First Tale. A new customer towed a pick-up truck to our shop and said he believed his water pump had broken. It was a mid-90s Ford. The first thing our technician noticed was that the radiator was full of rust and had no water, and the second thing he noticed was a very cracked belt. The odometer had not worked for seven years. The technician knew that because of a maintenance sticker under the hood dated back to 2004 had the exact mileage as was on the truck yesterday. This observant technician was my husband Sybren.
The water pump had indeed failed and had sprayed rusty water everywhere. Would the truck start? The truck started and did not knock. That was a hopeful sign that the vehicle had not overheated, but with the lack of care, rusty bolts, and rusty radiator, this repair was going to be a challenge. So Sybren recommended a new water pump, new belt and fresh coolant for starters, letting our service advisor know this was a starting point and a radiator might be needed. When we gave the estimate to Mr. Customer, he was upset by the price. He thought our parts were too expensive. So, he asked would we put on the parts if he supplied them. Our customer service representative explained that if he bought the parts there would be no warranty and that we had a policy of charging a higher labor rate to discourage this practice. Mr. Customer hit the roof and thought this was highly unfair. He hadn’t met me yet.
That same day, I attended our Automotive Service Association chapter meeting. ASA is a national organization for 14,000 independent repair shops across the nation. To be members, we agree to uphold a Code of Ethics. I am a former president of this chapter, the largest in Texas and the second largest in the country.
This evening, the theme was Repair Shop Reality. We threw questions into a brown bag and drew them out and discussed them one by one. One of those questions was, “Do you install customer-supplied parts?” Few people raised their hands, but since we did once in a while, I raised mine.
One shop member said, “Don’t do it. Your insurance company probably won’t cover you. I put on a customer supplied Chinese made wheel bearing. The wheel bearing failed and the customer had a crash. I was sued and my insurance wouldn’t cover my company.” At that point, another member said, “That’s right. A court of law presumes you are the expert. You should only install parts that you recommend and are willing to stand behind. When you put on a customer supplied part, it is of unknown origin and quality, and if something happens to that car, you may end up personally liable.” So, back to Mr. Customer. The next day, he arrives with a water pump and belt from AutoZone. It’s a no-name brand even though the customer tells us AutoZone offers a “lifetime” warranty. I regretfully explain to him that we have a new policy and explained what we had learned. I told him we would use OUR parts to repair the vehicle, and if he agreed he would have a nationwide warranty. He was very upset and decided to have his vehicle towed away. We apologized and told him there was no charge. We felt bad, but once you know the truth what else can you do?
Our second story concerns a repeat customer. She called to ask if we could come to her and install a battery in her little Toyota at her home so she could avoid a towing fee. The reaction of my staff was initially of surprise. That’s a lot to ask, they said. Then I told them. This is a long- time customer who is quite frail; she lives alone and has no one to help her. She does not drive much anymore.
My staff now understood.
My husband loaded up his battery tester, tools, and a new battery. Her old battery was still under warranty so she only had to pay about half our cost. We drove to her home. Was she happy to see us! While Sybren checked her battery, she insisted that I come inside, and we sat and talked. She told me about growing up in New Jersey, about her brother who had mental health issues and how her mother at first didn’t want her to move to Houston. The mother finally consented but moved with her daughter and brought her brother. Our customer was 21 when she moved to Houston and now she is 81. She also told me the story of how her brother learned about our shop from their church soon after they moved. She told me about the many times someone from our company had come to her rescue. It was a very gratifying experience. She has been bringing her cars to our shop since 1952.
Why do I tell these two stories? It’s not because we made money. Financially, we did not break even on either customer, but we profited tremendously from both. We learned that sometimes we have to say no to a job. There are some situations and some customers that are just not for us. In the second case, by going the extra mile, we learn something about our history and our value to this community. This knowledge is priceless.
As long as we are learning and stretching, we’re growing. To have a successful business, it is important to learn these lessons.