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A Visit From a Retired Shop Owner - - - A lucky conversation


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A Visit from a Retired Shop Owner



An elderly customer came to the service counter one day and asked if I had time to check his car out. I asked him what was wrong with his car, and his reply was more than revealing. It was a text book answer, just what a service writer or mechanic would like to hear. His reply was precise enough to inform me of what was going on, without any of the usual hype or meandering/misleading stories that are common. Every Tech and Service Writer has heard things like, how the car used to be blue before it was repainted or how the problem started after leaving their friend’s house, or when the left rear tire went flat. Not this guy. I asked him what the problem was, and he promptly gave me the answer… nothing more, nothing less.


I wrote down the symptom and headed out to the shop to do what I do. As I grabbed the keys I told him, “I’ll see what I can find out.”


The customer nodded his head, and told me he’d wait in the lobby for the results of the tests. No odd questions, no stories of what the last guy did, or any “while ya got it could ya look at this”. In all my years of diagnosing cars it’s rather rare for someone to know that the first thing in any repair procedure is to find out what’s wrong, and not just ask me what I “think” it is before spending money on a diagnostic procedure. He seemed to know what I was doing and knew that I’m not just “looking” at the car as some people put it.


I finished the diagnostics, and headed up to the waiting area to inform him of the results. He listened intently as I explained what I had found out. Then he asked, “I take it the short fuel trim numbers indicated a lean condition? Did you run a power balance test? It’s starting to sound a bit like an intake air leak at this point, did ya find it?


I said, “Yes, I ran all those tests. It led me to a collapsed PCV hose that also had a huge slit in it on the back side of the throttle body where you couldn’t see it. The short fuel trim numbers did indicate a lean condition. I confirmed the short fuel trim readings by spraying a bit of carb cleaner down the throttle body to see if the numbers changed. They did.”


“Yep, that would do it,” he said with a smile, “Sounds like you’ve got it. Easy fix from this point. That sure would change the stoichiometric value, wouldn’t it?”


His questions and reply’s weren’t the usual type of responses I get from the usual customer. This guy was different. There’s something behind all of his questions and answers. This is something that I’d like to diagnose as well as the car. Nobody that I know of ever comes to the repair shop with the correct response. Nobody that I know of ever comes to the repair shop knowing the ideal tests that are needed, and nobody I know of ever understood all the technical stuff I throw out.


I had to ask, “Say, you seem to know a few things about diagnosing today’s cars. It’s very unusual that somebody comes here and knows which tests are going to track down the problem. But you seem to know a lot more than the average guy, how’s that?”


The gent sat up a little straighter, smiled and said, “I retired about 20 years ago, and before that I ran a small repair shop east of here for about 35 years. I still keep up with all the new technology and enjoy working on cars, but the old eyes and knees can’t take it anymore.”


Wow, a fellow mechanic and shop owner… I’m impressed. Of course that started all kinds of conversations about cars, repairs, customers, mechanics in general, and life under the hood. His stories were so remarkably close to what I’ve seen in my 30 years that it put a smile on my face as well. It’s safe to say I found a new friend. Later we got into what it takes to own and keep a shop going. His insight was interesting to say the least. But, I did have this one nagging question I was dying to ask.


“What do you think is the most important attribute to get customers to come to your shop and not somebody else’s?”


He had a one word answer, “Luck.”


Now I have even more questions.


“What’s luck got to do with it?” I asked.


“Luck is what you have. Luck is what gets them in the door. When you have a new customer’s car in the shop, someone you don’t know, or has been referred to you, and you diligently diagnose it, make the repair, and settle up the bill. What is the one thing they all tell you just before they walk out the door?” he profoundly asked.


I didn’t have a clue what he was getting at.


He went on to tell me, “They all say, “I’m going to tell all my friends about you, and I’ll recommend you.”.


Then he asked me a question, “Now, how is it these folks are so darn sure what you’ve done is so good that they’ll recommend their friends, even before they checked what you’ve done? Their perception of the repair is based on what they’ve heard you say, and not what you’ve done. If you’re like me, every job is done with the same care as any other job. But, it still comes down to what the customer thinks of the whole thing. Good work, a good shop, and a good attitude are very important… but a little luck doesn’t hurt either.”


His explanation went on, “In other words your work doesn’t speak; your accomplishments in the shop go unnoticed. Because for a lot of people what they are after is trying to find a good mechanic, and when you do something for them… luck is in their favor. We’re not perfect and even the best mechanic will get stumped once in a while, and even if you make things right it’s still their perception. A perception that isn’t about you…or me…but mechanics in general. Most people think all mechanics are just wrench turners and nothing more. They don’t see the hours of education and study we put into knowing how to do this job. A lot of people feel that a guy with a few wrenches in his driveway can accomplish the same thing as the professional mechanic… and that makes that driveway guy just as much a mechanic as you and I in their eyes,” he proudly proclaimed.


As quirky as it sounded and for even quirkier reasons… it all started to make sense. I guess after all the years he had been turning wrenches he had a great deal of luck too. It was a great conversation with a retired mechanic that day, and I felt pretty lucky to have met him too.




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  • Have you checked out Joe's Latest Blog?

      Auto shop owners are always looking for ways to improve production levels. They focus their attention on their technicians and require certain expectations of performance in billable labor hours. While technicians must know what is expected of them, they have a limited amount of control over production levels. When all factors are considered, the only thing a well-trained technician has control over is his or her actual efficiency.
      As a review, technician efficiency is the amount of labor time it takes a technician to complete a job compared to the labor time being billed to the customer. Productivity is the time the technician is billing labor hours compared to the time the technician is physically at the shop. The reality is that a technician can be very efficient, but not productive if the technician has a lot of downtime waiting for parts, waiting too long between jobs, or poor workflow systems.
      But let’s go deeper into what affects production in the typical auto repair shop. As a business coach, one of the biggest reasons for low shop production is not charging the correct labor time. Labor for extensive jobs is often not being billed accurately. Rust, seized bolts, and wrong published labor times are just a few reasons for lost labor dollars.
      Another common problem is not understanding how to bill for jobs that require extensive diagnostic testing, and complicated procedures to arrive at the root cause for an onboard computer problem, electrical issue, or drivability issue. These jobs usually take time to analyze, using sophisticated tools, and by the shop’s top technician. Typically, these jobs are billed at a standard menu labor charge, instead of at a higher labor rate. This results in less billed labor hours than the actual labor time spent. The amount of lost labor hours here can cripple a shop’s overall profit.
      Many shop owners do a great job at calculating their labor rate but may not understand what their true effective labor is, which is their labor sales divided by the total labor hours sold. In many cases, I have seen a shop that has a shop labor rate of over $150.00 per hour, but the actual effective labor rate is around $100. Not good.
      Lastly, technician production can suffer when the service advisors are too busy or not motivated to build relationships with customers, which results in a low sales closing ratio. And let’s not forget that to be productive, a shop needs to have the right systems, the right tools and equipment, an extensive information system, and of course, great leadership.
      The bottom line is this; many factors need to be considered when looking to increase production levels. While it does start with the technician, it doesn’t end there. Consider all the factors above when looking for ways to improve your shop’s labor production.
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