Running a Shop Operations

Empathy, Sympathy, Compassion, and the Ability to Say No

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I came in on a recent morning to find a 2004 Audi A4 backed down the driveway, blocking the gate.

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon to find a vehicle towed to the shop and left in our driveway after hours. In fact, in a number of cases we encourage it. It helps alleviate at least some of the stress that can generally be found in a disabled vehicle’s wake. What isn’t acceptable is finding a vehicle you specifically declined to work on waiting for you when you arrive at 6 a.m.

We don’t say no to a lot of people. But, there are times—if you listen carefully enough—when a caller will actually talk you out of wanting to help them, when their intent is really quite the opposite, and that’s what happened here.

The initial call was all about problems the vehicle owner was having with another shop. Problems like a lack of communication, failure to properly identify the problem, the subsequent damage it may have caused and a realistic timeline for addressing the problem.

So many of us fail to realize just how critically important properly managing a client’s expectations can be when it’s often the most critical element of our interaction with the customer. In this case, an ex-wife complicated this motorist’s expectations, along with more than a little paranoia and an inordinate amount of bad luck.

Photos courtesy Mitch Schneider

“The car’s been at the other shop for weeks I can’t get the guy to answer my calls and he isn’t even close to fixing it! He keeps telling me he’s gonna get to it, but hasn’t done a damned thing,” the Audi owner said.

I asked, “First, why is your vehicle in the shop? What’s supposed to be getting done?”

“Something about a new cam? Maybe valves, I don’t know,” he said.

I asked if anyone at the other shop mentioned anything about a timing belt or chain, or used terms like skipped or jumped. He said he didn’t know and just wanted it fixed.

I started to explain how wanting it fixed was the first step, but the cost of getting it fixed might well exceed the market value of the vehicle. And that, if the engine had gone out of time, the subsequent engine damage that followed was likely catastrophic.

“Well how much would I be looking at?” He asked.

Now, that’s one of those questions we all answer twice. My inside voice was screaming, “Too much! More than the vehicle is worth!” My outside voice explained that there were two values for every vehicle: the market value, or what someone else might be willing to pay you for it, and what that vehicle might be worth to you: the value of not replacing it. In this case, the cost of repair was likely to be prohibitive regardless.

That’s when he quietly mentioned he was just waiting for the Sheriff to arrive and help him forcibly remove his vehicle from the other shop. Then he “iced” with, “My roommate is a law student and he scared the hell out of this guy. So, getting the car out shouldn’t be a problem. Then, all I have to do is get it over to you.”

Red lights were flashing … Sirens screaming … Sheriffs? Law students? Partially disassembled? Thanks, but no thanks!

Using small words and speaking slowly, I let him know we would not be looking at this vehicle. I thought we had reached an understanding. But, here the vehicle was sitting in my driveway. I opened the back door and found parts (see above photos). I opened the hood and found a dismantled engine.

Then, I called the owner and very politely asked what the hell his vehicle was doing in my driveway. He tried to tell me that Frank said it was OK. I told him we sit next to each other all day and he said no such thing.

He tried to tell me that I said it was OK. I told him that I did everything I could to convince him not to bring the vehicle in. That was on Friday. I finished by telling him he had until 6:30 a.m. Monday morning to remove the vehicle. I gave a deep sigh of relief when I arrived at the shop that morning and it was gone.

There are many things that contribute to success in our industry:

Empathy, the ability to feel what the customer is feeling, to experience what the customer is experiencing as if it was happening to you.

Sympathy, the ability to understand and relate to what the customer is feeling, and is equally important.

Compassion is critical. It shields us from becoming callous and insensitive and fuels our desire to serve.

But, I’m not sure there is anything more important—especially, in this business—than the ability to know how and when to say no.


Mitch Schneider is a fourth-generation auto repair professional and the owner of Schneider’s Auto Repair in Simi Valley, Calif. He is an industry educator, author, seminar facilitator, and blogger at mitchschneidersworld.com. Contact him at mschneider@ratchetandwrench.com. For an archive of his columns go to ratchetandwrench.com/schneider.

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