Customer brings in high-mileage Camry, is told repairs could be expensive and might not fix problem, agrees to have work done and then demands a refund…

I own a shop in a small town and have a great reputation. Recently we had one of our regular customers bring us a 2000 Toyota Camry with over 200,000 miles on it.

The car would sometimes stall after driving on the freeway and coming to a stop.

Attempting to diagnose the problem, the only thing my tech could find was that one of the sensors was not reading within factory specs.

I then called the customer and explained what the tech had found. I went on to explain that because this was an intermittent problem that it could get expensive and that replacing a sensor that was not in specs could solve some of the problem, all of the problem or none of the problem. The customer agreed to have us replace it.

A week later the customer was back with the same problem. At this point I gave it to my other tech to get a fresh set of eyes on it. After diagnosing the problem, my other tech found an intake manifold vacuum leak. I again explained to the customer that this could solve of the problem, all of the problem or none of the problem because the car never acted up on us. The customer agreed.

Two weeks later the customer calls up and is complaining that he has spent $600 and the car is still doing the same thing. He now wants all his money back. I don’t think I could have explained the whole “intermittent problem” scenario to the customer any better than I have.

What would you do?

Assured Auto Works
Melbourne, Fla.

Brin Kline

When we’re faced with intermittent concerns, we must make sure that our clients know that we don’t have a magical diagnostic machine like KITT from Knight Rider, that the equipment doesn’t simply tell us what component to replace, and that we have to go through a diagnostic process, a process that’s complicated when we’re unable to duplicate the concern.

I would give the client a genuine apology and be empathetic without accepting blame. I would tell them that I understand their frustration and why they might have lost confidence in my company, but I’d assure them that my company is very good at what we do. I would ask them to give me the opportunity to do whatever it takes to make it right with them, offer to have the vehicle towed in at our expense and provide a loaner or rental to reduce the inconvenience.

Owner, Sun Automotive
Springfield, Ore.

Craig Noel

We have a “return visit” visit policy for all potential comebacks.

We ask the customer more questions about when the problems occurs. Miles driven, cold, warm, hot, raining, uphill, etc. Often we just haven’t asked enough questions to help our technician pinpoint the problem. We then go for a test drive with the customer to see if they can duplicate the problem. If nothing is found during the second visit we will ask the customer if they are willing to allow one of our technicians to drive their vehicle back and forth to work for a week so we can identify the problem. We don’t charge our customer for this service.

Sometimes we will even allow our customer to take the vehicle during a very risky repair (intake gasket on the second visit) without paying. It builds confidence in the customer while at the same time allowing them to drive the car to see if the problem is solved.

Answer for the shop at the current position?

I would offer to the customer a full refund but request one last attempt to repair it and a) replicate the symptom with her personally by offering to pick up her car myself in person as I deliver a loaner/rental car b) state to her that all expenses during this visit are at no charge (unless clearly a major concern is uncovered) and that after the vehicle is verified repaired. c) I would sit down with the customer and discuss the possible charges or refund. I would start by asking one little question:

“Mrs. Smith, I am more interested in seeing you in the future than I am about my investment in these repair costs, so how could I best do that for us both”? The answer from the customer will 99 times out of 100 be the correct one and they are the ones making the decision. You never know, most of the times their answer is cheaper than your offer.

What the shop owner did

The shop owner offered to give the customer another hour of diagnostics for free but has not heard back from the customer.

T.J.’s thoughts

First of all, it always makes my hair stand up on end when I hear another shop use the word “diagnose” or “diagnostics”. The word implies a final conclusion. If the shop owner used this word with his customer that could be part of the problem. Always sell “tests,” not “diagnostics,” as the latter word implies a diagnosis or conclusion.

I think sometimes that no matter what you do you are going to have an unhappy customer. The trick is to make sure the customer is unhappy with their vehicle and not unhappy with you.

I suspect that they customer has probably lost faith in the shop owner’s technicians in spite of the “intermittent talk”. I sell the customer on how great my technicians are, their qualifications and their years of experience.

The customer needs to be educated that you follow test procedures from the factory Toyota manual and that testing is not always a 100 percent indicator of what’s wrong especially when the problem is intermittent.

Retesting the vehicle at no-charge would be one option. Another option would be to ask the customer to take it to a different shop for second opinion. Have the customer ask the other shop to look over your invoices and see if they feel you should offer a partial or total refund. I’ve done this on several occasions, but have never had to refund any money. Caution…if your invoice isn’t extremely well documented you may end up refunding money you didn’t have to.

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