WWYD? For this Midwest shop’s loaner car situation, the devil is in the detailing

QUESTION: I own a small auto shop in the Midwest. I recently had a customer return a loaner vehicle in not-so-good condition. The vehicle smelled like pot and there was “shake” all over the center console and passenger seat.

The customer spends a lot of money with me, so I don’t want to lose him. But I can’t rent the loaner car out again until it’s completely detailed. And the soonest the detail shop has an opening is next week at a cost of $150.

Should I ask the customer to pay for the downtime and the cleaning?

Do I send them an email?

Call him?

What would you do?

Terry Wynter (Terry Wynter Auto Service Center, Fort Myers, Fla.)

Terry Wynter

This customer most definitely took advantage of the shop’s loaner-car program.

Assuming, though, that there was no written agreement concerning liability for the cleanup, I would not pursue the customer for expenses related to downtime and a detail service.

That could be a very expensive price to pay for calling attention to the necessity of protecting yourself and business when providing a loaner vehicle to a customer.

There are two ways to provide your customers with that convenience, without putting the shop at risk for lawsuits and other damage claims.

First, a shop owner could arrange with a rental-car company for a discounted rate. This would keep vehicle usage at arm’s length and eliminate shop liability, while still providing customers a service during the repair time.

A second option is for the shop to provide loaner cars. However, this service needs to be offered only on the advice of legal, accounting and insurance professionals that can assist with shop protection.

In this shop’s situation, an effective car-loaner form would have outlined all areas of responsibility concerning the vehicle and related liability and would have made it much easier to request payment from the customer.

T.J.’s thoughts

TJ Reilly

First, I would make sure I had a loaner-car contract in place that every customer had to sign before taking the car.

The contract should be written by a competent attorney who is familiar with the laws of your state, making sure the contract also states when the loaner car is due back.

There have been legal cases where a rental-car company was not able to get their vehicle returned because the contract didn’t have a return date.

Personally, I don’t like loaner cars because I don’t think there is much perceived value. I prefer rental cars, which you can always give “free” to a customer if you choose.

A rental car with a price attached will prevent customers from taking their vehicle in for quick, inexpensive repairs. This way you’ll have the car available for the most profitable repairs.

This shop’s situation is touchy and should be handled delicately. I would most definitely not write or email the customer. A phone call would be much better.

Communication is more than just words; it’s also voice inflection and facial expressions. Unless you want to fire your customer, never send a written complaint.

I would call the customer to see if he was satisfied with the repairs on his vehicle. During the conversation, I would casually mention the problems with the loaner car.

I would then explain that costs are involved with cleaning the car. If the customer offers to pay, I would let him. If he doesn’t, I would let it go and chalk it up to the cost of doing business.

Because the average shop pays $75 to $150 to get a new customer, the cost of cleaning the loaner car is not very much when considering the value of the customer and their potential referrals.

T.J Reilly, AAM, is the owner of Same Day Auto Service, an ASA-member business in Clackamas, Ore. His email address is TJ@SameDay/AutoService.com.