Stories of an Independent Car Repair Shop

We are a AAA approved automotive service center and an ASE Blue Seal Shop, independently owned by a husband and wife that live in the community. We've had our business since the early 1990s. A lot has changed since then and not for the better.

There seems to more helplessness and lack of responsibility among customers now, than in the past. I cannot tell you how often (at least four times a day) a customer, upon being told the vehicle would not be ready until tomorrow or the part was not available, or, if they were dropping in without an appointment and we were working them in but could not have a tech available for an hour or so, will ask me "Well, how do you expect me to get little Brittany to her dance class by 3:00?" and other such questions. "So how do you think I'm going to get to work tomorrow?" "What do you want me to tell Travis's soccer coach when he's not at the game on time?" and on and on and on and on.

These are not young people fresh out of their parent's houses and unaccustomed to making decisions, these are full grown middle aged people, in their 40s and older, who expect me to solve their problems that have nothing to do with the fact that the water pump had to be ordered or they didn't get their car to me until after 6:00 pm at night and there was no way to get the part before morning.

I could say, “I didn't drive your car until something broke. I didn't neglect to change your oil until the oil light came on. I didn't drive your car for months, listening to a brake squeal become a brake screech and then a brake grind and then a clunk. I didn't arrange your life so that you had no backup plan when events delay things in your life.”

An emergency is one thing, such as having debris in the road suddenly puncture two tires, I can understand being a little panicked and asking for some suggestions, but in most cases, the people who are coming to me to solve their life problems are entirely due to their own neglect.

There is no way I would approach a stranger expecting them to have an answer for something that I, as a full-grown adult functioning in a free society, should be doing for myself. An exception would be if I were not in my hometown, were caught by surprise by something totally out of control, and my normal support system (family, neighbors, friends) were all beyond my reach somehow. I might ask to borrow a phone book or ask for a suggestion of a good rental car place/hotel/restaurant whatever. I would never involve a stranger in my personal business and expect them to help me get me to work on time or bring my kids to whatever thing I have chosen to transport them to. I don't ever remember behaving that way, and I don't remember people acting this way 15 years ago.

I always try to answer that question, depending on how it is phrased to me, as politely as possible. I might say, for example "Perhaps there is someone you can call for advice?" or "I'm sorry if I do not understand the question, are you asking for a referral to a car rental place?" or "Do you need to borrow the phone so you may get in touch with your family or a friend?" or simply "Take your time while you decide what you'd like to do, I have a few minutes before we close anyway. If you need a phone book or the phone, they are in the waiting area."

I am going to have to work on a different approach that is perhaps less subtle, because this rarely puts them on the right track. The majority of them will then come back with something like "But my boss said I can't be late any more", "Travis is going to be so mad if he misses another soccer game", "Brittany's teacher wants to put her as the lead in the recital and she can't miss this practice", or worse, "There is no one I can call. I'm a single mom, nobody helps me, so what do you expect me to do?" This is often followed by a great deal of detail of how much of a rat the ex-husband was and how worthless the boss is who lets the other women be late whenever they want but not me, no, not since I caught him and Megan in the copy room and they are looking for an excuse to get rid of me or what a hassle the rehearsals have been like since the instructor likes Mallory better because she has blonde hair or how the team has won three straight and Travis got mad because Dustin played in more games than he did.

A side note to that ... if they are the kind of person who has no support network ... no friends, no spouse, no neighbors to call for help, no co-workers, no family, if they are that alone in the world, perhaps the problem is them? At any rate, if all the people you have daily contact with are unable or unwilling to do anything to help them when they ask for their help, what grand life advice exactly they expect out of a total stranger?

So, my reply after that, again depending on the person's tone, volume, and amount of profanity and/or tears, might be, "If you are asking me what I would do in this situation, I would (blah blah blah)" or "Ma'am, I am uncomfortable in making decisions that affect your family, I do wish you would reconsider and please use the customer phone to contact someone who may know your family better" or "Call a tow truck, tow your busted-up car somewhere else, maybe the tow truck driver can drop Travis off at his soccer game on the way."

This lack of responsibility gets much worse, because these are the people who will then blame everything wrong with their car on someone else, and/or think everything you tell them is a lie.

I can think of several times I have lied to people, but I don't lie to them about the job, about what's going on with their car, or about what was fixed or not done to their car. There are other things I lie about pretty regularly. Many customers will become very impatient with the progress of a repair, and expect that if a repair is supposed to take an hour and a half, that is when they will be handed the keys.

When I have tried to explain about test-driving a car, or the fact that before it only made the noise when it was warmed up so we'd like to keep it longer to be sure we have taken care of the issue, I am often met with resistance. "No, I need it as soon as you get the wheels back on, I'll let you know if it isn't fixed!" and I will lie and keep the car to be sure we can test drive it longer, or maybe send two different techs to test drive it, or maybe drive it myself. When they ask me why it took two and a half hours, I'll say "Took a little longer than we thought" or blame it on a tool problem or something just to be sure we are sure it is ready to go. But I can't imagine lying about "Yeah, we put a tie rod end and a steering rack on" (like one of the examples on your site) when we only put a tie rod end on. That would never happen with us, we have a good system in place that relies on all communication between the service writer and the tech being in writing, and we save all parts that come off a car until either the cores have to be turned in or the customer sees the parts or requests the parts be discarded. Following our system, I don't have a way to lie about that.

But I do lie about things in which telling the truth would just upset the customer — if the customer is not a rational person, or is temporarily insane (under pressure from another source, upset because of personal problems, etc.) and lying about the things I do lie about. I know in a way that is wrong, because it's condescending for me to think that I know what is good for them and they are not capable of knowing what is good for them, but I do it.

All our work is warrantied, and we hate having to do something over because we were rushed, or did not test drive something long enough, and missed some little pin or clip or some other little quality control thing that some extra time and following procedure would prevent. Rushing will come back, so I'll take an argument over being a little late over having to re-do an entire job (and maybe buy all new parts or pay for a tow).

Another area where we might lie: We use seat covers and floor mats to prevent getting dirt into customers’ cars, but sometimes the tech might accidentally have something smudged on his clothes that he didn't notice, and it will get on the carpet of the customer's car or the door. The tech will then usually tell me while the car is still in the shop. I have a portable steam-cleaner that works on interiors, and several different kinds of de-greasers and various safe cleaners for various kinds of surfaces, and while the car is still in the bay I will remove the problem. Most of the time, I will tell the customer about it, and ask them to inspect it to be sure it meets their satisfaction before they leave the shop.

In rare cases I have had people take serious advantage of that and insist the car be fully detailed or make some other demand that is out of proportion with the crime that was committed. I have found over the years that I have a keen instinct for that, and the times that I have thought to myself, "This person is just going to love that we have screwed up and is going to screw us in any way possible" and I have been right. So, when I sense that I am dealing with a person who is looking to get one over, and something like that goes wrong, I might fix the problem and not even tell them about it. So, I guess that is a lie by omission. When I do something like that, we will often vacuum the whole car out as a courtesy, so that the car looks cleaner anyway and they are not likely to notice the clean spot.

I have a good reason for taking the coward's way out. Two instances that happened just in the past month, one was our fault (sorta!) one was not. One car, a Pontiac Bonneville, used to come to us regularly, but I am certain it will not be back. To say that this car was filthy is an insult to filth. I have trouble finding a tech to work on it. If you can picture many, many takeout food containers, many still holding bits of food, cigarette butts rolling around on the floorboards, cigarette burns on the carpeting and seats, every surface sticky and coated with something sticky and then dirt on top of that, a smell of rotting garbage that would knock you out. I have noooo problem getting techs to use seat cover and floor mat on this one. They would probably prefer a Haz-Mat suit and gas mask.

Somehow the tech had a smear of grease on the side of his pant leg, and it dragged across the inside of the driver's door panel. I cleaned it, but it looked ridiculous when it was clean, considering the rest of the condition of the car. I told the customer about it and asked her to check it over. She then pointed out we should clean the dashboard (coated with something sticky and very dirty, with no fingerprints on it) because she thinks that was grease on it, and she thinks some of those stains on the seats weren't there before, and there was a crack in the lower right hand part of her windshield that she thinks wasn't there before. I didn't want to make her feel bad, so I just pointed out that there were no fresh marks on the dashboard and everything appeared to be evenly coated and aged on the dashboard, the seats had no fresh stains on them and there were no fluids introduced to the interior of her car by us and even if there were, no way for them to have dried in time to also be coated with ashes like they were, and touching the crack on the windshield, you could feel a buildup of grime in the crack, it was very old. The conversation degenerated from there, she left in disgust, still saying we owed her a windshield, but that she would never be back.

Then a couple came in with an older motor home, for two tires. This is the kind of motor home where you can enter from a door on the driver's side to get to the driver's seat, or you could enter from a side door where you walk up the aisle and then get into the driver's seat. Our usual practice is to only use the driver's door, using seat covers and floor mats. We have special roll-out matting for RVs, just in case we have to get back in the passenger area for any reason. In this case, it was not needed. The tech got in it maybe four times to get it into the bay and to move it out of the way. When the couple got in it to leave, the woman came back in the shop and told me there was a greasy footprint on her rug from the tech. I asked the tech about it, he was very sure he had only used the driver's door, but since he was in and out a few times, he couldn't remember 100%. I was puzzled but agreed to take a look.

She opened up the side door (to the passenger area) and when the door opened the smell hit me. This place smelled like something died in it. The steps were filthy and coated with years of grime. You could not tell the real color of the carpeting. She pointed out a runner, old and dirty, and pointed to what appeared to be a single footprint. If the tech had entered through this door, he would have had to take seven or eight steps to get to the point where that footprint was. I touched the footprint and it was not only dry, but many places on the rug were stained with some old liquid stains, and some stains clumped both the footprint and the non-footprint area. How's that supposed to work? He not only set his foot down once, but spilled some things on top of part of it, dried it, and dumped an ashtray on top of it? But she swore this footprint was not there before, so I grabbed my steam cleaner and went to work. No luck at all. These were old, deep-set in stains, I was barely making a dent and there was no way to make this rug look better. The smell was killing me. I finally just said "Look, this is an old old stain, it is not coming out. Here's 20 bucks, buy another runner." They'll never be back either.

I have a $450 Land Rover steering wheel in my office. It is one of those leather-wrapped steering wheels. It has a scuff in the leather at the bottom (6:00) position, where, if you had a belt buckle, and had a bit of a belly, depending on how you had the wheel tilted, getting in and out of the car would scuff that leather wrap on the steering wheel. This Land Rover was less than two years old. The customer brought it back to me the next day and showed me the scuff. The tech who worked on it was skinny and not wearing a belt with a metal buckle. (Most of our techs, if they wear a belt at all, wear the kind that folds over instead of buckles so that they do not scratch a car.) The tech did not remember whether or not the scuff was there when the vehicle was in for service (how would someone who did not own the car know to notice that?). The customer swore it was not on the car when he brought it in. The customer has a larger belly than the tech and dresses in a suit with a belt every day for work.

I don't think he was lying to me knowingly, he was not the type of person to try to get one over. I think he didn't notice that he was scuffing it up over the course of two years, and people don't look at their car with the detail before they come in for service as they do after they come in for service. I did buy him a new steering wheel. He still comes to us for service. I know we did not do that damage, but I also know he is unaware that he did it.

We only saw that car twice more before he traded it in for another one, and I was dying to see if over time the scuff would re-appear on the new steering wheel. He didn't keep it long enough to find out. I am checking out his new car every time I see it, and when I do see the identical scuff mark, he will be buying that $450 steering wheel back from me. So, I lied when I told him no hard feelings, I would pay for the steering wheel. Yes, there are hard feelings, and someday he will pay for the steering wheel.

So I lie about getting smudges in your car if I sense you are unstable, treacherous, or I just don't want to deal with your hysterics. I hold grudges while smiling at you and swearing I'm not holding a grudge. I smugly ignore your personal struggles and don't give a damn that Bobby Joe is going to get the promotion instead of you because you're late for work due to your failure to plan, again. I condescendingly insist on double-checking our work before letting you leave. I am such a jerk.

— Beth

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