The Art of the Estimate

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You’ve all been here with me. In spirit, if not in person.

You’re standing behind the service counter, out in the shop or on the drive when a vehicle you haven’t seen before pulls up. The driver parks and approaches you.

On this day, it was a “he” and the conversation went something like this:

“Hi, the guy at the air conditioning shop sent me,” he said. “I have an air conditioning problem, but it isn’t the kind he can fix. He said you could do it, so here I am.”

To which I responded, “Well, welcome! How can we help you?”

That was really a rhetorical question. The outside temperature was about to kiss 90 degrees. It was hot and when it’s hot in Southern California and the air conditioning in your vehicle is not working, people don’t have air conditioning problems, they have comfort problems!

“Well, when I start the car and turn on the air conditioner, it doesn’t always work,” he continued. “Sometimes it just won’t come on. Other times, it’s fine. It could be 10 minutes, sometimes 20, maybe even 45 minutes and no cold air. Then, all of a sudden, it starts working and it’s fine after that for the rest day.

“The guy at the air conditioning place said you could fix that. Can you?”

“I’m sure we can, but it’s a little late for us to look at your vehicle today,” I said. It was after three o’clock in the afternoon when this conversation started.

“If you can make arrangements to leave it with us, I’m sure we’ll be able to get to the bottom of your problem.”

He asked how long we’d need the car. I said with that kind of intermittent problem, we’d like to have the vehicle for as long as possible, preferably the whole day, to ensure we can catch it while it’s failing and isolate the problem.

I’m betting this conversation is strangely familiar to the majority of you. We’ve all been there, especially with new clients, when the majority of us have waded through questions like these patiently, at least until that first-time customer responds with, “Do you charge for estimates?”

I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, that is a “crossroads question.” It’s the question that decides where the relationship goes, the one that determines whether or not a relationship is likely or even possible.

“No, of course, not,” I told the man with the air conditioning issue.

Long pause…

“However, we do charge for the inspection and testing necessary to isolate and identify the problem and then determine what it will cost to perform the repair.”

That’s when you—excuse me, that’s when we—are generally confronted with silence. Dead air. That’s when we generally find ourselves forced to defend the fact that no one can estimate a job, no one can tell you how much it will cost to fix a problem, unless or until that someone is afforded the opportunity to actually look at the vehicle. Until then, it isn’t an estimate, it’s nothing more than a wild-ass guess!

It’s at that precise moment I find myself quietly wondering whether or not this same person is likely to ask their physician how much a surgery will be without allowing the doctor the luxury of knowing exactly what kind of surgery is going to be performed. Or, if they would ask a contractor how much some work around the house would cost without describing what work they want done.

This is a crossroads question because when it comes up, you are either going to blow whoever it is you’re talking to out the door or you’re going to take a deep breath, center yourself and begin explaining that an estimate for repair is only one of the elements in the repair process. It’s an element that actually occurs in the middle of the process and is preceded by at least six other elements all equally important to a successful outcome.

Either they will stop and listen or they will walk away. They will either appreciate what it is you are trying to explain or they will drive down the street to find someone who hasn’t a clue what it actually takes to solve the kinds of complex and confounding problems that the vehicles you and I see every day are likely to present.

This particular individual took the time to listen as I explained that we have to first harvest data about the vehicle and the problem. We generally have to drive the vehicle to verify the symptom and to get a physical sense of what’s really going on. We have to inspect the vehicle and perform whatever tests might be necessary to provide the information we need—information that allows us to compare actual performance with desired performance. Then, we have to analyze that data and evaluate it, which we hope will lead us to a diagnosis. And it is upon that diagnosis that an estimate is built.

Whether estimates are free is a crossroads question because not everyone will understand or appreciate what is involved in all of the above, let alone understand it. But, in the end, it really doesn’t change the answer. When someone asks if you charge for estimates, the answer is still simple: “No, of course not!”

We don’t charge for estimates. We never have. But, we do charge for just about everything else it takes to formulate an accurate one.


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

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