Running a Shop Leadership How to Lead

Taking Sides

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Last Friday, a customer (we’ll call her Mrs. Jones) came in stating that both her headlights were out and demanded we look at her car right now. Mrs. Jones did not have an appointment. She also told my service advisor, Kristina, that she needed to get to work, and therefore could not leave the car. We had a packed house with a ton of dropoffs and three other customers already waiting with scheduled appointments.

Kristina said to Mrs. Jones, “If the issue is just a simple bulb replacement, we’ll get it done, no problem. But being that both headlights are out, that could indicate an electrical problem, so you may have to leave the car.” Mrs. Jones became irate, raised her voice, and said, “I guess you didn’t hear me. I can’t leave the car and you need to get someone to look at it now. I have to get to work!”

Kristina kept her cool and asked Mrs. Jones to have a seat. She let her know that a technician would look at it soon. Mrs. Jones sat down, pulled out her cell phone, called someone and repeated the conversation she just had with Kristina. At one point she said loudly, “I made her take my car in now!” There were three other customers sitting in the waiting room.


Upset over what Mrs. Jones had said, Kristina left the office and went over to Bill, the manager, and told him what was going on. I happened to be on my way to Canada for the weekend when Bill texted me about the situation.

Luckily for everyone, it was just the bulbs. The car was done within an hour and Mrs. Jones’ mood completely changed. She paid the bill with no fuss and went on her way. But the aftermath was an upset service advisor, a confused manager and an emotional ride to Canada for me trying to sort things out.

A little while later, I called Bill and Kristina to get briefed on what happened. I thanked both of them for keeping their cool in a very difficult situation. I let them know that we would pick up the conversation when I got back.

All weekend long I thought about the situation. Who was right? Whose side should I take? Should I remain neutral? Should I tell Kristina to always respect the perspective of the customer in all cases? Eventually, I decided to put the problem aside for the weekend and try to relax with my family.

When I got back, I pulled Kristina aside and asked her to tell me the entire story again. I listened, asked a few questions, but didn’t pass judgement. As she spoke, I could hear the passion in her voice and see how upset she was. I put myself in her shoes, and could only imagine the anxiety she must have felt dealing with this customer on a very busy morning.

My assessment: Kristina made the best decision given the situation, and kept an irate customer as happy as possible without sacrificing the other customers waiting with scheduled appointments. Not an easy task.

I thanked Kristina again for maintaining her cool under fire. I let her know that sometimes we don’t know what’s going on inside the customer’s head. But I also let Kristina know that I am sorry for how this customer treated her. Most of all, I let her know that maintaining her professionalism is the reason why I hired her for this position. And for that, I was proud of her.

Shop owners need to instill a sense of security, a feeling of being protected in the workplace. One of the ways you do this is by asking questions and letting the employee explain what happened in situations like this. If employees don’t feel secure and protected, the result will be the exact opposite of what Kristina did. The employee will be left to defend herself and that’ll get ugly and escalate into a confrontation with a customer. When that happens, both the customer and the shop will lose.

In the end, it was important that I empathize with Kristina. Some may call this taking sides, but it really isn’t. In addition to stress, the employee may also fear how the boss is going to react. So, when an employee keeps her cool during a difficult situation, the boss has to reward that with a pat on the back.

Kristina will be tested again with more difficult situations. Although she’ll have to once again control her emotions, she’ll have a much easier time knowing that I’m there for her. When that happens, both the customer and the shop will win.

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 Reach him at

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