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  Management Feature

'What Would You Do?'

Posted 6/11/2009
By T.J. Reilly, AAM

Every shop owner runs into ‘situations.’
How they handle them is important.

Editor's note: Shop owners run into "situations" all the time - situations that leave them scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to resolve the issue fairly for everyone concerned. They want to make the right decision in solving a dilemma, but things are not always black and white. Sometimes there are gray areas. Following is a good example of just such a dilemma. What would you do?

This happened to a shop owner who owns several stores: A good customer brought in his daughter's '99 Ford Taurus. The complaint: steam was coming from under the hood. The technician pressure tested the cooling system, tested for hydrocarbons in the radiator and made sure the cooling fans were cycling.

The customer was sold a coolant flush and a new thermostat. The technician road tested the car and no other problems were found. However, the technician did not note on the repair order that the cooling fans were cycling. The young driver then drove the car across the state, about 100 miles. During the trip, the car overheated until the engine seized. It was then towed to the nearest repair shop where the cylinder head gaskets were replaced, along with a radiator fan relay and some other repairs, for a total of $1,500. The customer wants that $1,500 refunded plus the cost of the original shop's bill for the thermostat and coolant flush. The customer is adamant that the first shop is at fault because it didn't fix the original overheating problem.

The shop that did the repairs does not feel the original shop is responsible since the temperature gauge was working - and the driver should not have kept driving the vehicle until it stopped. The shop also stated that it found the radiator fans to be working intermittently. What would you do? AutoInc. asked two ASA members how they would handle the situation. Their replies follow:

Rick Bradshaw• Rick Bradshaw, Rick & Ray's Auto Plaza Center, Fort Worth, Texas - "Based solely on the information given, I would not feel responsible for the blown head gaskets nor would I reimburse the customer for the flush or checkout (I might from a goodwill standpoint).

"Since the fans were working when the first shop worked on it, my guess is that the car had already warped the heads/damaged the head gaskets. We have experience with intermittent overheating.

"The area to possibly address for the future is the standard warning to a driver that there is a chance the overheating problem could reoccur, although no problem has been detected and what to do if it does overheat again."

Jerry Holcom• Jerry Holcom, owner, S & S Service Center, Kansas City, Mo. - "This is quite a dilemma. At my shop, if we had not found the original cause of the overheating, we would have documented which tests we performed, along with the negative results. The repair order would have noted that the overheating concern had not been duplicated, but the thermostat was a likely cause, and the flush was needed preventive maintenance. The customer would be asked to sign that he understood this before he took the car.

"But to answer the question as originally stated, the driver was a considerable part of the failure, driving it with the temperature gauge pegged until the engine quit. Also, as a professional, I was negligent in releasing it without duplicating the concern or documenting that we did verify proper cooling fan operation. The big question to answer: did the cooling fan problem cause the head gasket failure while on the trip or were the head gaskets already compromised from previous overheating or other failure causes? If the overheating occurred while driving down the highway crossing the state, the cooling fans shouldn't have played a part anyway.

"I would look at the customer's history to determine how important it was to salvage him. If it were decided that we wanted to keep him as a customer, I would have a conversation stating that we felt partially responsible for the breakdown, but even if we had found the problem, he would have had to spend the money on the head gaskets and the fan relay anyway. Then I would offer to reimburse him for the thermostat and flush, and for the tow charges. At that point, he would likely have a comparable expenditure as if we had duplicated the fault at our shop and repaired it before the trip.

"If he still balked and insisted that we should pay more, and I thought he would spend more money with me in the future, I might offer a $500 repair credit (one-third of the repair bill)."

How would Reilly handle the "situation?" Following is what he says:

"It is obvious that the original shop owner and two employees are at fault here. The technician should have made the appropriate notes about the radiator fan operation, and when he didn't, the adviser should have asked the technician if the fans were working. The shop owner did not provide adequate employee
training and/or does not have a policy/procedure manual in place.

"I have a technician procedure manual and a service adviser procedure manual. It clearly states in both manuals what must be tested when a vehicle is brought in for overheating. By having a written policy manual for both the technician and the adviser, along with appropriate training, issues like this can easily be avoided. I compiled my manuals by studying my comebacks and warranties. My procedure manuals have reduced my warranties by more than 80 percent since I started compiling them. If you don't have a policy/procedure manual, start one today!

"The fact that the customer will not listen to the shop that made the final repairs leads me to believe the customer is so emotionally involved that reason has been thrown out the window. It's not very likely that you will ever see this customer or any member of his family again, no matter what you do. The best course of action is to attempt to reduce your negative word of mouth without giving away the farm. With that in mind, here is a suggestion:

"Call the customer and offer:

"1. To have AAA or the Better Business Bureau arbitrate a decision.

"2. To refund the original repair and give them $1,500 worth of in-store credit.

"I would remind the customer that the other shop believes you are not at fault, and suggest that option No. 2 would be in his best interest. If you go to arbitration, I would take option No. 2 off the table. If the customer takes option No. 2, then you'll have a chance to regain his trust. If you are able to keep the entire family and their friends as your customers, then the $1,500 of in-store credit will be very inexpensive advertising. If you hand them $1,500, you will most likely never see any of the family again."

Bob Cooper T.J. Reilly, AAM – the author of this feature – is the owner of Same Day Auto Service, an ASA member-business in Clackamas, Ore. His e-mail address is


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