In 1994, I was working at major chain repair/tire shop in Birmingham, MI, as a service writer. I had not been there too long and was just learning the ropes. The shop was located in an affluent suburb of Detroit. The customers were a mixture of old money, new money and retiree money from folks enjoying their “golden handshake” pensions from the Big Three.
I had made it through the morning rush of people dropping off their cars for the day while they negotiated a ride to work, and we were just starting to see the “early lunch crowd” trying to get a single tire replaced on their leased vehicles.
I can’t remember her name anymore, but it was one of those names that was sophisticated, and sounded like one a grandmother should have. She was in her mid-70s, but was still active and independent, and was very involved in the lives of her grandchildren.
I have to confess, I have a real soft spot for old ladies. It is one of those involuntary reactions that I picked up from my grandmother and little old ladies from church. I just can’t help being extremely nice to them.
She said that her son noticed that the rear tires were starting to wear unevenly, especially the right rear. I got her last name and started a repair order on the computer. She was a regular customer for more than 10 years.
Her car was a 1986 Ford Taurus Wagon with about 52,000 miles. It was one of those vehicles a person buys right after they retire, hoping it would be the last car they ever have to buy. It was now eight-years old and a victim of Michigan’s potholes.
She asked if we could look at it while she waited. One of our techs was free at the time and he got it in right away. He gave the car a test drive and an inspection on the alignment rack.
The cause of the uneven rear tire wear was the lower control arms. The arms and bushings had seen their share of abuse and they were worn and causing the toe and camber to be out of specification. Unfortunately, to adjust the control arms required special parts.
He also noted that all four tires should be replaced due to wear. Also, he recommended that all four struts needed replacement. On top of that, the front brakes only had a little bit of friction material left.
I got on the phone with my parts suppliers for the camber and toe adjustment kit. I also priced out the set of tires, struts and brakes. To fix everything, the grand total was around $1,300. I looked at the total on my calculator and started to second-guess my calculations and the technician’s recommendations. To me, $1,300 was a lot of money at the time. I started pricing the job out at different level hoping to give her some options if money was an issue.
I looked at the old lady in the waiting room while I was pondering my moral dilemma. I thought she could probably get by without new struts because she drove like an old lady. Also, if I just sold her the tires without bringing the car into alignment, chances are the tires would outlive her (morbid thought, I know).
It was also in the back of my mind that one of her family members could come storming into the shop saying that I ripped off grammy to the tune of $1,300!
I also feared being featured in one of those investigative news reports with a rapid fire announcer saying, “Old lady goes in for new tires, walks out with a huge bill.” This would be followed by a shot of me walking from my car to the shop and a reporter in a trench coat shoving a microphone in my face.
I had seen these reports numerous times and the shop typically was the bad guy for selling stuff that was not needed. But, these reports often got the story wrong due to ignorance of how a vehicle works and how much service costs.
I went back into the shop to talk to the tech to get his opinion. He pointed out all of his recommendations and the extent of the problems with the rear camber and toe. I was asking a lot of “what ifs” and “is it really that bad?” I felt really bad for second guessing him. He had never seen the old lady. He just saw the car and its worn parts. In his expert opinion, it was unsafe and the driver needed to do something about it.
With the estimate in hand, I sat down next to her and explained the estimate. I could not lie to an old lady or try to be a slick salesman. I went down the list item by item explaining why each needed to be done. She approved all the repairs, and even asked for an oil change.
I couldn’t help but feel guilty and overjoyed at the same time. It was a weird melancholy feeling that was punctuated by questions of doubt and self-loathing.
It wasn’t until she came to pick up the car that I realized I had done the right thing.
When I was writing up the estimate, I looked at costs from my perspective and experiences as a green service writer and even greener technician.
I was not looking at it from the customer’s perspective. At the time, I was young, stupid and drove some of the most dangerous vehicles in terms of unperformed repairs because I knew that I could fix it “someday.” I believed in the philosophy that a car was half worn, not half broken. I took a lot of risks to save a few dollars.
For the old lady, I sat down with her and I explained to her what it would take to bring her vehicle back to normal operating conditions, which is what she wanted. Cost to her was a secondary factor. For the first time, I left my empathy and assumptions at the door and told the customer what the shop could do for them.
There was no fancy sales mind games with this approach. It was an easy sell that was maybe missed the last time she brought her car to the shop for an oil change. She wanted her car to be safe so she could drive her grandchildren around.
She was satisfied with the service and even wrote a nice thank you card.
Never feel bad about selling repairs or maintenance on a vehicle. If a vehicle needs something, recommend it. If you can make the benefit easily apparent to the customer, they will buy and be grateful you sold it to them.