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Flagging Questionable Customers

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I recently had the opportunity to drive across town to visit with some old friends—some good friends—to attend a vendor expo and share a little bit about what I’ve learned about “getting unstuck.”

You’d think that after a lifetime of association meetings, vendor expos and presentations it would all start to get old. But, it hasn’t. There is always something new to learn, that one golden nugget, something worthwhile to share.

At this meeting, I took away an idea that could save us all a lot of grief and aggravation, heartache and cold, hard cash. But, to make it work I’m going to need your help.

During the vendor expo I did what almost all of us do or at least, should do. I engaged everyone I could in a discussion of current threats, future opportunities and best practices. After all, who could possibly serve as a more productive source of quality information than a group of dedicated and involved professionals? It was great—wonderful chance to mentor and be mentored—an incredible chance to learn and grow. 

I was enjoying every minute when one of the shop owners started talking about his quest to fill his shop with “perfect customers.” In the course of defining that perfect customer, it became apparent that there are many, that your “perfect customer” might not fit my business model, nor mine yours. Staff Graphic

It also became apparent that by the very act of defining that idealized individual, by default you almost had to create an even more pristine image of the “not-so-perfect” customer. This portrait of the less-than-perfect client led the shop owner to the implementation of a “red flag” warning system and that’s the idea that stopped me dead in my tracks and left me thinking for the rest of the evening, the long drive home and most of the following day.

Now, you have to understand that living in Southern California, the very idea of a red flag warning system resonates with most of us because it is something that is very real: an effective warning system used to alert us to the real danger of brush fires caused by high winds, an abundance of dry brush and single-digit humidity.

When the red flag goes up, we know we have to be a little more diligent and a lot more careful with regard to anything that could ignite the kind of firestorm we’ve been forced to endure in the past and are sure to confront again in the future. And, that was exactly how this shop owner was integrating that same concept into the daily operation of his shop.

A vehicle that you’ve never seen before is brought to you hanging off the back of a tow truck or “piggy-backing” a ride on a flatbed. Red flag.

A vehicle and its owner appear in the driveway and at the counter with a litany of failed attempts to repair an elusive problem, an odyssey that led that vehicle owner to every other shop in town. Red flag.

A vehicle arrives with an unending list of post-inspection maintenance items that have never been touched, undone maintenance that can only exist for three reasons: the vehicle owner was truly unaware of these services, the vehicle owner was aware, but could not afford to have those services performed, or, the owner was aware and chose not to perform those services. Red flag. Maybe multiple. 

A vehicle suffering from terminal neglect, an owner willing to ride that pony until it dropped. A very large, very bright red flag. 

The problem is that an argument can be made—a powerful argument—that you can rescue a red-flag customer from their own bad judgment or lack of knowledge by educating them. But, educating some customers seems like a never-ending process that burns up two of the most valuable of all your resources: time and money.  

Nevertheless, creating a hierarchy of situations that should constitute a reason for red flag awareness makes perfect sense and that’s where I’d like your help. I’ve started the list here, but I’d like you to pitch in and send me some other examples of red-flag warnings you’ve learned the hard way over the years. 

Once we create that raw list, we can move the pieces around until we have a hierarchy of conditions and/or situations we can all agree should be avoided. I’d even go so far as to suggest we publish not only the list, but share the license plate numbers, names and addresses of red-flag vehicles and their owners as well.

And, why not? There are plenty of sites that rate shops and shop owners.

If nothing else, it would be great to add that list of warnings to our courtesy checks or vehicle inspection sheets. 

So, what do you think? Are you in? 

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 Contact him at

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