If timing is everything, this shop’s ‘trained’ service adviser apparently didn’t know everything

What would you do?

A well-respected ASA shop had the following dilemma: “I just hired a new service adviser and thought I had him trained, but he made a huge mistake.

“A customer dropped off his vehicle to have some service work performed, including an oil change, tune up, repack front wheel bearings and transmission fluid and cooling system service.

“The customer was quoted a flat rate before the work was performed. The vehicle was handed to our most experienced technician, who had the entire job completed in less than four hours.

“My service adviser called the customer about 30 minutes before the technician was finished to let the customer know he could pick it up at noon. When the customer picked up the vehicle, he was upset at the labor charge of $690. The average labor rate in our area justifies this charge. The customer paid the bill and left unhappy.

“Because I was out of town, my adviser sent me an email about the situation, admitting that he shouldn’t have called the customer so soon.” What would you do?

Terry Wynter, AAM

Terry Wynter, AAM
Terry Wynter Auto Service Center
3811 Fowler St.
Fort Myers, Fla.

I would call the customer and begin by asking him how the car was running and if he was pleased with our work. I would assure him I had checked our calculations, and the charges were correct. I would further explain that labor charges are not the actual hours it takes to do a particular job but the number of hours charged according to the labor guide we use. This guide suggests a flat rate for the amount of time it should take a trained technician, at an average skill level to perform the tasks.

I’d tell him that the technician who worked on his car is above average, and he was able to “beat the book” – that is, perform the services in less time than the labor guide suggests – and that he’d have been charged the same labor fee if the job had taken longer.

To encourage the customer to visit again, I would offer him a gift certificate to thank him for the business. And I’d reiterate to the service adviser the importance of never calling unnecessary attention to the labor charges.

Two benefits of increased experience are the faster completion of tasks and a better quality of workmanship. It takes years to get to this point, but it’s hard to convey these attributes to some of our service clients and even more difficult to explain flat rate as a per-task labor charge.

I often tell clients that to get the job done quickly and accommodate their transportation needs, we’ll assign a team to their car. It consists of one-to-three technicians, with a master tech leading the team and verifying the outcome. There’s no added charge for this additional attention because the labor times are published and industry-standard.

Jim O’Neill, AAM

Jim O’Neill, AAM
Chino Autotech Inc.
4702 Chino Ave.
Chino, Calif.

Misunderstandings like this can happen in any shop. A simple explanation of labor times at the cashier’s collection point, before the client voices the time-spent objection, can go a long way toward defusing the complaint.

In this case, two things would probably help ease the tension and restore the relationship. First, clearly state the particular area of our company policy to the service writer. We believe there is no such thing as over-training.

Second, make personal contact with the unhappy client and talk it out. Apologize for the misunderstanding and accept the blame. In similar unhappy transactions, I offer free service, such as oil changes for a number of times, depending on the severity of the incident.

Often, the issue will come up again when the customer shows up for his “freebie.” Such conversations can help the healing process. I believe we can never say “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” too many times to the folks who keep us in business and keep our staff employed.

What the shop owner did

The shop owner contacted the customer and told him how a flat-rate system works and why it ultimately benefits the customer. He also explained that he had called the dealership for a price quote on the same job, and its price was just slightly higher. The customer said he was still shocked at the price, but was appreciative of the personal contact and would be back. The shop owner then mailed the customer a $200 credit voucher for future repairs.

T.J.’s thoughts

Obviously the average customer doesn’t understand that auto shops don’t charge by the hour but by the job. It’s always better not to put yourself in a situation of having to explain yourself to the customer. This customer definitely needs a personal call from the owner, if not a face-to-face meeting.

Before that contact, I would shop my competition and the dealer to ensure my prices were competitive. I would then explain to the customer that usually an average technician just barely makes book time. If the technician takes longer, the customer is never charged extra.

That’s the only way we could possibly quote a price and stick to it. I would also ask him what I could do to make the situation better. If he wanted a discount, I would give it to him and chalk it up to a learning experience for the adviser.