Connections — Getting a “Deal” on Repair Work

Jul 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

So I’m stepping out of the shower, drying off, and the alarm is sounded. My wife sticks her head into the bathroom and alerts me, “There’s something really wrong with Samantha’s car. It’s leaking gas.”

“Samantha’s” car is actually our old mini-van, which my daughter drives to school and to work every day. She likes it because she can see out of it well, I think, and because there isn’t much scrutiny when a new scuff or scrape appears. I get dressed and go outside. It has a little trouble starting, coughing and sputtering. And then I hear fuel literally pouring out of the gas tank — a gusher.

So that’s how the week is going to start out?

Car trouble is such an inconvenience, but I guess that’s one reason why we’re in business, right? What is going to be a real pain about this one is that I had one of the mechanics at one of our sister companies do some work on this van less than two years ago, and one thing he did was drop the fuel tank to replace the fuel pump sending unit. So now we have the possibility of a warranty issue.

When you work in the automotive industry, you know people who work on cars. This means you can usually get a deal of some sort on repair work. The problem is, when you get a deal, do you get treated like a valued customer? In my experience, you don’t always. I have a myriad of horror stories dealing with having my personal vehicle worked on by mechanics at companies I either worked for myself, or at one of the sister companies. What a hassle it can be. And all the time you have this thought running around in your brain: how could I ever recommend to one of my friends or family members to have their car worked on here?

Here are some of the misadventures I can remember:

• I had my radiator flushed and they left the cap off, so most of the coolant boiled out when I drove home on a hot day.

• They talked my wife into new wiper blades and the next day while she was on I-5 driving to Seattle with a van full of swim team kids, one fell off in a heavy downpour and stuck against the other one. She had to pull over on the freeway, disengage the one that fell off, which was now damaged, and drive with one until she could get somewhere to buy a new one. Fortunately, it was the passenger-side blade that got damaged.

• The tire guys (reference to Ron White) put the wrong size tires on my van, even though I emailed them the size before bringing it in, and even though they could have looked at the tires they took off.

• I got a flat on my Honda on a Sunday, emailed the tire guys (same guys) that day, because I knew they’d have to order it in, and it was Friday before I got it replaced. The next time I needed a tire for that car, I went to Les Schwab, and it was on the next day.

• I had a transmission and an engine go out on a S10 Pickup within a two-month span, and I had the same shop replace both with rebuilds. A few months later, there was oil in the coolant, and the shop accused me of letting it overheat to the point that the head gasket blew due to my negligence. It never overheated — I just noticed the pool of oil in the overflow container. I had to get my dad involved (the muscle) to get them to replace the engine on their dime.

• A power window stopped working intermittently on our van, and the mechanic replaced the motor and window (they came as a set), but didn’t replace the cable — to save us money, of course. A few months later, the cable, which apparently needed to be replaced, got twisted and bound up in the rebuilt motor, and we had to replace the motor, window and cable.

• An odometer started squeaking, and after visiting insanity and decided I didn’t like it, I had it replaced. By another squeaking odometer.

The best thing you can do for these operations is to be honest with them because they are never going to fix their problems if you’re not. You probably have more influence than the average customer, even if you’re not treated like one, so you owe it to them, to their “real” customers, and to yourself (if you ever have your car worked on there again) to do whatever you can to help them. Obviously, when you run into problems with multiple automotive repair shops, it’s not an isolated problem. This is an industry that has room for improvement, for sure. I have spent most of my adult life trying to locate mechanics I can trust, and the list is a very short one.

I’m being a little bit harsh. Automotive repair is not an exact science, and most mechanics, I believe, are trying to do well, but there are inherent problems in their system that lead to poor customer service, one of which is this idea of charging for how much time a job should take. This is a scam, and I can’t believe we all put up with it. If it takes you one hour to do the job, charge for one hour. If the job should take two hours, go ahead and slow down and do the job right, and charge for two hours. If you did the rush job, I don’t want to pay for the slow-down-and-do-it-right job. If the mechanic is paid on the labor rate that appears on the invoice, then he or she has an incentive to complete the job quicker than the “industry-standard” time needed for that job. This is great for the shop, in the short-term. It’s crappy for the customer, because corners are going to get cut. I personally think that a smart shop would forego this billing method completely and market to the public that they only charge for the actual time worked on the car. If some shop around here did that, it would get me in the door at least once to see how they do.

The one mechanic who I feel always had my best interest at heart is a gentlemen I had the good fortune to work with a couple of years at the tow company I managed, but before that, he worked for Radio Cab in Portland when I first started driving a tow truck in the mid-80s. His name is Sorin, and he’s one of the warmest, friendliest people you will ever meet. You can tell within seconds that he really cares about you. He listens. He reassures. Our impound lot was right across the street from Radio Cab, and we purchased all of our fuel there, so I got to know him, but I never had him work on one of my cars until I was in desperate straits. One fall day I was driving to work and the indicator tabs on my brake pads started squealing. I was leaving the next morning for deer hunting; it was 3:30 in the afternoon, and I had a 300-mile trip ahead of me, plus a week of driving around in the dust of Eastern Oregon. I told the guys at work about my problem and one of them said, “Why don’t you go talk to Sorin?”

By this time, it was 4:30 p.m., and in my experience you can’t get a mechanic to even look at you after 4:00, so I’m thinking, there’s no way, but what did I have to lose? I walked across the street, found Sorin, and explained my situation. While I was talking to him, my pager went off — dispatch had a call for me. He asked me for the keys to my pickup and told me he would take care of it. Sorin didn’t own or manage the Radio Cab shop, so I don’t know if he was even supposed to schedule his own work. Fortunately for me, Sorin doesn’t believe in red tape. I don’t think he even knows what it is.

I ran the call, and it didn’t take very long. I was back at the lot within 45 minutes. When I got back, my pickup was there, but it was parked in a different spot. The dispatcher had my keys. Sorin had already taken care of the brake pads. He left an invoice on the seat with a note that said to come in when I got back from vacation to take care of it. And get this: he charged me for 15 minutes of labor. I was astounded. In fact, thinking back now about that day, I can’t believe that I have ever had any of my vehicles worked on by anyone else since that day. I’ve gone to places that were less expensive, because of my connections, or that were closer, because they were convenient, and I’ve rarely been happy. I paid for it in other ways. Sorin’s shop is way across town from where I live now. I think he’ll be seeing more of me in the future.

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper

www.TowPartsNow.com