Bruce Howes’ View from the Helm: Why we don’t fix cars

Bruce Howes

I teach our people that at Atlantic Motorcar we don’t fix cars, we provide transportation solutions, be it a loaner car, valet service, shuttle, alternative financing, etc.

In other words, we solve problems.

And in life, the more complex the problem, the greater the reward to solve it. Neurosurgeons vs. ditch diggers? Both are honorable professions, but one takes home a lot more green.

Part of that problem solving is understanding what the customer really wants when they come into your store.

A popular perception is they “want a price,” but over the years I’ve boiled it down to a different paradigm.

Customer Priorities/Questions/Answers

  • Trust – Can I trust them to treat me fairly? (Reviews, Show and Tell, Being Respectful)
  • Knowledge – Do they know my car type? (Explain/show shop experience and background)
  • When – When will my car be complete? (Give firm times you will call with updates, honor them)
  • Warranty – How long will this repair last? (3 Years/36,000 Miles, 3 times most shops)
  • How – How do I get to home and work? (Loaner cars, Shuttle, Pick Up and Delivery)
  • Pay – How will I pay for this? (Bosch Card – 6 Months To Pay, Credit Cards, Check)
  • Cost – How much will this cost? (Build value, how your repairs will save them money in the long run.

The easier and quicker you can answer these customer priorities, the quicker and easier the sale.

If you can answer them before they’re even asked, you’ll close more sales. If you can provide a solution before a “No,” then you’re rocking. It’s much more difficult to overcome a “No,” so prevent them by anticipating.

It’s All About Trust

Every sale is therefore not just about fixing cars. It’s promises and an agreement to solve a problem based on a certain set of terms, in exchange for money.

In other words, it’s an economic and trust agreement.

All the customer has to do is pay, and he/she has kept their side of the agreement.

Our job is a tad more complex, which is why we get to charge for it. If we’re very good, we can charge more.

Remember when I said earlier we entered into a “trust agreement” with the customer? People get emotional when trust is broken, some more so than others.

So when we can’t keep our side of the deal, regardless of the reason, we must re-solve that customer problem all over again. If we fail to re-solve that customer problem again, then the customer feels violated. They feel like we’ve taken their money and not held up our side of the bargain.

Are They Justified To Be Upset?

Yes, as we’ve violated trust by not keeping our side of the bargain. However, we can mitigate that by providing a new solution.

We can and should mitigate any anger and frustration by first empathetically listening to the customer’s frustrations. Not arguing, not by making excuses.

Listen First

The easiest and quickest way to end a customer “bending your ear” is to listen, and then say: “Mr. Jones, you’re absolutely right. I can see how this is a problem to you, and I’m sorry this occurred.”

Then shut up. For a moment, because the customer just told you exactly how to solve their problem. You were listening, right?

Not only does that make the customer feel “heard” and defuse the situation, the customer will likely get you the ANSWER on how to solve the problem… and if we really listen… regain their trust.

Now you know the answer: “Mr. Jones, since you missed your ride, I’m going to have my team bring your car right to your house when completed.”

Here’s the good part: “And because we want to make this right, they’re going to do a quick detail on the car for you (or fill the gas tank, anything that is of value to that particular customer). Will that work for you?”

All we have to do is listen, then re-solve the problem using the solution the customer just came you. Be it a loaner car, shuttle, Uber, cash discount, home delivery. It’s not only ethical, it’s smart business.

Give In Abundance

Here’s a tip. Whatever the customer asks for, give them more. Make it memorable. Go over the top. It will be worth it. And write a personal card and leave it in the car. Your Service Advisors have these, right?

Likewise, a personal phone call from you a few days later – to “follow up and make sure everything is OK” – will go a long way toward building that relationship, showing that you care.


Remember, we’re not in the car repair business, we’re in the problem-solving business, the transportation business, the people business. Car repair is incidental.

Under promise and over deliver. Both in time and dollars.

When a problem comes up, listen to the customer’s solution, do it, and you’ve not only saved the customer, you’ve shown your business is honorable.

Understand that problems will happen. Solved correctly we lock in customer loyalty, often for a lifetime. Unsolved we damage the reputation of our business and our industry.

When a customer proposes a solution, listen, and then give graciously, give in abundance, exceed their expectations. You’ll win every time.

In short, invest in your customers, just like you’d invest in your employees or team members.

Don’t forget that personal card, and personal followup call.

They make all the difference.

Bruce Howes

Bruce J. Howes is owner of Atlantic Motorcar Services, Wicasset, Maine. He also works in emergency medicine as a second career, and is a nationally registered Advanced Emergency Medical Technician (A-EMT). He serves as a board member at the Maine Maritime Museum, and various local nonprofit organizations. His shop’s website,, has been selected by AutoInc. magazine as a Top 10 Website on three different occasions. He can be reached at