Icemilkcoffee Icemilkcoffee on Nov 05, 2012

    Actually WC Field's quote means that people who get conned, are typically people who are looking for some kind of unfair advantage, or illegitimate gain to begin with. Whereas your examples are all examples of plain crooks trying to pull a fast one on you. They weren't trying to get you in on the con. For example- if the customer tried to lure you into some kind of scam to help him cheat his insurance company- that would be a case of you falling prey to his scheme because you yourself want in on a scam to rip off the insurance company to begin with.

    • Phil Coconis Phil Coconis on Nov 10, 2012

      Yeah, imc, that would be a good alternate definition--or you could consider mine the alternate...

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