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Article: Have you seen 'this' before? - - Dad, TV tubes, and the skeptical customer

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Have ya seen this before?

         Have I seen this before?  The typical question asked by that skeptical customer.  How do you answer the question?  I find it rather hard to know which way to answer it.  A yes answer can lead in one direction, and a no answer can lead in an entirely different direction.  Not answering, well that’s not going to work, either.  Whichever way I answer their question only leads to more questions, or even more skepticism, but answer it I do. That’s how a lot of these repair jobs from the skeptical consumer begin.

         A typical phone call or skeptic customer at the counter tells the service writer about their car, which usually involves another shop or Uncle Bob.  You know Uncle Bob, the family car expert guy. The skeptical customer is at the service counter not so much to get their car checked in, but to do a little investigative research on the shop and the mechanic’s skills.

After telling their story of what the last shop did or what Uncle Bob tinkered with, sooner or later the proverbial question pops up, “Have you ever seen ‘this’ before?” They’re expecting some grandiose reply that either shows a spark of intelligence, or some sort of genius level response that even Uncle Bob could never achieve. Rarely does it ever make it to the genius level; most of the time it’s a mere curiosity to the mechanic that we’re even discussing apples to oranges. All he wants to do is test for a solution and not guess at a repair.   

         Just for the sake of argument, let’s say I’ve answered the question with a “Yes”.  A yes answer is always followed up with, “So, what do you think it is?” now instead of diagnosing, testing, confirming and repairing their car I’m playing a round of Jeopardy. Even though my answer isn’t in the form of a question there’s still money involved. Their money that is, and it’s not the daily double.

Inevitably, if I throw out a probable cause it’s almost always countered with, “Uncle Bob tried that already” which only leads to a second attempt on my part to come up with a new and spectacular answer to their problem.  If my answers turn into Jeopardy answers such as, “What did Uncle Bob do to the car?” we’ll soon be back to the skepticism and doubt on their part that I can tackle their seemingly impossible to solve problem.

         However, if I answer with, “Nope, never seen that before” it sends a message of incompetence or lack of knowledge and skill about their problem, and most likely even more skepticism. I guess you could say if the customer asks, “Have ya seen this before” I’m probably going to avoid saying “No” more times than not. What I’ve always wondered what the real purpose of asking the question in the first place? Are they looking for some assurance, or is it more of a check to see if I’m competent enough to handle the job? What is my reaction?

         I think it goes back to my dad and the TV set.  

         In my younger years every TV had tubes.  Yes, I know, I’m dating myself.  Anyway, if the TV set would go on the fritz you didn’t call a repairman, well at least not my dad, he would pull all the tubes out and take them down to the TV shop and test them.  He wasn’t a TV repairman by any means, but if he “thought” the problem was a bad tube he knew he could test them for free at the TV shop.  You see, most TV sales and service store had a free tube tester on the showroom floor.  Simply by sticking the tube in the appropriate socket and pushing a button you could find out if the tube was good or bad.  Of course, while he was there he’d work the service guy over with a series of questions trying to get the guy to tell him what he “thought” the problem might be.

         As years went by the same principle of removing a component and bench testing it carried over into the automotive world, such as a starter, alternator or even an ignition module, for example. If you “thought” a certain component was bad you could remove the part and take it to the local parts store where it could be bench tested free of charge. While you were there getting the part tested you could play a round of Jeopardy with the parts guy, who in most cases, had a pretty good working knowledge of the cars of that era.

The parts guys were usually the first to see or hear about a problem, and sometimes the parts guy and the mechanic were one in the same person. Problems were somewhat predictable and for the most part common from car to car.  There weren’t as many variations between electronic circuits or mechanical systems.  As the years have progressed so has the modern car, and guessing at what I “think” might be wrong with a particular system doesn’t have the same typical answer it did back then.

         Nowadays, asking if I’ve seen a particular problem may not be as easy to answer or as simple as removing a part and bench testing it. These days, it's like asking my dad if he’s ever seen that certain tube go bad on the TV set before. Believe me, he had no more idea of which tube was going to fail than the man on the moon. Maybe it’s time we remove the quote “Have you seen this before” and let it fade off into history just like those old TV tube testing machines. 

         Cars are so different than they were back then, but people, well… they haven’t changed much.  Technology changes a whole lot faster than the average person’s conception as to what is involved in repairing the modern car.  Cost is always a factor, and those cheap shade tree type shops that rely on “I think it’s this” to make repairs will probably be a thing of the past as the interconnection between manufacturers and the independent shops grows closer and closer.  The trend these days is for the manufacturer to hold a tighter grip on their products. This is going to lead to a compromise between the professional independent shops and the manufactures in certifications, component purchasing, and information. Maybe then when somebody asks, “Have you seen this before?” the professional answer can be, “I can test the system and then find out the results.  At that point I can say whether or not I’ve seen it before. That will be $xxxx to perform that certain diagnostics.”  The days of the free tube check followed by drilling the service guy for answers is a thing of the past.

I think you can sum it all up like this, “Yes, I’ve seen it before, but what your problem is exactly, I won’t know until it’s tested”.  


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