By Mitch Schneider
As much as I’ve tried over the years, it would be hard for me to explain exactly how I feel about this industry or the people who work so hard and give so much, while realizing all too often their efforts go unheralded, if not completely unnoticed.
Despite the fact that we’re likely to remain invisible until there’s a crisis, we give the best we are capable of every day. Some might shrug their shoulders and suggest that this is the very nature of commerce, and certainly I for one could not present a compelling argument to the contrary. However, the best that we are capable of generally includes a lifetime of knowledge and experience acquired at great cost and more than just a little sacrifice. And, that suggests a profound imbalance between the true nature of what is offered and the perception of that which is received.
I’ve spent a lifetime working both in and on this industry. I spent the first half of my professional career developing the skills and abilities necessary to meet the standard of excellence my father set for me in the service bay, and the second half sharing everything I’ve learned with anyone who was willing to listen.
I took this knowledge and offered it as a gift to every vehicle owner willing to trust us with the second largest purchase they were ever likely to make a gift with a value far beyond the few dollars associated with the time it took to complete a particular service or repair.
BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS
This knowledge, these lessons, did not come without cost. Each of them was bought and paid for, some in time and effort, some in dollars, but all involving a sacrifice of one kind or another. Some were paid for in hours spent at the shop long after it was closed and everyone else had gone home. Some were paid in the countless hours spent in uncomfortable chairs, eating cold pizza and stale sandwiches, trying desperately to search for that one kernel of information necessary to make the time spent at each clinic and seminar worthwhile. Some were paid in blood, with more trips to the emergency room than either my wife or I care to remember.
The common thread running through each sacrifice made willingly and without remorse at the Altar of Automotive Service was the realization that every sacrifice brought you closer to the ultimate goal of personal excellence.
The pursuit of excellence is not an easy one. It requires an almost compulsive dedication to the “right way,” the “best way” to do anything. If you’re in business, it means surrounding yourself with people who not only understand, but also embrace such a philosophy people who have, unfortunately, become increasingly more and more difficult to find. That is why it cuts so deep when such a gift, the gift of effort, energy, skill and ability, and perhaps the most valuable and personal gift of all, goes unappreciated.
There are times I feel it would almost be better if such a gift was refused rather than ignored.
It would certainly have been better if I hadn’t been forced to run the emotional gauntlet I just completed, even if it meant walking away from both the job and the customer.
It started with a man of God, a non-profit foundation and a donated vehicle. The foundation does good work in the community it serves: my community. The man is essentially a good man, although I’m sure the universe he resides in has little in common with the one you and I are forced to deal with every day. And, the donated car was everything you would expect from a vehicle that was traded for its value as a tax write-off: it was worn out and used up long before it was offered to God.
Now there are problems inherent in dealing with donated cars and religious organizations problems like miracles, money and resurrection. All too often, the people you’re dealing with believe with a perfect faith that just as God provided the vehicle, God will provide you with a miracle cure and them with the cash to fund it. And that somehow, someway, that tired, broken, worn-out vehicle will rise from the dead, like Lazarus.
Personal experience has left me more than a bit cynical. Every time I’ve been confronted with one of these vehicles, God has been otherwise occupied and more than willing to leave the miracles and resurrections to us! This is a responsibility we’ve accepted from time to time, recognizing that there is something noble in the performance of “acts of loving kindness,” albeit indirectly.
We’ve brought this particular vehicle back from the dead more than once, keeping it “in service” long past its time. Despite the fact we’ve knowingly subsidized the repairs by reducing the cost or increasing the value by providing “extras” that don’t always appear on the invoice, we’ve kept it safe and we’ve kept it running by using just about everything we’ve learned over the years. We’ve done this willingly and without unrealistic expectations because, quite frankly, it always felt like the right thing to do. At least, it did until the other day.
The other day, the vehicle was brought to the shop with two problems. One was a nagging and uncooperative intermittent misfire we’ve been trying to isolate for too long, and the other was a more pressing and immediate overheating problem.
Since there are always critical “budget issues” to deal with, we attacked the overheating problem first. The system was more than a half gallon low on coolant and, while the cooling system refused to leak under pressure, we did find evidence of coolant coming from under the timing belt cover. With no way of knowing what services, if any, had been performed on the vehicle, a mid-90s Mazda V-6, we estimated the replacement of the water pump, the most likely cause of the leak, and the timing belt.
The estimate was substantial; substantial enough to preclude the repair, at least until the appropriate miracle occurred and money rained down like Manna from heaven. That miracle did occur in terms of a “good friend” who owed the foundation a “favor” and was willing to perform the repair for a fraction of what it would normally cost.
The vehicle was picked up and, to tell you the truth, I didn’t think much about it for a while. In fact, I didn’t think about it at all until the phone rang and we were accused of suggesting unnecessary service and repairs. It seems this “good friend” looked at the vehicle and insisted there was nothing wrong with it. The vehicle was then taken to a second shop where they “confirmed” there was no leak. Finally, the vehicle was returned to us.
I’m not sure why the vehicle was brought back to us. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have brought it back if this happened to me. Maybe, it was brought back to teach us a lesson in humility, ethics and morality. Perhaps, it was brought back out of frustration and disappointment. Maybe, some heavenly tribunal intervened! All I know is that I was grateful for the opportunity to get the vehicle up in the air where both of us could see what my technician had seen.
You see, I know the people who work here. I know who they are and what they’re all about. I know what they’re capable of both in terms of their ability and in terms of their integrity. I know no one here would ever suggest something that was unnecessary, especially on a vehicle with so many legitimate service concerns to choose from.
I was frustrated, angry and disappointed, and it took just about every ounce of self control I could muster just to maintain a kind of constrained civility. As the vehicle was being raised, I described the current State of the Industry and where quality shops like yours and mine fit in: shops that could never and would never sell a service that wasn’t called for. I tried to describe how important it is to have people who are willing to go beyond the obvious, unwilling to accept the easy answer people who insist on finding the cause of a problem, not just eliminating the symptom.
As I was talking, one of my technicians removed the lower splashguard to reveal the bright green rivulet of antifreeze running out from beneath the timing belt cover. I watched while the vehicle owner visibly cringed as he realized that it wasn’t us who had failed him.
He wanted to know how “they” could have missed something like that: why they would tell him there wasn’t a leak when it was obvious there was…if you took the time and went that one step further that too many other shops weren’t willing to go.
I couldn’t tell him what either of the other two shops had done, or didn’t do, what they saw, or didn’t see. I wasn’t there. But, I do know what we do, how and why it’s so different and, consequently, what makes it so special.
He asked if he could leave the vehicle to have it repaired. I didn’t answer him.
He brought the vehicle back to the shop because he wanted us to know how we had failed him and how that made him feel. He felt that it was his responsibility; his obligation. In the course of doing so, he learned that it wasn’t us who had failed him, but rather the two other shops he had chosen over us. But, I’m not sure he will ever come to know or understand how he failed us.
The lifetime of knowledge, skill and experience that we bring to work every day has value; significant value, value far above and beyond the few dollars we accept when we offer it for sale every day. There are countless reasons it’s undervalued by the people we serve, not the least of which is our failure to understand its worth ourselves.
This gift the difference between what that knowledge, skill and ability is really worth and the actual cost to the consumer is something most of us are willing to graciously forgive for the opportunity to do the job right, and for whatever recognition and appreciation we receive from those customers and clients who realize the important role we play in ensuring their freedom and mobility.
For those customers and clients who don’t realize the full value of what it is we offer them when they bring their vehicles to us, the gift so many of them take for granted or fail to understand…Well, for them, there is always prayer.