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Smoke Signals - - - What the customer is telling you, may not be what they really are saying....


Smoke Signals

I've been to numerous lectures, classes, and seminars on advanced automotive training. These classes not only show a technician the ins and outs on the latest systems, but also the technical skills needed to properly diagnose and repair today’s cars. I consider it a must for any diagnostic or line mechanic to attend these events. You’ll learn so much from them. But there is one side of the business that doesn't get any class time, (at least none that I've found.) and that’s how to deal with the complexities of what’s behind the steering wheel… the driver. That, I'm afraid, is something that only comes with experience. A lot of times the owner can be harder to diagnose than the car. So I pay attention to anything that might be of potential help in diagnosing the car, or that will help me figure out what angle the owner is up to.

Any given day at the shop I can find instances where reading the signals is just as important as performing the repairs. I've had all kinds of crazy smoke blown in my face after running a repair shop for so long. From a guy who wanted me to back date his invoice for two years ago. (Puff, puff… the smoke is in the air.) That way he could avoid paying any penalties for not getting the car tagged. Ha! Nope! Ain't happenin’! To a lady who searched through the city business owners records at the court house, so she could find my home address and bring her car over to me at 2 o’clock in the morning…. Because it was making this strange sound, but she didn't want anyone to know she was driving such an old beater. Seems she was trying to keep up with high society, but wasn't doing such a good job of it. Going to the shop during business hours made her vulnerable to her rich friends’ prying eyes. Yes, there were some smoke signals to pay attention to… (Could be what she’s smoking ?)….and no, I don’t fix cars at 2 am especially at MY own house!

Another good example was this couple who came in with a 25 year old Cadillac that they had taken to several different independent shops and to the dealer as well. All I heard was how much they spent, how much things costs, and how it never got repaired. The more they told me, the more the smoke signals grew. They clearly didn't understand how their car works, or cared to learn how it works, or paid any attention to anyone with said knowledge of how it works. Their mind was made up as to what was wrong.

First thing they told me was how the dealer was too expensive, and how they had been given a laundry list of things that needed repaired. Instead of deciding which was the most important or the most critical to repair they stuck to their own homemade diagnoses; … Every problem with the car was related to one thing. But, they didn't know what the one thing was… that’s why they brought it to the dealer. (The smoke is getting pretty thick right about now.) They expected the dealership to wave their magic wand and all would be perfect again. (Didn't know the dealership had one of those... gotta get one for myself.) My guess is that these folks have been misled somewhere in the past, and now they aren’t buying any answers from anyone.


Some of the issues could be related to a no start condition, like... the bad battery, faulty starter, loose clamps, or even the factory security systems not working, while other problems were a result of age and poor maintenance. The car wasn't in pristine condition, as they led me to believe. I would say it was more like barely hanging together, and that’s only because the rest of the bolts haven’t fallen out yet.


From one shop to the next, on and on their story went. To make matters worse things like the alternator and the starter motor were of such low quality that their condition was always in question. Now I've got to explain to the owners not only the difference in the quality of parts, but how lumping all these problems from the squeaking driver’s door to the front end rattle are not related to each other, but are separate problems. (I’m seeing smoke far off in the distance… troubles comin’.)


By now the smoke signals are telling me, “You will see this car again... and they are NOT going to be happy customers.” A few weeks later, I was right, and an aggravated owner called to give me an earful, “It's doing the same thing.”

Once the car was back in the shop it was clear it wasn't doing the “same thing”, but was another one of those long lines of issues that needed attention. I've gotta admit, I did expect it though. Those smoke signals were very clear that I would have another clash with this couple. Eventually, after a rather lengthy Powwow the smoke did clear, and all is well now.


There’s no doubt these smoke signals come in all kinds of various ways. Sometimes it's an old customer that you've known for years. They saunter up to the service desk, and tell you they took their car to another shop, but after spending a ton of money the other shop couldn't fix it. Now they’re back to have you take a look at it.


I'll ask, “Why didn't you bring it here in the first place?”


Their answer, “I was trying to save some money on the car repair. Some guy (there's that some guy again) told me this other shop had pretty good luck fixing this sort of stuff, and they were cheap, too. But now I paid them for all these parts that they put on, and it still doesn't work.” (??? “LUCK” ??? Seriously, that’s this cheap shops niche? Luck? I guess analyzing, diagnosing, and correcting the problem isn't part of their business strategy. He’s lucky I don’t have smoke coming out of my ears!) There’s a huge billowing smoke signal in the air on this one. It’s saying, “I don’t have enough spare cash to fix my car correctly, so I was gambling on the results at the cheaper shop… and I lost.”


It does take a bit of effort to read between the smoke and haze sometimes. But, doing so, you might find yourself better prepared, or in a better frame of mind to deal with the next situation. Classes are great to teach a tech. how to do this job, but life itself can teach a lot more about the people around you. It’s when those smoke signals are saying … “There’s a Loose Nut Behind The Wheel” … you’ll be glad you paid attention to the signs.


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The one glaring thing I see from your article is how customers are sometimes bounced around from shop to shop. Do you think it’s that way in the medical profession? I guess we hear stories about a wrong diagnosis and differences of opinions among doctors, but why is it that in our industry there is little consistency among repair shops and customers don’t always see value, but focus on price.


I have been told by many first-time customers that my shop was the last choice. Not because we were not respected as a reputable shop. On the contrary, our reputation is unmatched. We are known as the go-to shop, but not the cheapest. In fact, our prices probably match the dealer and at times higher. So people with issues do try the cheapest way out. They go to other shops thinking they might get lucky, but end up unlucky. When they come to me, they will often tell us, “I already spent a lot of money on this car from the last three shops, so go easy on me”. Go easy? They never once think that if they came to me in the first place, they would have SAVED money.


This industry has many great strides the past few decades. The customer….well…will always be the customer. We, as an industry need to create more consistency. And that starts with intense training and for shop owners, a deep understanding in what it takes to run a business.

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Some Guy....that fella sure does get around. The problem is 2 fold in my opinion. First the economics are still killin a lot of folks. Secondly we are all,for the most part, in the public's eye, liars. That little "box" we use tells us whats wrong with the car. No need to spend time and money on a proper diag. When the check light comes on, and they don't see any perceptible difference in the performance, then we become crooks for charging to diag and repair. Until the general population becomes educated in the complexities of the modern auto we will continue to fight this battle. Put on your armor, open the doors and prepare to do battle!!

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We, as an industry need to create more consistency. And that starts with intense training and for shop owners, a deep understanding in what it takes to run a business.


I have been toying with the idea of creating a PAC and an association. I am now doing the exploratory and defining work to see if I can achieve world domination with it. :) But seriously, it is not until we define what we want out of this industry that we will see fundamental changes.

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