It was a dark and stormy night…”
I know you should never start a piece with a lead sentence like this, but it was a “dark and stormy night” in the nightmare that abbreviated a restless evening’s sleep just a few hours ago. It was really dark, and it was really stormy, and I was at the rudder of a small, leaky boat adrift in a sea of consumers, customers and clients. The ocean was rough and water was coming over the sides faster than I could bail it out. And, if I close my eyes, I can still see the frozen stares of the wraith-like figures that came out of the water, reached up and wrapped their bony fingers around the edges of the hull as they tried to pull themselves into the boat causing it to rock and shift at all kinds of crazy angles.
It was about the time I realized I wasn’t alone that I realized exactly how much trouble I was in. Even though I knew the people in the boat with me, even though I’d known and trusted them for years, it soon became apparent they were indiscriminately pulling people into the boat no matter how low in the water we found ourselves. No one seemed to know who to pull into the boat and who to push back into the churning waters.
I tried to pilot us out of the squall, away from the chaos and toward calmer waters. But, the harder I tried, the more difficult it became. And, then suddenly, I found myself awake, disoriented and wondering what could have precipitated such a horrible dream.
I didn’t have to think about it very hard or wonder very long! I knew what caused my discomfort and it wasn’t something I ate. I couldn’t blame it on bad seafood or the latest “slasher” movie either. I couldn’t because I knew exactly what caused my subconscious to erupt so creatively. The events that wrapped their bony fingers around my unsuspecting mind and the wounds they opened were still fresh.
It started innocently enough with a call from one of our favorite clients. It’s a family you know. A family you have worked for in the past: great parents, great kids and a fleet of vehicles that are continuously and meticulously maintained. They have come to believe what you and I already know: a well-maintained vehicle costs less to own and operate, lasts longer and doesn’t break down unexpectedly. It is a family that has always trusted you with all their automotive service needs, just like this family has always trusted us… at least, until now. And, that’s where the seeds of my nightmare found fertile ground.
It started with a concerned phone call about their son’s 2006 Ford Mustang. The vehicle only has a bit more than 22,000 miles on it, but they are “canyon” miles. And, that is probably what led to the call. The clutch was acting up and, under the impression it would be covered under the vehicle’s “Bumper-to-Bumper” warranty, they took it to the dealership only to find out that it wasn’t a covered item. They were subsequently given a quote to replace the clutch and now, they were calling us to see what it would cost for us to perform that service. They were certain we would be less, and frankly, so was I.
Before I could ask if they were given a “firm” quote for the job, the information was volunteered: $600… And, the conversation that followed went something like this:
Us: “Was that for the parts or was it for the labor?”
Customer: “It was for everything…”
Us: “Are you sure? It sounds like a quote for about half the job on that particular model. Are you certain they indicated they were going to remove the transmission, replace or resurface the flywheel, replace all the clutch components: the disc, cover, release bearing and the pilot, all for just $600?
“Are they giving you some kind of a ‘Customer Goodwill’ discount or something like that, because, quite frankly, that sounds unreasonably inexpensive for that service at any facility, anywhere!”
Customer: “Nope… No warranty or allowance. Just $600, and that’s it!”
Us: “OK, let us put together an estimate for you and in the meantime, give them a call just to make sure there was no misunderstanding and the quote wasn’t for just the labor or just the parts so there are no surprises when you go to pick the vehicle up if you let them do it. We’ll call back as soon as we get the quote together and that should give you a few minutes to double check with the service advisor at the dealership…”
We got off the phone and I took a deep breathe. This was not going to be good. You’ve probably already started estimating that job in your head. I had already started estimating it in mine. Replacing a clutch on just about any late-model vehicle is well over $600 these days, no matter what it is or who built it! Regardless, we sharpened our pencils and forged ahead. No matter what we did, we weren’t going to be able to deliver that service with the quality of parts and labor we insist upon for less than twice what we were told our customer had been quoted by the dealer.
I structured the sentence that way for a reason. Why? Because, despite the fact that our customer called the dealer back and had been assured there was no mistake: the clutch replacement would be “$600… and not a penny more: Period!” You’ve probably already realized that no matter what anyone had been told, this particular vehicle was not going to be delivered at the quoted price… and we shared that concern with our customer.
They decided to leave the vehicle at the dealership for the clutch and we decided to just shake our heads and wait until the next time they were in to find out what actually happened. We didn’t have to wait long! The call came two days later and the customer was distraught.
When she went to pick up the Mustang the cashier presented her with an invoice that was just under $1,500 — more than $200 than what we had quoted her and not quite three times what she was sure she had been quoted. When she asked why it was so high, she was told that’s what she had been originally quoted. When she insisted she had been quoted $600, she was told that she must have misunderstood, the $600 was just for the labor, not for labor, parts, incidentals and tax. After a day-and-a-half of arguing, she finally picked the vehicle up and left the dealership $1,300 “lighter.”
There are lots of different ways to look at his event. My guess is you’ve already figured out a few from the last time this, or something very much like this happened to you. You can look at it as a “Glass half full…” or a “Glass half empty…” thing, or you can look at it as an “All customers are whores…” or “All customers are naïve…” kind of thing. Whatever kind of thing you want to make it, I only see it one way: we lost a $1,300 or $1,400 job because a reasonable, rational, full-functioning adult wanted to believe the Tooth Fairy is still on the job, or that Santa Claus would slip by long after December was a distant memory, leaving a belated or forgotten present at the dealership just for them!
They wanted to believe — no, they insisted on believing — that something that sounded too good to be true, was, in fact, going to be true, even after they’d been warned. When it comes to winning the lottery you can write something like that off as naïveté or “Foolish Optimism.” When it comes to getting your house painted, your patio poured or your car fixed for less than half of what it should cost — must cost — it’s just plain foolish!
Every time something like this happens, I find myself sadly disappointed. I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to protect my customers, especially the ones I care most about, from themselves or from someone else, and disappointed in them for being so damned greedy!
I know that might sound harsh, but I’m not sure there is a better word to describe what drives the kind of behavior we had just experienced. Not in a week that saw two customers do pretty much the same thing (you’ll get to read about that next month or the month after!) with just about the same results.
You can call it lots of things… and, you could probably get away with most of them as long as there was no warning. But, this family had been warned, and when you’ve been warned, you lose the ability to push the blame off on someone or something else. Once you’ve been made aware of the danger or the realities you are likely to confront and then make a conscious decision to ignore the warnings, you are pretty much on your own!
There are lots of lessons here, most of them for our clients, customers and friends. The majority of them have to do with keeping things that seem too good to be true at arm’s length because most of the time, they are.
There are others, however, that are lessons you and I probably need to remind ourselves of from time to time, many of which have to do with relationships that we’d like to believe are too good to be true, relationships that somehow transcend competitive pressures, economic conditions or maybe even human nature. My father never missed an opportunity to remind me that most customers — in fact, all but a unique few — are whores. In all honesty, he wasn’t a cynic. However, having lived through the Depression and World War II, he was a realist. What he meant was that most customers, regardless of how good or considerate or concerned we think they might be about us or our businesses, they are still likely to do what they believe is best for them even if that belief is unrealistic at worst, and unsubstantiated at best.
I think we need to remind ourselves that if these relationships seem too good to be true from time to time it’s probably because they are. And if we’re able to do that, we aren’t likely to be disappointed. And perhaps if we limit or control the number of times or the level to which we are disappointed, we won’t be awakened in middle of the night by ghoulish apparitions trying to steal our souls — or, maybe even worse yet, our wallets!