Mitch Schneider: Getting Used to ‘That Mechanic Thing’ – UnderhoodService
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Mitch Schneider: Getting Used to ‘That Mechanic Thing’

With the precision of a crack military unit, my wife and daughter appeared in the shop’s driveway at exactly eleven hundred hours as planned. My wife was there to pick up our daughter, our daughter was there to drop off her vehicle for "regular" service – "regular" in the sense she is regularly late in getting her vehicle in for scheduled maintenance ….

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By Mitch Schneider
Contributing Editor

With the precision of a crack military unit, my wife and daughter appeared in the shop’s driveway at exactly eleven hundred hours as planned. My wife was there to pick up our daughter, our daughter was there to drop off her vehicle for “regular” service — “regular” in the sense she is regularly late in getting her vehicle in for scheduled maintenance.

I wasn’t going to say anything because having her drive the 30 miles from where she lives to where she used to live just to get her oil changed is a major accomplishment, and certainly beats the “Hi, Daddy…” phone calls I’d get as the vehicle coasted to the side of the road dead or dying.

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It was our daughter’s birthday and they were on their way to a “Girl’s Day Out” — High Tea and an afternoon of shopping. And, despite the fact that I knew it was going to cost me for both the service and a trip to the mall, seeing them hug and kiss in the driveway and then head for the office laughing and smiling on a busy Friday morning just plain felt good, which made it all worthwhile.

The smile lasted until the phone rang. It was a client with a problematic Mazda MPV. (Is there any other kind?) The Mazda had a long history of what can only be described as a very intermittent and almost imperceptible misfire. The client was developing an attitude that was neither intermittent nor imperceptible. She was frustrated and wanted to share the love!

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It wasn’t the kind of call you look forward to receiving at any time, on any day, let alone at the end of a busy Friday morning, just as your wife and daughter enter the office with hugs, kisses and their wish for a “great day.” What they couldn’t know was that the client and the call had already ended any hope of that.

I’ve often wondered what some of these conversations must sound like to someone sitting in the office, someone unfamiliar with what we do. After all, just how much can you learn from half a conversation, especially when the half you’re listening to is somewhat less than conversational?

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Bob Newhart got his career started with routines based on conversations like that, where all you heard was one person responding, leaving the other half of the dialogue to the imagination. I remember just how funny some of those early routines were, but my wife and daughter weren’t laughing.

“Yes, this is Mitch.”

“No, I do remember who you are: Mazda MPV with a random misfire code and a very slight, almost imperceptible miss…”

“It’s worse…That’s great!”

“Inappropriate? No. I’m not happy your truck is worse. I’m happy that perhaps now we can finally figure out what the problem is…”

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“No, I can’t promise there will be no additional cost.”

“…For completing the additional inspection and testing necessary to isolate and eliminate the problem. Well, it could require additional parts and labor.”

“…You didn’t spend $600 on a problem you still have. You spent $600 for an inspection and testing to analyze a difficult problem that wasn’t there all the time…confirmed by the fact that the MPV wasn’t symptomizing while you were in the Mazda with one of our technicians — and, on normal service…”

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“…to test and inspect the ignition system, the fuel delivery system and the computerized engine management system; regularly scheduled oil and filter service; overdue maintenance, like spark plugs that were 20,000 miles past due; an air filter that was plugged almost solid; and some other stuff that had nothing to do with the misfire.”

“I’m not trying to be difficult…”

My wife and daughter shook their heads, blew a kiss goodbye and headed for the door. They had heard all they wanted to hear. The conversation that was quickly becoming more monologue than dialogue continued.

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“Yes, but now we know what isn’t wrong with the vehicle and that will help us isolate what is.”

“I never said it was fixed. I couldn’t have because it never ‘acted’ broken here! What I did say was bring it back immediately if or when it acted up again.”

“Yes, today is OK.”

“No. I can’t be sure it’ll be done tonight…half the day is gone already. No…The truck isn’t here and I don’t know what time it is going to get here, so how can I possibly tell you when it’s going to be done?”

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“No. I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m trying to be honest! Bring it in and we’ll do the best we can.”

Well, she came in about an hour later and while “combative” wouldn’t necessarily be the best word to describe her demeanor, “confrontational” quite possibly would!

There were new complaints: lack of power, very rough idle quality, poor fuel economy and more. We got the owner back to work and began the process of re-inspecting and re-testing the vehicle. The intermittent misfire was no longer intermittent; it was constant and very obvious. The DTC was no longer indicative of a “random” misfire either, it pointed straight at cylinder #3. Inspection revealed a number of conditions that just weren’t there before. The #3 plug was wet, the ignition coil — which had tested “good” before — was not firing on #3, and moving the #3 wire to a different plug confirmed the coil failure: problem solved, case closed!

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Maybe…

I called and checked price and availability on the coil assembly. It wasn’t available that late on a Friday afternoon. I went out on a limb and ordered the part for a first a.m. delivery Monday to ensure that we could get both the Mazda and its owner out as quickly as possible (should she agree), figuring that, worst case, we could install it while she waited. After reviewing the two previous repair orders, I had already decided to “forgive” the inspection and testing if for no other reason than to eliminate a confrontation in the office late on a Friday evening.

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I don’t know how you feel about situations like these, but losing a beautiful, early summer weekend, spent celebrating both of your kids’ birthdays seemed far more costly than losing a few dollars in labor. Life is short and this industry is challenging. None of us knows how many beautiful, early summer birthday celebration weekends we have! So, I called the Mazda lady and shared with her what I just shared with you.

Fixing the broken car is never a guarantee you can or will ever fix the broken customer, a phenomenon clearly reinforced by a second call that lasted for just a few seconds and ended with a “We can talk about this when I come to pick up the vehicle.”

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We did talk about it when the Mazda’s owner arrived at the shop, or more appropriately, she talked and I listened.

She made a point of telling me that she just didn’t understand why she should have to pay for fixing her car a second time when she had already paid to have it fixed once. In fact, it seemed like the expression “I just don’t understand” was repeated over and over again.

“I just don’t understand what’s wrong…”

“I just don’t understand why I should have to pay…”

“I just don’t understand why you couldn’t figure out what was wrong before…”

“I just don’t understand…”

I’d love to say that I was losing my patience, but like Elvis, my patience had long since left the building!

“Do you know how your refrigerator works?” I asked.

“What?”

“Do you know how your refrigerator works? Do you know how it stays cold?”

“What are you talking about? What could that possibly have to do with my car?”

“Everything! I know how your refrigerator works. I have to or I couldn’t work on your air conditioning system. I know how your oven works…and your toaster…and your toilet…your furnace…your computer… and just about everything else in your house and office. I have to in order to work on your Mazda because just about every system in your home is replicated in that vehicle.

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“I have to know how they work. I have to know what inspection and testing protocol is appropriate; how to analyze and evaluate the data gathered from that inspection and testing once it’s completed; and how to turn all that into a diagnosis. I have to know what action is or is not appropriate in order to eliminate the problem and how to accomplish that repair as quickly and professionally as possible.

“I have to know that and more, and so does each of my technicians.

“You don’t have to believe me. You don’t have to trust me. You don’t have to pay me for the work we’ve done to isolate the problem. You don’t have to let us replace the coil. The bottom line is the problem just plain didn’t show up the first time you brought it in. But, now we do know what’s wrong with it, and because we know, you know. You can have us repair the vehicle or you can have someone else repair it. I won’t be insulted. In fact, if this conversation continues to go the way it’s been going, I might even be relieved!”

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What happened next caught me off guard. She apologized and said that by reputation and by our willingness to stay with the problem until it was resolved, she could tell just how much we care, just how good we really are. She just wasn’t “used to that mechanic thing,” because her last vehicle hadn’t ever given her any problems at all…ever.

She’s coming in Monday and we’re going to replace the coil. Hopefully by then her level of comfort with “that mechanic thing” will resolve itself.

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There are probably countless thousands of other people who aren’t “used to that mechanic thing” either. People being forced to deal with things they just don’t understand, filled with just as much doubt and confusion as the MPV owner.

This late in my career I’ll try to educate everyone I can, everyone who comes in. I’ll try to keep the ones who are ultimately willing to get “used to that mechanic thing” and lose the rest. Because, no matter how long I do this, I’m not sure I will ever get “used to that customer thing.” There are just too many variables, too many things I guess I may never understand.

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Mitch Schneider co-owns and operates Schneider’s Automotive Service in Simi Valley, CA. Readers can contact him at [email protected].

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