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Accidents Happen

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Audra Fordin

I wish every driver who entered my shop had a great experience. Most of them do. But when you’re working with automobiles—complicated machines just like people!—accidents happen. Parts malfunction. People mess up. Drivers misunderstand. Service advisers misspeak. You can’t avoid it.

I’ve been in the auto industry for over 30 years. Heck, I remember when we used to handwrite the invoices. In that time, I’ve lived through all kinds of ways to get it done. I find that if I want quality control, I must have policies and procedures in place.

Still, some problems slip through the cracks. For instance, one of my customers needed a new rotor.

We replaced it and got him back on the road. A few days later, he called with a concern. His car was making an unnerving noise. When he drove slowly, there was a scraping sound. I asked him to come by the shop so we could do an inspection. Turns out the backing plate was touching. I had the driver wait and apologized for the inconvenience.

Another one of my customers needed brakes and rotors. A few weeks later, he returned with a complaint. At high speeds, hitting the brakes caused a vibration. One of the rotors was defective. He wasn’t too upset since the manufacturer was at fault. I made sure he understood there wouldn’t be additional charges for the extra labor.

Unfortunately, there isn’t always another person to blame. Some accidents occur under your own roof. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s best to own the situation.

A few weeks ago, I “skipped a step.” One of my best friends texted me that her mom’s car (you already know this is going to be a doozy) broke down on her way to lunch; she was having it towed in, and wanted me to get it back to her the same day. A small communication error is all it took to cause a huge mess.

The original repair was a blown hose. That caused the engine to run hot. Simple job (or so I thought). We put in the hose, filled her up with coolant and sent her on her way. The next day, she went to her car and there was white smoke. Turns out the car needed a head gasket, too. Now, she’s stuck again.

My intentions were good, but skipping one simple step made all those intentions null and void. Since then, I have apologized and groveled. And to make matters worse, they have an inspection due on their other car and they’re not comfortable bringing it in. Ugh.

Sometimes a technician is too optimistic about how long a repair will take. An example: “Sure, wheel alignment? No problem. Hang out in the lobby. We’ll be done in an hour!”

Making a promise like that is a bad move if the rack was occupied by another vehicle with a strut job on it.

Two hours passed and the driver got irritated. Three hours passed, he made it known he was irate, took his car and left.

We have 10-minute meetings every Saturday before we go home. Rest assured the lack of communication with this customer was the topic. I shared a mantra with them:
“For happy customers, underpromise and overdeliver!”

It stinks that we lost a customer, but it was for the greater good since I was able to stress the importance of clear communication.

Here’s one more case study from a service advisor’s perspective. It illustrates more so why communication is so important. A driver asked for a “tune up.” (I don’t like that phrase, because it doesn’t mean anything. Modern engines are controlled by computers. There isn’t even anything to tune up.) Instead of asking follow-up questions to determine why the driver felt he needed a “tune-up,” the service advisor instructed my crew to do a general inspection.

“If my service advisor had started the interaction with open follow-up questions, the conversation might have gone completely different.” —Audra Fordin, owner, Great Bear Auto Repair

One of my technicians found a big problem. Their brakes were in bad shape and needed to be replaced. We called the driver to inform them of the problem. They got upset. “All I wanted was a quick tune-up. Why are you trying to sell me a $300 brake job?” I asked some questions in an attempt to figure out exactly what the driver wanted. It wasn’t successful. They thought it was necessary to get a “tune up” every now and then.

I tried to educate the driver about how much car engines have changed, but he didn’t seem interested. It’s probably because he already decided we were ripping him off.

If my service advisor had started the interaction with open follow-up questions, the conversation could have gone completely different. He might have been more receptive to it. Who knows?

You can’t reverse the past. You can only modify your actions so your shop will do a better job in the future. Accidents happen. This is unavoidable. Focus on what counts: the speed and quality of your reactions.

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