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The Long and Short of it - - customer's explanations can clue you in on the repair

The Long and Short of it

For those of us that stand behind the service counter we have a few general greetings we’ll use, usually a welcome or a hello, but eventually we come to the preverbal question, “What’s the problem with the car?” Now, its story time. Everybody has their own way of explaining things, and over the years of standing at the counter I’ve noticed a pattern to these explanations. There’s the short, quick version, and then there is the long winded explanation that starts off with the trip to grandma’s house last summer and mentioning every bump or bruise the car has ever had. The ironic part is that when the story is long the actual problem is quite small in comparison. But, the shorter the explanation is, the larger the problem seems to be.

I’m not sure why, but it almost always seems to work out that way. Take car fires for an example. When their recall of the events leading up to the demise of the car is shortened to just a few words I’ve got a pretty good idea that whatever is being dropped off by the tow truck doesn’t even resemble much of a car anymore. However, if I seem to be listening to the next documentary on the evaluation of the modern car or how affective a cheap set of overseas sockets and a no#2 screwdriver are then it’s a safe bet there’s less of a fire and more of quick and simple problem here.

Just the other day a car was towed in because it wouldn’t start, and the only explanation the owner could manage was that he changed the battery. After checking the car out it was very clear the PCM (Power Control Module) was off line and wasn’t communicating to the rest of the systems. The more I tried to pry information out of him the less information I seemed to get. Further testing revealed the PCM must have taking a large dose of high voltage/current… it’s a fried computer for sure. So, instead of a quick fix (As he was expecting) it was a costly repair involving a new PCM and complete programming. Just replaced the battery aye? My guess is he tried to jump the car with the leads backwards or installed the battery backwards, or both. But, I never did get him to admit to it. I couldn’t rule out a lightning strike or a once in a lifetime PCM failure due to changing a battery, I just couldn’t prove it one way or another.

A complete reversal of the short story is of course the long versions. A gal dropped her car off early one morning with several hand written pages of information wedged under the service bay door. The information started out with the day and time she bought it to the last oil change. Sure, I like to have as much information as possible; however a lot of the stuff on this list had nothing to do with the current condition of the car. Honestly, I really don’t need to know how many times you went through the automatic car wash last year. However, after reading through the documented average gas mileage per year I came to the very end of the last page which offered the most important information, the fuel pump had been changed just a week earlier, but the only problem she was concerned with was that the cruise control didn’t work. Then in a little side note on the edge of the page she mentioned that the turn signals and brake lights have been blowing a fuse too. The entire problem turned out to be a turn signal lead that was trapped between a fuel tank strap and the body. It took me longer to read the information than it did to find the problem.

Not to be outdone, there are the auctioneer ramblers that will rattle off a whole list of things they’ve done to the car in a non-stop-get-it-all-out-in- one-breath type of explanation. They’ll go from one extreme to another so fast that I don’t even have time to write anything down. Some will try to sound like they are incredibly knowledgeable about the various systems in their particular car, and it’s not uncommon for them to spew some sort of trivia about how many cars were produced that year, or what production changes there were, or the name of the guy on the assembly line that installed the ash tray. Seems they know more about the car than I do, except how to fix it.

As usual, the long drawn out story ends up being something simple. The last backyard mechanic with the compiled knowledge of automotive facts failed to mention he just installed a new alternator, even though I now know the name of the guy who installs the ash trays. The problem turned out to be a blown fuse, which happens to be the very fuse that powers up the very thing he just changed...the alternator. And, of course, it was one of those cheap-o alternators with a life time warranty. But, as with a lot of these overly informed experts of the home garage they believe that all parts are the same and they all come from the same place and all those high priced parts stores just mark parts up.

Well, there is one more scenario to follow along with the long and short story telling conundrum. That’s the over exaggerators. Exaggerations and mystic supernatural tales are a completely different issue. These days it’s sometimes hard to separate facts from fiction when it comes to what might be happening in a car’s electronics. Mainly because of all the incorporated control modules that have more than one purpose, such as the BCM (Body Control Module). Something that sounds exaggerated might turn out to be completely correct. So it pays to listen up… to a point. It’s just that sometimes the claims are just too far off to be even remotely possible, as in the case of the mysterious self-starting car.

The story goes that if dad’s car was parked next to the son’s car and dad started his up the other car would start too. Both cars were dropped off; I did everything I could to think of way to solve this mystery. I finally had to give up and admit defeat and told them to come get their cars. That afternoon in the lobby, the dad had to tell me the entire story all over again, (which they always do…) while the son stayed in the background with a huge grin on his face the whole time.

Watching junior out of the corner of my eye while dad ran through his story again, junior was doubling over with pent up laughter. If I didn’t know any better, something tells me junior has something to do with this. I had to interrupt the father while he was still going through all of his super-natural claims that could have caused this problem, such as sun spots and aliens. “Hey son, by chance are you playing a trick on your old man? (The kid nearly fell on the floor giggling….) Something tells me you’re using some sort of remote start when your dad starts his car.” Yep, that was the issue. The dad, good natured thankfully, got a big laugh at the whole thing. Seems this family has a habit of pulling practical jokes on each other and they carry these jokes to the “nth” degree. We all had a good laugh over this extreme prank.

In the long and short of it, repairing the modern computer driven automotive is far less understood by the general public and even with the best information out there once in a while even the professional mechanic might have to explain things in a long drawn out story for a simple problem. My best advice is to take notes, listen carefully, and don’t prejudge a problem until you have all the facts. Because, the very next car that comes in might be the one that doesn’t fit the trend of the long story-short problem or vice-versa. It’s a learn as you go and then learn some more type of thing, not only for the customer but the mechanic too. Ya just gotta watch out for those exaggerating practical jokers.


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Gonzo people either tell your too much or not enough. Some of them drive me crazy!

Either way, if they tell you way too much (TMI) or too little, I'm only going to get the facts once in a while.

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Gonzo: you didn't mention the one's that get dropped off without any story, and you have to figure out what's wrong or what the customer wants you to do!

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