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  Management Feature

'What Would You Do?'

Posted 12/12/2011
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 to 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?

The following situation comes from Nate Smith, owner of Nate Smith Optimal Auto Care Inc. in Santa Cruz, Calif.

What Would You Do?“I always read your articles in AutoInc. with interest. I’m now wrestling with a question, and I thought you might offer me some insight.

“The vehicle is a 1996 Audi A4 Quattro. Not a new customer, but one we have not seen for several years.

“A customer calls and asks for a quote to replace a heater core and clutch. We give him the quote. Customer then brings the car in and asks for us to replace the heater core.

“We asked if he would like us to diagnose the problem and he said no, just replace the heater core. So we replaced the heater core. It’s a big job on this car – like 10 hours, because you have to pull the dash to access the heater box.

“Of course, this did not repair his problem, which turns out to be water blowing out of the dash vents.

“When he returned the car a week later to show me the water leaking from under the heater housing and water droplets coming out of the vents, it sure looked like A/C condensation to me. Definitely not coolant. Yes, he’d been using the A/C. Yes, he can hear water sloshing around as he drives, and he can hear the noise of the blower fan picking up water.

“He is mad because 1) we didn’t repair his problem; and 2) now there is more water leaking out than there was before, so he thinks we made it worse.

“I suggested that perhaps the recharging of the A/C – which we did as part of the heater core replacement – has given him a more efficient A/C system, and so it is now generating more water than before.

“So, I offered to take it apart to see what was wrong – if he is prepared to pay the whole repair bill if we were not at fault for making his problem worse.

“With the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, I think first our service adviser should have asked for a symptom so we could tell the tech and he could know what he was supposed to repair. He could then test it when done to make sure it was fixed. Second, our tech – when he did not see anything obviously wrong with the old heater core – should have asked what it was he was supposed to be fixing. So perhaps we did not handle the original interaction properly. But we did specifically offer to diagnose and were turned down.

“To complicate this (it is the real world, after all), the guy is something of a jerk. He’s obnoxious and accusatory and found fault with our original job – scratches on his radio and scratches on a piece of wood trim on the dashboard that ‘weren’t there before.’ We have since replaced the wood trim panel ($400) and written him a check to compensate for the ‘damage’ to the value of his radio ($175), so nobody here is thinking this is a customer we want to keep. He even told our tech that his previous shop had tossed the keys to him and told him not to come back (so apparently someone else agrees with our assessment of him).

“With a nice, friendly customer – someone we would want to establish a long-term relationship with – I think I would bend over backward to help him out of this messy situation. But it is hard to want to help a jerk.

“Do we owe him anything at this point? Is there a right answer?”

What would you do?

Pete Rudloff
Pete Rudloff

Peter V. “Pete” Rudloff, owner, Pete’s Garage Inc., Newark, Del., and member, ASA Mechanical Division Operations Committee – “I would encourage you to look past if the guy is a ‘good’ customer or a ‘jerk’ and focus on the facts of the repair. If you can get an ironclad repair solution for the customer, you will likely find he is less combative and really just wants his car fixed.

In my book, any customer who sees the value of putting thousands of dollars into a 15-year-old car is generally a logical thinking person and only needs the right information to make a good decision. Coming up with the right info is your job.

“Logically speaking, liquid at the vents is going to originate from one or more of only three places: either an external water leak that is accumulating in the HVAC box, HVAC box condensation drain that is plugged or a leaking heater core.

“According to the service info, the HVAC box must be completely removed to replace the heater core, as well as to service the drain. I would consider it best practice to inspect, and if necessary, clean the drain at this time. Unless I was positive it was operating as designed, I would ask the customer for permission to inspect the drain. This may mean pulling the dash again; best-case scenario is that you could get this working without removing the dash.

“I would approach the customer with the following known facts:

“1. Heater core is not leaking.

“2. Water at the vents can be caused by a drain obstruction, and/or an external water leak.

“3. You would like an opportunity to verify if it is currently draining as designed.

“4. Even if there is an external water leak, it is possible the drain is not flowing as designed.

“I am inclined to believe there is a drain issue with the HVAC. I would feel obligated to address this issue in some way. You will have to decide for yourself if cleaning the HVAC drain, and verifying it works properly, is a reasonable part of a heater core or evaporator replacement. I believe it is, but some could make the argument that it is above and beyond standard practice. If that is the case, you should offer it as an additional service while the dash is removed.

“My advice is to inspect and repair the drain at your cost. If you can establish the drain is flowing, and there is an external leak, you should not offer to resolve that for free; I encourage you to pay your tech his full rate during the redo process. View this as a training opportunity. No shop runs flawlessly, and how the leadership responds to adversity is what separates the average shop from a great shop.

“If the customer allows you the opportunity to inspect the drain, and you are able to resolve his issues, I would offer him a sincere apology. I would explain why the situation occurred, and how you have modified your shop’s operating procedures to keep this from occurring again. I would further encourage him to keep your shop in mind for future repairs, and let him know how important it is to you to provide good service.”

Here is what T.J. Reilly told the owner:
“Having dealt with similar situations, I now have a company policy that states that the technician is responsible to make sure that the repair he is making has been properly diagnosed. Any technician who replaces a part that has not been diagnosed properly will not get paid for the labor performed.

“In regard to your ethical question, Dale Carnegie, the author of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People has a saying in his book that goes like this, ‘Here lies the body of William Jay, who died maintaining his right of way. He was right, dead right as he sped along, but he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.’

“That being said, you need to decide what your goal is. Is your goal to ‘win the war’ or to ‘win the battle’?

“If you do what is legally correct (strictly honoring your contractual obligations), you will win the battle but definitely lose the war. Today, more than ever, you need to go the extra mile to protect your reputation. Just a few bad reviews online can cost you many thousands of dollars in lost future business.

“Now here’s the most important part. If you expect to keep an upset customer’s business and his referrals, you first have to fix his _______?, before you can fix his car.

“The correct answer is emotions! The customer needs to feel understood. He needs to know and feel that you empathize with his situation.

“After you’ve fixed his emotions, I would recommend that you ask your customer what you should have done differently in the repair process and what he would like you to do for him now.

“If your customer is out of control emotionally, ask him to go home and sleep on it. Don’t agree to anything while your customer is out of control. Put him in a free rental car if you have to.

“Strangely enough, if you can make a customer like this happy, he or she will send you lots and lots of new customers.”

T.J. Reilly, AAM

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


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