Would You Choose Survival or Honesty?

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A massive snow storm hit us hard the third week in February, three years ago. It shut us down for two full days. That winter was worse than most and the effects were killing business. The anxiety, caused by the harsh weather and lack of work, was wearing on everyone. Winter storms might be good for future work, but on that particular week, there was only one thing on my mind, and that was Friday—payday. With little money generated for the week, we were getting a little desperate.

Early on Wednesday morning I assembled the crew and explained our situation. I assured everyone that it was temporary. I let them know that although we cannot control the weather, we can control how we react. I urged everyone to remain upbeat, stick to our plan and pull together.

Among a few small jobs we had that Wednesday morning was a Subaru scheduled for a timing belt, four new tires and a 60,000-mile service; a nice profitable job. I dispatched the job and instructed the technician to perform the multi-point inspection and report back to me ASAP. We needed this job to go smoothly and completely for the week.

About 20 minutes later, the tech returned with upsetting news. The cylinder heads were leaking coolant. I now had to tell the customer that the pre-sold work had a more pressing issue. I knew by my increased heart rate that adrenaline was kicking in. It’s a feeling I have become quite used to as a shop owner.

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I called the customer at her office and explained the problem. I also explained that it would be in her best interest to replace the hoses, spark plugs, thermostat and flush the cooling system if we were to do the cylinder head work. After a series of “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” she asked how much it would be to do all the work, including all the other pre-sold work. I knew that if I could sell this one job, it would bring in much needed dollars to the shop and greatly help with making payroll. I gave her the entire price and after a long pause she said, “Do it all.”

After printing an updated work order, I ran over to the tech and gave him the good news. As I was walking back to my desk, I suddenly had a thought: Is this Subaru covered under the extended warranty for cylinder head failures? If so, shouldn’t the customer be informed? I asked the shop foreman to find out. After a quick call to the local dealer, the foreman confirmed it: This customer was indeed entitled to have the cylinder head work done at the dealer, at no charge. My thoughts immediately went back to Friday—payday.

What do I do? Tell the customer? Don’t tell the customer? This is when that devil shows up on one shoulder just like in those old Bugs Bunny cartoons and says, “Hey, don’t be stupid, you need the money for payroll and besides, the customer will never know.” But the angel on the other shoulder tells you, “Joe, do what’s right.”

I have to be honest; at the time, I was tempted not to tell the customer and began to rationalize in my mind that this is a matter of survival. But, the angel won out and I decided to call the customer and give her the news.

The customer was thrilled. She could not thank me enough and said she would be back to finish the other work, which she did. She called the local dealer, and later that afternoon a flatbed arrived. We all watched as the flatbed drove away with the Subaru on top, fading into the winter sunset. Business picked up a little that week, and with some “creative” cash juggling, we made payroll.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the customer began telling her friends and the people at her job what I had done. The news spread like wildfire and not long after that, her coworkers and friends were showing up at our service counter. We gained quite a few customers.

Looking back, being honest was the right call. All of us are confronted with situations that will test our moral character. And it’s easy to cross the line and rationalize in a moment of crisis, especially financial crisis. It’s always better to maintain your integrity and do what’s right, because chances are your future survival just might be determined by your honesty


Joe Marconi has more than three decades of experience in the automotive repair industry. He is the owner of Osceola Garage in Baldwin Place, N.Y., a business development coach for Elite Worldwide and co-founder of autoshopowner.com. Reach him at jmarconi@ratchetandwrench.com

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