There are two things that can happen in this business that sit atop our list of things we like to avoid. One is a comeback; the other is losing a customer. We don’t like to lose customers because that’s how we make money, but it’s more than that. We don’t like it because we’re in the business of customer service, like it or not. If we lose a customer, it means we failed at our job.
Or did we? Sometimes it leaves you wondering what happened. Many years ago, I had a customer named Larry. He was an excellent customer and incredibly nice person. When he brought his car in, we quoted him as normal prior to performing any work. He never balked at the price, nor questioned it. Our pricing was fair and honest, and rarely did anyone ever question it. If they did, I broke it down, but never made any exceptions. Those who chose to call around to “shop” always called back with approval to do the job.
We always looked forward to Larry coming in because he was a genuinely nice guy, and over the years, he started bringing us breakfast sandwiches, donuts or coffee from time to time, which we certainly appreciated. We made one exception with the work we did on his cars. He liked to bring his own oil. It was a specific brand of synthetic. Normally we didn’t do this, but since he had been a good customer and always did what we recommended, I was okay with it.
Larry brought in his and his wife’s car, plus several vehicles that belonged to his children and their immediate families. It appeared that he had either taken or been elected to the role of family auto repair liaison, perhaps because he was retired. He always paid or made sure that he brought a check, so I never had to call or track someone down for payment.
One year, Larry had brought in two vehicles, both mid-size American sedans, a few months apart. Each one needed to have the pads and rotors replaced both front and rear, not an uncommon thing by any means. The quote for each one was almost identical and very competitive with, if not less expensive than, other shops in the area. Larry approved the repairs, appeared completely satisfied with the service and continued to bring us breakfast and coffee.
As a business, we had the opportunity to grow. We were always scheduled a few weeks out, but we couldn’t grow without more help. We’d had a hard time finding technicians, and I thought if I could find the right service writer, I could get back in the shop and get some work done. I was uncomfortable handing over the reins of this end of it to someone else since I know how critical customer relations can be, but I found someone who was experienced, and I thought was a good fit.
From the start, the person’s attitude and demeanor toward customers was less than impressive. I couldn’t figure out how they could flip-flop from a such a seemingly good interview to a completely lackluster performance.
Within a couple months, the amount of work coming through the door had been practically cut in half. I was having a hard time convincing myself that the change in personnel had such a dramatic effect, but what else could it have been? Then, Larry came in again with another car that coincidentally needed brakes exactly like the past two.
He authorized the repair, and we got the work done by the end of the day. He couldn’t get there to pick up until after normal hours, but that was okay because I was always there late.
I saw Larry as he was coming up to the door and was looking forward to the usual friendly conversation, but was instead blind-sided by an incredibly dissatisfied customer. He couldn’t believe we were over-charging him so much for this repair. He had never been so disrespected in his life. We were over-charging for parts and labor, and he would never bring a car to us again.
I apologized profusely and reviewed all the pricing and labor to make sure it was all done correctly, which it was. I went over every penny of the invoice, and as he became increasingly adamant that he had been overcharged, I even reviewed his past invoices and wondered why he didn’t question them. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that, but I was felt he was being completely irrational, at least on the basis of cost.
He refused to accept any explanation, but finally it came out that our service writer had been rude in some form or another. I was not surprised by this since I was already building my suspicions, but whatever had happened didn’t matter at this point. Larry was so upset about the way he had been treated, that we were going to lose him as a customer and a friend. And we did. He never came by again.
To be fair, I questioned the service writer to get his side of the story and wondered if there was some other contributing stress on Larry at the time that could have led to this issue, but I don’t think so. There had been too many similar situations and, ultimately, it wasn’t much longer before I had to let that service writer go.
Oddly enough, within weeks we were again as busy as could be, we were scheduling a few weeks out and we wished we had another technician, but it didn’t matter for the time being. Customers were happy and that’s all that mattered. Another lesson learned the hard way. Customer relations aren’t everything in business, they are the only thing. TS