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Pulling the plug, on an old car - - The car is gone, the customer remains.

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Pulling the plug on an old car

We’ve all had those cars in our shop that would be better off resting at the nearest salvage yard. You know the ones with countless problems, none of which are cheap to repair. But, it’s an old regular customer who can’t afford much more than a Band-aide on the old ditch dodger, and you feel more family than mechanic, so you do your best to keep the old thing running.


But, there comes a time when no matter how much bailing wire or duct tape you’ve got, ya just can’t hold the old car together anymore. That’s when you’ve got to break the news to them. Most of the time, they understand. Sometimes it only makes sense when you bring the shovel and shotgun along when you explain their car’s demise.

The latest was a well-worn ‘85 van that has seen more than its fair share of soccer games and trips to the relatives. I don’t think the salvage value for the old car was much more than what it could bring on the weight scale. It had more than a few problems, and yes it would take a spell now and then and not start, but it always seemed to keep from completely falling apart.


It didn’t actually leak oil; it sort of oozed it out here and there. The coolant more or less stayed put, but ya did have to keep your eye on it. The brakes, well, they were OK, and the master cylinder was getting a bit soft and due for replacement. The fuel pump whined awfully loud, but the pressure held up. The starter was caked in layers of grease and grime, and I was certain it wasn’t going to last much longer. The driver’s door sagged and creaked as you opened it. The passenger door, well, that one took a mighty yank to get it to unlatch. Then, it would make a loud popping sound as the door edge grazed by the mangled front fender. I think the lights worked fine, and it didn’t have any service lights on, but all in all… it was a mess.

Of course, all of it could be fixed, but as the miles and age kept adding up little by little more things were going wrong. Now, it’s the motor mounts that have detreated, leaving the engine flopping around like a fish out of water. The air conditioner lines have been compromised, the power steering hoses are leaking, and the electrical connections are all getting pulled apart. And, now… the exhaust manifolds are leaking. I think it’s time, time to give this poor old car its last rites.

I headed up to the waiting room to console my old friend about his decrepit car. We’ve worked together for many years on this old heap. The intention was always just to make it last one more month. Those months were years ago. I sat down to give him the news.

“Well, partner, I think we’ve got enough assorted problems with the old ride that it’s time to either put some money into it or pull the plug. Or, dig a hole out back and place a shot behind the left headlight,” I told him.

He laughed and said, “I’ve been waiting for you to tell me that for years.”

And here I thought all this time I was saving this guy’s car from the crusher because he didn’t want to buy a new car. When in fact, he did like his old car but, he liked coming to the shop even more. His biggest thrill for the afternoon was watching and listening to all the antics going on at the repair shop. Seems I’ve been this old guy’s entertainment for quite some time. I never knew going to the repair shop was like a vaudeville act for this guy. Apparently so.

No wonder he would sit for a few hours after his car was repaired. I thought he was just using the lobby as a temporary office, which I didn’t mind at all. He wasn’t one of those who was constantly interrupting the flow of the day with a question or two, but he always had a “Hello, how are ya” if you walked by. I guess listening in on the antics of the techs talking technical stuff, writing up tickets, taking phone calls, and all must be some kind of entertainment for somebody out there, and the somebody, was this guy.

It was his way of getting out of the house and mingling with the world. I’m sure he probably kept a running conversation with his favorite checkout lady at the grocery store, too. I’ll bet he even enjoyed having solicitors call him, and I’ll bet they were the ones who had a hard time getting him off the phone… not the other way around.

As with most of these jobs, and fellas like this, they eventually have to buy a new car. He doesn’t come around as often, except for an occasional oil change or new wiper blades. These days he doesn’t drive as much anyway. So, even his frequent trips have become few and far between. However, when he does come by there’s always a new story he wants to tell me about. Once in a while he comes in asking for a complete coolant flush or something like that when we just did one a few months ago. I suppose he’s getting either a bit forgetful in his old age, or he’s just looking for a way to hang around the shop a bit longer.

So, even though it was time to pull the plug on the old car, the old guy still shows up from time to time. Sometimes it’s for a sound he heard, or a vibration he felt, or one of those, “Just check it over for me” kind of afternoons.



You know, I think I’ve figured it out, it’s not so much the car that needs attention, it’s the customer. He just wants a bit of conversation and a little company. And, as long as I’m able to keep the doors open, I’m not pulling the plug on the comradery between myself and my customers. Cars only last so long, friendships last forever.

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My wife really liked this story. She remembers the guy I was referring to. Although, it's more or less a cornucopia of different people over the years.


She remembers "her" guy because it was our first anniversary, I was super busy, running 12 hours a day back then and didn't have time to get her flowers. The "her" guy brought flowers and told me to give them to her. Only problem was... she was standing right there the whole time.


FYI.... I haven't forgotten since.

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Does anyone cut off vehicles older than certain year? We recently towed a car to a dealer for another shop. The service writer came outside and looked at the car before the driver could unload it. When the driver asked why, he was told that if the car was older than x number of years and had over a certain mileage on it, they would not work on it. He said most of the time the repairs were so expensive, the customer would not have it repaired. Any thoughts?

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I had a guy bringing me junk for years. One day we got talking and I said to him, "Jim, you work hard, go buy yourself a new car. For what you pay me a month in repairs you can be driving a new car" Later that night I thought wow that was dumb for me to say that, what was I thinking? This guy is now one of my best customers, we service his new car. It worked out much better for both of us.

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About the only thing we say no to are modified cars. I can't work on someones home engineered backyard mechanic's wanna be race car and expect a good outcome. We don't do engine swaps either. It hurts to turn away money but getting bogged down with a motor job is really bad for me with only one tech at the moment.

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We won't turn away any vehicle, but I will always have a conversation with the customer, if the average cost of repairs, is starting to surpass the cost of a newer vehicle.

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  • 5 months later...
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  • Have you checked out Joe's Latest Blog?

      It always amazes me when I hear about a technician who quits one repair shop to go work at another shop for less money. I know you have heard of this too, and you’ve probably asked yourself, “Can this be true? And Why?” The answer rests within the culture of the company. More specifically, the boss, manager, or a toxic work environment literally pushed the technician out the door.
      While money and benefits tend to attract people to a company, it won’t keep them there. When a technician begins to look over the fence for greener grass, that is usually a sign that something is wrong within the workplace. It also means that his or her heart is probably already gone. If the issue is not resolved, no amount of money will keep that technician for the long term. The heart is always the first to leave. The last thing that leaves is the technician’s toolbox.
      Shop owners: Focus more on employee retention than acquisition. This is not to say that you should not be constantly recruiting. You should. What it does means is that once you hire someone, your job isn’t over, that’s when it begins. Get to know your technicians. Build strong relationships. Have frequent one-on-ones. Engage in meaningful conversation. Find what truly motivates your technicians. You may be surprised that while money is a motivator, it’s usually not the prime motivator.
      One last thing; the cost of technician turnover can be financially devastating. It also affects shop morale. Do all you can to create a workplace where technicians feel they are respected, recognized, and know that their work contributes to the overall success of the company. This will lead to improved morale and team spirit. Remember, when you see a technician’s toolbox rolling out of the bay on its way to another shop, the heart was most likely gone long before that.
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