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Gonzo
Gonzo

Third Time's the Charm - We all need customers, but...

Third Time’s the Charm

There’s one situation every professional automotive mechanic/technician has had to deal with from time to time, and that’s the all-knowing-can-do-it himself kind of customer. Yep, the home grown garage guys who just so happen to own a couple of ratchets, a repair manual and broken down car. They’re the type who got lucky tinkering on their own car a few times, and may have picked up a few tips after spending their weekends watching a couple of those automotive reality shows. Now they’ve ventured into doing the neighbors’, relatives’, and friends’ cars. However, TV shows and manuals both have their limitations. They only tell you what to do, and only if you read their directions carefully. For some people, a quick glance at a page or a few seconds on the TV screen is not enough. They need to be reminded again and again before it sinks in.

Some of these connoisseurs of the all-knowing repair manual don’t really read enough. They’ll skip over certain information, or just skim through sections without comprehending any of it. Many just assume they already know how a certain system works based on a previous system they’ve had some luck on. It’s as if they are stuck in a time zone of out dated automotive technology, but after they’ve turned a few screws, glanced at a few more pages, and turned a few more screws they find their problem isn’t solved. Then and only then do these experts head to a real repair shop. Of course, their repair manual is always laying on the passenger seat with the important pages carefully marked for the shop mechanic to examine. As if to say, “Here’s what you need to know”, when in fact it’s the other way around.

By the time they have made it to a repair shop they’ve already rehearsed their explanation of the problem over and over again, and know just what they’re going to say to the service writer/mechanic. Sometimes it’s a pretty farfetched story and sometimes it’s right on, ya just never know. Now that manual of course, it can’t say much, but it does show the wear and tear it’s been through. All the corners are dog eared and riddled with greasy finger marks from the constant thumbing through. Sometimes the pages are even highlighted or notes have been added. (I’m still waiting for somebody to leave nothing more than a note with some website address on it instead of a paper back manual.) With a battle weary repair manual on the passenger seat and at least one more comment from the owner, the car eventually gets pushed into the service bay.

The last job I had at the shop that fits this description was no different than any of the previous ones. The car in question wouldn’t start, and this neighborhood mechanic did his best to read and understand what was on the diagnostic pages of the manual, but he still didn’t have an answer. He just couldn’t make any sense out of the wiring diagram for the fuel pump circuit. His final verdict, “It’s not getting any voltage to the fuel pump.”

This was one of those cars where the fuel pump doesn’t turn on until after the first spin of the crankshaft. In a lot of systems, especially older ones, turning the key on would at least let the fuel pump relay run for a few seconds, but not on this car. I checked the signal according to the manufacturer specifications, and sure enough the voltage (and ground signal) was at the fuel pump. All it needed was a new pump.

Now, the other half of dealing with the weekend pro mechanic comes to a head, and that’s the diagnostic results I have to explain at the service counter. You can bet he won’t believe any of it. As usual, there’s a bit of distrust and an attitude accompanied with their response, “I checked the fuel pump fuse and there wasn’t any power there. So how can you say the fuel pump is bad? All I wanted you to do was find out why there was no power at the fuse, not tell me it had a bad pump! I can check that myself!” I personally find it rather insulting to go to any professional in any type of business and rudely say something like that. Surely you could think of another way to tell me that you’re not sure of the diagnostics results. The short version of what it sounded like to me was, “You’re wrong... and I know it!”

I always figured, you get what you give. So, while still trying to be the professional, and at this point somewhat of a teacher too, I answered his remarks with my own sarcastic response, “This vehicle doesn’t turn on the fuel pump relay until it knows you’re going to start it. Meaning, until the engine spins and sends a cam/crank impulse to the PCM the fuel pump relay isn’t energized. The fuel pump fuse is after the relay and since the relay isn’t on there won’t be any voltage at the fuel pump fuse. But, I’m sure you knew all of that, because you had the page marked for me in your repair manual. In fact, you had it highlighted, too.” The expression on his face was classic. That stunned look of confusion and a loss of words to back up his previous statements was enough to make me want to go in the other room, close the door, and wait for the giggle snorts to fade away.

He ended up dragging the car back to his little hole in the wall, and I’m sure, cursing the repair shop for showing him up. No doubt when all his buddies get together it’ll be another round of “slam the repair shop mechanic” again. (They travel in packs ya know.) Me, I’ll just put my tools away and wait for him to return. I know he’ll be back in about a year or so. How do I know this is going to happen? Because this very same guy did the very same thing with the very same car last year. Oh yes, and with the very same problem. Not only was it exactly the same problem, the same guy, and the same problem, but the same attitude and explanation at the counter. Of course, just like last time, he’ll run down to the same cheap-o parts store and buy the same bargain basement fuel pump that might last another year or so.

Even after explaining how the system worked a year ago, he still doesn’t get it. I might be able to do all the show and tell regarding this diagnosis, but I don’t think I can do too much if he doesn’t remember it next year. He might just spend a little more time reading his manual. But, if need be, I can go over the whole thing again and again. Well, that’s twice so far, maybe the third time’s the charm.

 

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Gonzo, I have to be honest, we all have been in this position, but I take a different approach now. Let me explain; When I go to any professional,(a doctor, lawyer, accountant, dentist, plumber, electrician,etc.), I never expect that person to fully explain how something works in such detail that I can do it myself. I hope I am making sense. In other words, if there is something that is beyond my scope of performing to a professional degree, I defer to the pro. They explain the problem, the solution, the price and either I say yes or no.

 

So, when a person walks up to my service counter with paper work, manuals and downloads from the Internet, I tell the person to put all that stuff away, I am the doctor, not the teacher or collaborator on the repair.

 

I hope I don't sound too mean, but some of these people just suck the life out of us. Your thoughts?

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I am sure you will see him for the third time.. I have mechanics/techs I have shown them something and a few days later asked them and they still have no Idea ..

I have one of those cars now, 03 astro van where the customer has replaced almost every sensor on the van and he keeps getting a cam/crank sync code. Yes he replaced the timing chain and couldn't get the cover off so broke it in two and gooped it back together . I checked everything on the van and come down to the chain not timed right. He comes to me the middle of last week and asked me what I found I told him it has not changed since I checked it out a few weeks ago. It needs to be torn down and the chain installed properly. I also stated to him I am not willing to do it since there is so much mickey mouse stuff done to the van and he also would not want to pay for me to do it correctly including buying a new timing cover. He said what if he tears it down and the chain is aligned is there a chance the computer is bad. I told him I didn't think so of course anything is possible but I see a good cam and crank signal, and he didn't have the problem till he put the chain in so I really don't think so. He shows up Friday around closing time with a junkyard computer. He was going to install it this weekend. Guess he is in for a few more surprises as soon as he installs that computer and turns the key !!

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Like you Joe, I'd rather be the professional mechanic and not the teacher. I shouldn't have to explain things in such detail. Granted, I might get just as rude as they are...the only problem is they see me as the rude person and not themselves. Seems they don't like it when it's back at them the same way they delivered it

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We just try and avoid these situations as they are not our ideal customer. They just waste our time and they expect us to drop everything and take care of them. We will tell them that we are booked up and won't be able to get to it for several days and that usually convinces them to use someone else. No matter what you charge it is always too much in their eyes because anybody can do what we do, or at least according to them. Customers like that have friends like that, they run in packs. I'd rather they bad mouth us because we were to busy to help them vs bad mouthing us because they thought we were expensive..

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Joe, you make a great point. I tend to over-explain because I want the customer to trust me. More often than not, I'm digging my own grave. I've slowly but surely begun to change this habit and it's worked out better.

If we're professionals we should operate like other professionals. ​

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Had this happen not long ago on a 5.4L I believe. I gave them a quote for plugs and it called for 1.5 hours which they agreed to. Upon pickup is when the father/son duo came in and started complaining about the price, the father(60+ years old) informed me that 2 hours is a complete rip off and he could do it in 20 minutes. His implications were that we were ripping his son off and I was just in a mood that day so here's how I handled it. I told him if he would go get just 4 plugs replaced of my choosing in 2 hours I'd refund his full bill.

 

He declined my offer and his son became a loyal customer.

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I used to get upset when ppl or DIY'ers would come to me and question my approach, or my results. Now, not so much anymore. I'm done proving to myself what I do know. Now that I'm a bit older, my mindset is more like I already know what I can do, how do I exploit that to the fullest? With that said, I have had my fair share of run ins with shade tree rocket scientists. Once I responded to a house call. A no start 1998 Saturn SL1.

 

The guy heard about me because I had done some service to one of his neighbor's vehicles, and my info was passed on. When I arrived, the owner told me the issue with his car was the fuel pump. He had a gauge hooked up under the hood to the service port and it registered 0 psi. He claims he replaced the pump, and was still in the same predicament. I sat inside opened the ignition switch and instantly heard the pump come on. I told him this pump is working. I tried to start the car and it puttered, and backfired through the intake. The guy told me it registered 0 psi, and he had tried two different gauges. Upon closer inspection I saw that his gauges did not have enough depth to depress the schrader valve in the service port. I hooked up my gauges and boom 48 PSI.

 

The guy was dumbfounded, and then told me well if it ain't the pump what is it? He looked devastated, and scared. He really thought his issue was the fuel pump. I told him I would find out, and explained my diagnostic fee, and guarantee. Got to testing and quickly found out the valve timing was off. The timing chain was stretched, and the timing was off about 2 teeth. The crank would spin about 8 degrees before the cam would even notice. This was the SOHC engine, so no valves were bent. The vehicle had good compression. Well the guy didn't believe me. Told me that what I proposed made no sense. Told me that timing chains last the life of the vehicle and don't "break". I replied, I didn't say it broke, I said it was stretched, and your timing has been altered. He refused to accept it, and used the analogy of a motorcycle or bicycle chain. Said those never stretch or break as long as you maintain them. How could a timing chain stretch when it has a tensioner and lives in oil? Said I was just trying to sell him an expensive repair. I told him well I'm sorry you feel that way. This is what my knowledge, experience, and testing has concluded. If you would like to pay me to remove the front cover (semi labor intensive on the 1.9's), I can show you point blank. He refused, and it was like pulling teeth to get my diagnostic fee.

 

Months later, the neighbor had scheduled me to do a service on his vehicle, and when I arrived, I inquired about the neighbor. He told me the guy junked the car. Said he brought a Saturn dealer tech (those still exist?) and the guy called a bad PCM. They installed another PCM, and the car wouldn't even crank anymore (hmm I wonder why?), and so he gave up on the car and junked it. Said he would never own a Saturn again because they have too many electrical problems, and you have to be an engineer to fix them. I laughed really hard at that one.

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