Posted to Shop Management Forum on 8/20/2015
We guarantee your car will be fixed right, on time on budget
We guarantee your car will be fixed right, on time, and
That is a common statement in the auto repair world. It
sounds great, but how realistic is it?
In my opinion, the requirements to complete a job can only
be known once the car has been dismantled enough to fully
understand what's needed and how much time and material will
ben required. The hard truth is, we are in the business of
repairing things, and just as in repairing people, there can
always be surprises and complications.
Motorists often misunderstand what we can know. For example,
we look at a car with worn tires and we say, new tires are
$xxx. It seems simple to price out tires, mounting, and
balancing. But what if the tires are dismounted and one of
the rims turns out to be cracked?
Suddenly we have a $500 complication -- a new rim is needed.
We can't put the broken rim back on the car because it's
unsafe, and the motorist is left with no choice but to buy a
Most shops would have quoted a set of tires without any
teardown at all. And they would be very likely to have a
customer relations problem when the broken rim was
discovered. This is not a common occurrence -- 99% of tire
repairs proceed smoothly. But it can happen.
The question is, what do we do about it? In my opinion we
start by setting the correct expectation. We tell people
that tires are $xxx, but there could be surprises. The rim
is one example; as cars get more complex the service
complications become more numerous and more common.
You don't get a promised cure at a guaranteed price at the
doctor's office. Why is car repair different? It's not, but
people mistakenly assume it is. To a large extent that's
because mechanics set unattainable expectations and then
they allow themselves to be painted in an unfavorable light
for not living up to an impossible standard.
The way we correct that is by being clear what we can
control in the offered service, and what we can't. Tires are
a commodity; we can quote the price for different brands.
Mounting is a standard service too; we can quote time to
mount tires on the rims we see. Most of the time, that's all
that's involved in a basic tire job. But when we give the
motorist those figures we have a duty to inform them of the
possible complications. Some will say, what's the worst
case? That's impossible to answer most of the time. In
medicine the worst case is, you die. In car repair the worst
case is, you need a new car.
99.9% of the time those dire complications never come to
pass. But people get old and die, and so do cars. The
outcomes will not always be good. The best we can do as
service managers is to disclose what we can, and paint a
Doesn't the customer always have the last word? That can be
a misconception. Take the example of the broken wheel rim.
Once discovered, we cannot undo the discovery. The customer
may say "put it back like it was" but we can't. The forces
to mount and dismount the tire may turn a cracked rim into a
cleanly broken one. There may be no path but forward, and
the only choice the motorist has is to buy a new or used
wheel rim. Using the rim he arrived with may simply not be
We may take one thing apart for repair, only to see another
broken thing beside it. If that broken thing is a possible
safety hazard, we place ourselves at risk if we do not fix
it, so the customer in that case does not have the ability
to decline a repair that would compromise safety. They can
of course halt the whole job and tow the car away, but that
does not do them much good. The newly discovered safety
hazard becomes part of the current repair cost, no matter
who does it.
The only options then are abandoning the car, fixing it now,
or fixing it later. At one time cars were simple, and "fix
it myself" was an option for many owners but with today's
need for dedicated test computers and special tools it's a
rare owner who has that option.
Here's the hard truth: Taking a car apart to evaluate damage
may render it inoperative until fixed. Hospitals warn
patients in advance when they undertake risky procedures.
Those of us in the auto service business have a
responsibility to do the same.
Another common situation is the multi step repair. Here's an
example: A car comes in with an inoperative oxygen sensor,
and the check engine light is on. We see the failed sensor
and replace it. A week later the light is on again. This
time the newly repaired oxygen sensor is sniffing an out of
range condition, and we repair that next. It was not
possible to see repair #2 without the prior completion of
repair #1. Whenever we repair engine lights we always warn
motorists that more than one round may be needed because
there are a thousand things that can illuminate that simple
light, and they may reveal themselves one by one.
If this sounds complex, costly, and scary, I agree! Yet it
is the world we live in.
From the shop's perspective, our duty is to keep our
training up to date and make sure we have the latest tools
for the jobs we undertake. We need to use our best abilities
to diagnose vehicles, and report our findings promptly and
clearly. We need to be at the top of our game, and do our
level best to get good outcomes. At the same time, we have
to be clear to our clients with respect to what may go wrong
and why, and what we can do.
Cars are complex and service is specialized. Not every
mechanic can fix every car. In a big shop like hours there
are techs who specialize in certain brands (like BMW,) and
others who specialize in certain procedures (like
convertible tops.) Knowing what we know, and what we don't,
is always a challenge and an exercise in humility.
John from Massachusetts