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Nothing Beats a Full House
There’s days, even weeks (depending on the time of year) when a pair is pretty good. Then there are days when three of a kind ain’t bad. But in my book nothing beats a full house. I’ll bet you thought I was talking about poker, didn’t ya? Nope, I’m talking about the automotive repair business. When the shop is humming, and the jobs are flowing, and business is brisk, that’s when I know I’ve been dealt a winning hand. It might mean coming into work really early or staying late, but at the end of the week it’s a pretty good feeling to know you’ve played your cards right.
There’s been many a day that closing down the shop early is better than being dealt jokers or cards that won’t play. The phone isn’t ringing, the shop is empty, all the tools and service bays have been cleaned, and all the shelves are stocked, but not a single car in the service bays. Those are the days that even a pair sounds good. I’d even settle for pulling one decent card out of the deck on those days.
“It’s feast or famine,” a good friend of mine told me. He’s a realtor, and his business is the same way. One day everybody is calling, and the next day you have to pick up the phone just to see if there’s still a dial tone. (Boy, do I know it, I certainly can relate to that.) There is a pattern to all of this chaos though. It took me years of running a shop to figure it out, and I’m sure the same thing happens in every part of the country, just like it does here in the southern part where I live.
Take the holidays… no, seriously… take them. There a joyous time to be with family and friends, but it’s not that great if you’re making a living servicing cars. It never fails when a holiday is on the calendar you can bet it’s slow. But, the day or so before a long weekend holiday you can guarantee it’s going to be packed at the repair shop. Seems everybody waits to the last minute to get the car ready for a trip and everybody wants their car done… RIGHT NOW! I pretty much know those are the days I’m coming in early and staying late.
Then there’s when school starts… listen close…can ya hear the crickets out in the shop? I know I can. Usually the week or two before school starts everything slows to a crawl. Oh you might get a couple of pair, maybe three of a kind but it’s doubtful you’ll get a full house. As soon as school is in session the cards start to fall in the right place again. It’s a sure bet the shop is going to be full for the next couple of weeks.
Of course there’s Fair week. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Fair, I think it’s pretty cool, but not from a business stand point that’s for sure… it’s the week to fold your hand. Nothing ever happens Fair week. In my early years there was one Fair week that I’ll never forget. I had one car for the whole entire week… yes… one and only one car. However, it was a super huge job that nearly took the whole week to finish. (Funny how things work out that way.)
Temperature and the weather have a lot to do with what cards you’re dealt in this crazy world of auto repair. Heavy snow or monsoon rain means… stay home, fold em’. Now a light rain, one of those steady down pours that doesn’t seem to end has a different affect. The shop slows, but the phone rings constantly. The usual caller will tell me something like this; “Yes, I’m having a problem with my wipers can you fix them?”
I’ll answer, “Why yes, we could get you in right now.”
“Oh it’s raining, but as soon as it lets up I’ll bring it in.”
I know better than to assume they’ll be in on the next sunny day. As soon as the sun comes out they forget all about their wiper troubles. I guess it’s one of those “out of sight, out of mind” things. Although, I’ve learned to get their phone number, and call them the next day and remind them of their previous call and set an appointment to get it in the shop. Surprisingly enough, it works.
Now the temperature, that’s a real fickle issue. Too hot or too cold does some strange things to cars. Usually means it’s going to be busy. Then again if it’s a “room temperature” sort of day… it’s probably not going to be that busy. There are the calls of course, there’s the “stop by the shop and chat about it” kind, and then there are the ones that just want to pick your brain and price check everything.
When it comes to creature comforts in the car, it’s a safe bet on those high or low temperature days those systems are on the top of the repair priority list. Wouldn’t be the first time someone has come in the shop with their brakes metal to metal, but they’re not worried about that… that A/C is a must. Now in the winter months it’s the heater, or the defroster, or the wiper blades that froze to the windshield the night before and they didn’t bother to clean them off… they just turned them on, and now... oops… they don’t work at all.
The one ace in the hole that does take the edge off of the ups and downs of the seasonal changes is to have a back burner job sitting in the corner of the shop. Maybe a restoration project or some personal toy you can pull out of moth balls for the guys to fiddle around with when it’s slow.
All in all, doing this job is a great reward; it’s a great career choice. You meet some really interesting people from all walks of life in this business. A lot of them become regulars, and stop by no matter what the temperature is or whether or not the Fair is in town. Ya just got to play your cards right, know when to fold them and know when to hold them.
When it’s slow you might tend to dwell on things and think you’ve done something wrong, but then things pick back up and you forget all about those thoughts. You’re taking a gamble in just about any career choice you make, automotive repair is no different, and when someone asks, “How’s it going?” I always answer with, “It’s slowly getting busy or busy getting slow.” A couple of cars in the morning, maybe three of a kind later that afternoon, whatever there is that’s the hand you’ve been dealt for the day. But, in this game of auto repair… nothing beats a full house.
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Pay to Play
Playing the diagnostic game in the auto repair business isn’t for everyone. Some repair shops don’t want to deal with any of those heavy-hitter type of diagnostic problems. They would rather deal with the simple, basic, and easy-to-fix problems that make quick money and take little effort on their part. Anything that’s going to take time to figure out they’ll send down the road to a shop that will work on those type of problems. I’m one of those shops that everybody sends their headaches to. It has its draw backs for sure, but the reward for me is getting in there, finding the problem, and doing what seems impossible to others.
One of the major issues with being more of a specialty diagnostic shop is how the customer perceives what a mechanic can or cannot do. Most of the time they’ve already spent their limit at the guess-at-it-until-ya-get-it shops and aren’t keen on spending any amount of money on diagnostic time. Which, as in most of these heavy-hitter type diagnostic cases, is the majority of the work needed to be done. I hear it all the time from folks who still believe all mechanics are alike and price is their only concern. “I’ve already spent “X” amount of money and it’s still broke. Why should I spend more money just for YOU to look at the car?”
It must be a bit unnerving to some, forking over their cash just to have their car “looked” at. Although, they don’t seem to think twice about it when they pull the check book out at the reception desk after their doctor “looked” at them. Whether they feel any better at the time they’re writing the check or not because they’re confident that a quick stop at the pharmacy to pick up that prescription will fix them right up; good as new. However, paying a professional mechanic to do his or her “looking” is simply out of the question.
The way I see it, “Ya gotta pay to play” folks. Wherever this idea that a mechanic can walk out to the parking lot, wave his magical ratchet over the left rear tail light and all will be in working order is totally absurd. I mean seriously, the car has one service light, but hundreds and hundreds of reasons why it might be on. A battery drain can come from anywhere, a shorted fuse can be caused by all kinds of things, and as far as intermittent problems well, the possibilities are endless. Not to mention when some jackleg gets under the dash and starts adding their version of electrical wizardry to the problem.
Some people just can’t make the connection between a doctor’s office visit and a mechanic’s diagnostic time. They’re stuck on this “look” thing. For that small number of people out there who don’t see the similarities between a doctor visit and automotive diagnostics, it’s not likely you’re going to change their mind about it any time soon.
The last example of the “ain’t playin’ the diagnostic game” told me that he would only let me work on the car if I could guarantee it wouldn’t cost more than $400.00 bucks. I told him, “I’d like to say that it wouldn’t cost more than that, but what happens if I get in there and find the part alone costs $500.00 dollars, then what?” His answer, “Then I’d forget about fixing it, and I’d pay you for your time. How much do ya think that would be?” I smiled and answered as I pointed to the diagnostic fee on the wall, “The diagnostic fee, just what I’ve been explaining to you all along. Ya gotta pay to play the game, and that’s the diagnostic fee. Otherwise, I don’t play.”
He still didn’t get it. I then told him, “You want me to guess at how much it will cost when I haven’t a clue what’s wrong. At this point I don’t even know what color the car is let alone the extent of your problem. Furthermore, you’ve had somebody work on it before. They’ve wired around some sort of switch you mentioned to me earlier about, and obviously I’ll have to undo all of that to determine the exact problem. Does that make sense now?” As if to show how my lack of intelligence about his car was quite obvious to him, he answered sternly, “It’s dark blue.” Not another word was spoken. I’m completely flabbergasted. Looks like the two of us are not going to play, because he’s not willing to pay. Instead of going any further, I figured it was time to throw the towel in on this one and call it a stalemate. All this transpired about the same time he thanked me for talking with him and was heading out the door to find the next guy who would “look” at his car.
Seriously, what’s free these days? If ya wanna play, ya gotta pay. Simple as that. I doubt if you went into the doctor’s office and said you weren’t going to pay for his time, the doctor would tell you to get lost or at least want to know why you didn’t want to pay for his services. I’m sure if you told him, “I ain’t payin’ ya just to look at me. I’m only going to pay you to fix me.” The doctor might think you’re just a bit touched and in need of a different kind of doctor. But, as it is... mechanics diagnosing a tough problem have to deal with the “I ain’t payin’ ya to look at it” game nearly every day.
Maybe in the future, all this will change. It has to. Cars are getting even more complicated and have amassed huge networks of electronics and mechanical parts that shouldn’t be left to the untrained and stab-at-it-until-ya-get-it type of repairs. Like a doctor, a professional mechanic might have a pretty good idea of what is ailing a car, but testing and diagnosing it is the game we all have to play to sort out the real tough problems and not just make assumptions. You want professional service… Pay to play, then the game is on.
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Where There’s a Spark
Fires, one of the last things anybody working on a car ever wants to deal with. Statically speaking, you can’t avoid it. Considering the nature of the auto repair business with numerous chemicals, some highly volatile and explosive, the odds are it’s going to happen sooner or later. Sometimes it’s just a quick little poof of a flame, while other times it’s an all-out assault with the fire extinguishers. All you need is a source of ignition and up she goes! Engines in general, are nothing more than a controlled fire and explosion, and sometimes that fire or explosion doesn’t stay where it’s supposed to.
Over my years of working on cars I’ve had my share of them, some through pure stupidity and others totally by accident. And, if anybody who works on cars tells you they’ve never had one go up in flames (even a little bit) is 100% fooling themselves or is a complete liar. It happens to the best of us.
Back when carburetors were the norm a backfire almost certainly shoot a huge flame up in the air. Once in a while the oil in those old oil bath air filters became a rather convenient furnace for the latest back fire. Gasoline spills, oil leaks, and just about any other type of chemical concoction can become a ball of flames in no time at all. Of course, ya can’t leave out the ‘electrical fire’ either, but calling a fire an ‘electrical fire’ doesn’t sit well with me. Electricity is only the spark to ignite it. If there are no combustibles nearby, electricity on its own can’t erupt into a ball of flames.
But, you hear it all the time, “Oh, they had an ‘electrical’ fire.” So, if it’s Ok to call a fire an electrical fire, then I guess it’s OK to call one of those movie scenes where the guy shoots at a pool of gasoline leaking out of a huge tanker which subsequently explodes --- a ‘gun’ fire? Hardly, I believe in that case it would be called a ‘chemical’ fire. But, when electricity is involved… it’s an ‘electrical’ fire. Go figure. Unless, they are merely referring to an electrical spark as the catalyst, well then, ya got me there.
Many years ago I had a 280z that came in and the owner said he couldn’t get it started. Nothing else, no ten thousand word explanation of the problem, or when he bought it, or what parts he’s changed, or what his friend who’s a mechanic told him was wrong with it, just that it wouldn’t start. Later that day I made my way out to the parking lot to check it out. I turned the key, cranked the engine, and WHOOF! Flames shot out from every corner of the hood. I made a beeline for the fire extinguisher, got the hood open … and doused the flames with the whole can. Come to find out the owner had pulled the fuel lines off of the injectors and had the coil wire disconnected. Nice…thanks for the heads up, fella. Needless to say, it was one of many occasions that I needed to refill the extinguishers.
Another time a customer called and told me his pickup would only run for about ten minutes and then would barely idle. If he shut it off and waited another ten minutes it would start back up again. He said he was going to try and make it to the shop that afternoon. It was getting late and I was looking forward to going home, but this guy had called several times telling me to wait for him and that he was still going to make it. So I said I’d stick around. It was dark by the time he finally arrived at the shop. We were busy filling out the paperwork when the parking lot lit up like a large candle. His truck turned out to be the candle. I grabbed two extinguishers for this one, and ran outside to find the guy standing next to his truck waving his hat at it. Yea, like that’s going to help. It took both extinguishers to put this blaze out. There was a whole lot more work that needed done besides finding out the cause of the loss of power. It turned out to be fuel trim issues and a clogged converter that would glow as red as a cherry. The fire was caused by the truck’s fuel line that ruptured right there in front of the shop. Pretty scary stuff when I found out how close it was to going off like a bomb.
What’s even more startling is when you don’t even know there’s a fire. You’re working under the dash and the next thing you know one of the other guys in the shop is filling the engine bay with CO2. That’ll get your attention. Then, of course, there’s the car that’s delivered to the shop and the owner tells you, “It had a little fire.” Sure, just a little fire. The CO2 is an inch thick everywhere you look. Anything plastic has melted into an oozing pile of blackened gunk. All the rubber hoses are charred beyond recognition, and the wiring is one huge clump of twisted copper and melted plastic. I often wonder what some people consider a ‘large’ fire after I’ve seen these so called little fires.
Just this week I had one up on the lift looking for a major oil leak. The oil was dripping off of the frame from the front to the back of the car. I had just got the car in and left the engine running while I took a quick look. (Which I’ve done hundreds of times before.) This time, I wasn’t so lucky. As I shined my flashlight up into the engine bay there was a loud boom, and a huge ball of fire engulfed the entire area. Luckily, I had enough sense to have extinguishers mounted on every lift and it was out before any damage occurred. It did give me a quick haircut and a few singed eyebrows though. When you can smell burnt hair… you know you’re too close! Wow, that was hot, and so sudden and unexpected too!
You hear about entire shops burning down all the time after a car caught fire in a service bay. It’s something I don’t want to experience, and for that matter any other repair shop. That’s why I don’t hesitate a second when those guys come around to service all my fire extinguishers each year. It pays to have as many as you can. The fire extinguisher companies have recommendations for what kinds of extinguishers you should have and how many based on the size of the shop. I tell them… double it. I don’t have a whole lot of hair left these days, and I’d like to keep what I got. Seriously, I don’t need any more of those flame cuts, my barber does a pretty good job on his own.
Accidents will happen; cars will have back fires, electrical issues, hot components, and leak combustible fluids. Just be sure you’re ready to handle the emergency when it happens. Cause ya know… where there’s a spark…..
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By Silver Star
So I had a customer the other day that decided to compare my pricing to a internet website. Well what he found was I was basically making 500.00 in profit off the parts sales and he didn't think he should have to pay for it. After getting over this myself and dealing with him tactfully I'm still waiting to hear if he is going to have us do the work or not after I gave him a 7.5% discount on the whole repair job in an effort to keep him a customer but understand he has to pay for quality work. It had me searching this forum for ideas on how to deal with this guy and I came up with a lot of great ideas and I figured I would share my list I made for myself to refer to the next time I have a customer telling me I should not charge him a fair price. I would like to get input from others on here on ways they have dealt with this too. I hope what we do is form an arsenal of ways to deal with this issue and a easy to access spot so when the battle is brought to us we can open it up and fire back with professional and effective ways of stopping the behavior.
*As a note a lot of these are ideas and info I gathered from guys on this forum, so please don't feel like I stole your idea. I did not make notes of who said what if I had I would certainly give you credit.
Ways of dealing with customer supplied parts:
-We have built a relationship over the past ____years/months, I want to nurture that rather than destroy it.
-We have a pricing structure based on MSRP, our cost on the part, and a fair margin we need to meet to stay in business while growing to meet the advances in the industry.
-Online parts sales centers are designed for the do it yourself repair person, they do not have the overhead cost for all of the tools and equipment related to doing the repair job.
Brake clean, shop rags, vehicle lift, indoor space to do repair, fluids, seals and gaskets, adhesives and liquid gasket materials, cleaning equipment, spare nuts and bolts.
-We simply cannot stay in business and meet the needs the vehicle requires if we are to install parts supplied by the vehicle owner.
-The liability on the repair is too great to use something I have no control over where it comes from.
-We cannot warranty the repair, and we want to guarantee our work. This is a craft we perform and a craft we take very seriously.
Anyone else encounter this problem? I get the feeling as of though when I am out of the shop or "trying" to take a day off, the techs and mechanics seem to not act the same and relay different information to customers than when I am personally there. My manager does not seem like the type of person to push people to work when i am not there, but does when I am.
Wait times for diagnostics are quoted longer, customers wait longer and many just leave since we "don't have the parts" yet we usually just order them from a local parts store when I am there. Cell phone use has also sky rocketed which I cannot stand!
How would you handle this?
I appreciate all your thoughts and opinions in advance.