By on November 4, 2012

“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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33 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Workshop Owner: Two Can Play at That Game—Part One—Memorable Crooked Customer Capers...”

  • avatar

    WOW good wisdom applicable for many businesses.

    Let the seller beware. Who says TTAC doesn’t have content?

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly- although, after retiring from two decades as a State Prison Guard, I would say: you CAN cheat an honest man- which is why convicts are SO GOOD at what they do! Honest folks WANT to believe, and the convict (a name i give to ANYONE who is a scammer, in prison, or out) takes advantage of that basic goodness in others. Also, most scumbags are REALLY GOOD LIARS (which is why I have no faith in the jury system) who make professional actors look like amateurs. I am now “in recovery” from being a bitter, cynical law officer- but it is difficult, learning to trust others, after being around creeps for so many years (and after being betrayed by my own mechanic!)

  • avatar

    As always there are two sides to everything. We never hear the shops side. Fixing the car is the easy part, the customer it what makes it hard.

  • avatar

    I work in a dealership repair shop where we do our best to try to take good care of our customers (keeps them coming back for more service and to buy more cars, you know).

    Here are a couple of my favorites:

    #1 — From the customer who has a “backup sensor malfunction” message on their dash because they backed into something and physically damaged the sensor: “this should be covered by warranty!” Of course, we can’t warranty it because the manufacturer requires we save the part and when they see it’s been mashed, they simply won’t pay the claim.

    #2 — From the customer with a 14-year old car that needs some sort of repair: “I shouldn’t have to pay for this because I looked it up on the internet and ALL [fill in model name here] have this problem. Since it’s a known issue I won’t pay a penny to get it fixed!” Of course, if it’s under manufacturer warranty extension or something of that ilk we’ll fix it for free, but people tend to find things on the internet that lead them to have, shall we say, “unrealistic” expectations of what the manufacturer is covering.

    I will say because I know someone will comment that if we see something that we think *reasonably* should have some participation from the manufacturer but is under no formal coverage provision at the time of the diagnosis, we will still go to our district manager or use self-authorization to help the customer out. That makes them happy and keeps them coming back.

    • 0 avatar

      I just had #2 happen with a friend who owns a G35. But from another perspective, we learned of the problem with it killing batteries on the internet, and found Infiniti’s voluntary campaign to correct the problem “as needed”. Even after printing out the TSB, the dealer would still not honor the recall. He ended up sheepishly eating the cost of a new battery. I would have been enraged. I believe he has been through 3 batteries now.

  • avatar

    Great article.

    I always resent people that have a worldview that the consumer is always right and only businesses can be bad actors.

    Curious, have you ever had to “unrepair” a car. For instance, a customer disputes he told you to replace the struts and you’ve had to take the new struts off the car and put the old back on?

    • 0 avatar
      Brian P

      I’ve made a dealer do that. They did me the favor (or so they thought) of replacing the battery, which I fully agree was on its last legs – but the car was at the dealer for something else, and I never approved the battery replacement.

      I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, if the price for the battery wasn’t double what I knew I could get one for at an independent auto parts store. But when they told me what they wanted for that OEM battery, I told them to give me the old battery back and give me a boost so that I could go to the independent shop. I made sure they knew why, and gave them the opportunity to match the price of the auto parts store … no dice. They swapped the battery back and gave me a boost.

  • avatar

    Great article.

    Anyone else noticed recently that the link to open the subject of an article into its own tab does NOT work when here – , except for the first letter in the Subject Line? However once the article is opened into its own tab, such as where I’m entering this now, the whole subject line is a link.

    Never seen this problem before, and it doesn’t happen all the time either!

  • avatar
    Angus McClure

    Reminds me of a past life in the service industry. “It worked well till you fixed it” is probably my personal favorite.

  • avatar

    Thanks Phil. I enjoy your articles. Really turns the traditional stereotype on its head. It’s unfortunate that the stigma of the shady mechanic remains so prevelant. I have dealt with a lot of mechanics, shops and garages over the years and have rarely come away with the feeling that the guy was trying to take me…maybe the guys at Pep Boys…

    • 0 avatar

      I work for a dealership on the parts counter and I’ve dealt with plenty of shady shops, in my neck of the woods, the shady ones far out number the good and honest shops.

      Near the top would be the local Pep Boys. Almost everything they order comes back. It’s one of 2 things: they either order the part and take something off, like a o-ring or sensor that doesn’t come by itself and they return that, or they order a part and return it. What they do is tell the customer that they are using an ‘OEM’ part and show them the invoice, they match up our part with whatever ‘made in Chernobyl’ part they supply and stick it to my dealership and most importantly, their customer. This local Pep Boys fares very poorly with Yelp.

      Another shop just stiffed us last week when they ordered a throttle body and returned the part. They kept the gasket and still wanted a refund for the gasket- nope. Unfortunately, the accounting department didn’t wait for the original check to clear and they sent a refund check before the shop’s check bounced. Ouch.

      Or hows this for fun; another shop had 4 rubber bushings to return, yet they sent 4 angry cholos down to the dealership to act like punks and to “intimidate” us. First, there was no reason for this as we do accept returns as long as the part isn’t used and they retain the receipt, which they did. No problem there and yet they still chose this way of dealing with us. Good times!

  • avatar

    My favorite was the repair that “it only needs a timing chain” and then finding out it needed a whole lot more. Called the customer and outlined the bare minimum work and he agreed. He came and got the truck when I was closed. Then paid with a NSF check on an account that had been closed for four years. I eventually got paid by his employer who was another customer of mine (and a good one).

  • avatar

    Having been in this crazy business myself for thirty years, one thing thats critical is to drive the car with the customer…it saves alot of grief. Listen for that noise…theres twenty “noises”. Or the tires have problems. Your brakes are rusty and need replacing…after replacing and driving, now is not the time to realize the turbo is locked, the clutch is slipping, the trans makes noise and theres a motor mount broken.

    • 0 avatar

      I appreciate that more than anything. I hax bearings going but only at near highway speeds. Took 3 tries but when the mechanic drove with me for 30 minutes we figured it out. This was when I had a glorious panther…how I miss that Crown Vic.

  • avatar

    LOL ! _SO_ right ! .

    I learned to write ‘ novels ‘ on the Repair Order to avoid this malarky ~ running a VW Shop in College Town meant we got ’em all .

    @ The Dealer , all I had to do was fix it right , the Service Writer took care of the goofballs .


  • avatar

    I knew a guy years ago who told a story from when he worked at a very rural garage, a plane landed on the road with engine problems, they changed a piston (Dodge truck or something like that) to get it running and did quite few other things to get it running properly – the guy took it up for a test fly and you guessed it, that was the last they saw of him!

  • avatar

    I once had a chat with a guy at the local boatyard…boat mechanic. I asked how he got involved in fixing boats. His reply was priceless.

    “I used to work on cars, but when you work on yachts, the owners don’t ask you for credit AFTER you’ve done the work.”

  • avatar

    Having worked in jobs where I dealt with the public on a daily basis, it was my observation that the very poor, and the very rich were the most difficult people to work with. The very rich were just as likely to try and scam their way out of not paying…..makes sense, since you don’t get to be rich by writing a lot of checks….but unlike the poor, most wealthy people owned rabid lawyers they could unleash at a drop of the hat.

    • 0 avatar

      Very true, I worked at a bicycle store in college and the wealthy customers beat us up on price, attempted to weasel out of paying for repairs, and wanted free parts and accessories simply for being customers. It was the work-a-day stiffs who were most likely to BS with the mechanics and throw us a couple of extra bucks for cold sodas on a hot day.

      I can’t imagine being a service writer at a Land Rover or Mercedes dealership would be much fun.

  • avatar

    Great article for those unfamiliar with this side of the business.

    WHen I was a mechanic and body man full time I had dealt with all kinds of these types of customers. It sometimes made me wonder if being in that kind of business was even worth it sometimes.

    I still do this kind of work on the side, but only for my best customers. I still get calls from the bad ones and happily turn them away.

  • avatar

    What about “The Complainer”?

    When I was working in a shop I had an angry old lady bring in a battered Ranger. She just wanted an oil change and tire rotation. She watched me work on her truck like a hawk from the waiting room window. When I was done, she became irate and claimed I lost the grease cap on her front hub. It was already missing when she came in, and grease was all over the face of the wheel that was now on the rear from her driving with it missing. Despite noting it on the pre-inspection, my manager was a puss and relented to her claims. She wanted a new cap and all work for free. I put the cap on with a rubber mallet and she started squawking again about me “using a HAMMER to put the cap on”. Then she claimed I broke her ancient bug deflector. She took us for a ride like this all day, and ended up with a free alignment as well.

    I see these people out in the wild (and even know a few), and they are repeatedly rewarded for their behavior. When I hear the saying “The customer is always right” I grit my teeth, think of this woman, and think to myself if it needs to be said: “The customer is always an %$$hole!!!”

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a condition enabled by the actions of people like your boss who try and appease them.

      For the same reasons, customer service departments, from phone companies to car manufacturers have simply become loosely regulated grab-bags for whiners.

    • 0 avatar
      Chicago Dude

      A portable High-Definition video recorder can be had for less than $100. Instead of marking up a stupid piece of paper in the pre-inspection, every repair shop should be using one with the inspector narrating everything they see. Even better is to have the customer accompany them on the walk around the car and audibly agree or disagree with every notation the inspector makes. It takes literally ZERO additional time and pays for itself the very first time a customer tries this stunt.

      • 0 avatar

        “Even better is to have the customer accompany them on the walk around the car and audibly agree or disagree with every notation the inspector makes.” – Except for having the customer inside the bay (work area), this exposes you to the most dangerous and expensive type of animal, the injury settlementor, in an environment that is very favorable to thriving.

  • avatar

    I have several mechanic friends who have owned their own shops. In addition to the above, there is the “diagnose it for free” customer who wants you to tell them what part to replace so they can go home and do it themself (or have their buddy do it for them), but is unwilling to pay for an hour’s worth of shop diagnostic time. Even worse when they hang around in the shop and want to argue with you about it.

    • 0 avatar

      This right here. It’s actually shocking to me the sheer number of people who gasp at the prospect of being charged for diagnosis, even if they planned to have their car fixed with you anyway.

      Like the new car dealers, it’s just better to roll the cost of “test” into “test and replace” to avoid all this.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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