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Five ways service writers fail

more tales from Beth's repair shop

Small business owners know that no matter how good their product is, how
clean their carpets are, how much money they spent to build their building,
that the people in charge of selling their product can blow it all for

Automotive repair is an odd business, although it is a retail
business, it is also a service business, and very few rules of the retail
trade will apply. More decisions are made by customers based on things that
are hard to measure - such as loyalty, trust, comfort, convenience, and
style. The culture of an individual automotive repair shop, and how well it
meshes with the culture of the majority of their customers, will win or lose
more business for you than the fancy labels on the boxes or the logos on the
signs outside.

Customers may feel that for the most part, after they check in at the front
counter of an automotive repair shop and surrender their keys, their vehicle
will disappear into a big black hole and maybe emerge better than before, or
maybe not. Most of what goes on inside that big black hole is not the least
bit interesting to them, but they feel very strongly about the results they
expect at the other end of the transaction. The point of contact between
their vehicle disappearing and re-emerging is the service writer at the
front counter, and that is the person expected to make sure the process
happens to the expectations of the customer.

We are so dependant on interpersonal relationships at every point in this
process. Every step involves communication. Just thinking about it makes me
(an owner) twitch and sweat and lose sleep. Every thing that happens depends
on your service writer paying attention, taking everything seriously,
following up, and completing the needed steps so you can make money.

Sorry, did I let it slip we were in business to make money? Right. That
dirty word. Well, just because we are in it to make money, does not mean
that bad things need to happen. If bad things kept happening, we would not
make money, so for the most part businesses are interested in doing good
things, and being rewarded with money.

However, here are five ways the service writer can fail you - you, being
either the customer or the owner, and what you can do to watch out for these

#5 - does not take money seriously

THE SYMPTOM - This is a real story that happened at my shop just a few
months ago and I am still scarred from the experience. I had a service
writer, a friendly guy in his early 40s. He was pleasant and energetic and people seemed to like him.

For a while I would run a test to find out what kind of music our
customers mostly liked the best. I tried putting the radio station in the
lobby on a classical station, a pop station, a rock station, and a talk
radio station. I got the most positive response from a station that plays
entirely "classic rock" ... Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd. It's not
for everyone, but it's for most everyone in our target audience. Anyone
between the ages of 32 and 55 can probably sing "Free bird" or at least know
what it means when someone screams "Free bird!", so that's what we settled

The nice man at the front counter was in the process
of ringing out a customer, a very young lady who was somewhere between the
ages of 19 and 22. She was in for an oil change, and during the ringing-out
process, we actually go through a series of steps where we explain quite a
bit - how many quarts of oil we used, when the next service is due, any
special notes about the vehicle like leaks or funny noises, what condition
the tires and belts were in, and ask if the customer has any questions
before taking their money.

This service writer was so absorbed in listening
to the music, he started bopping his head and singing along and kind of sang
out the words to the customer, skipping most of the process we normally
follow, just asking her for the money, then as she was handing the money to
him, a part of the song he really liked came on and he sang pretty loud. The
song was a ZZ Topp song, the line was ... I am not joking ... "I know you
like it ... YOUUUUUU like it on top!!! Tell me maaaaa maaaa ... is this
gonna stooooop!!!" Are you cringing yet?

The poor girl was freaked out and
grabbed her change, and ran out of the store, before I could detach myself from the phone conversation I was stuck on at the time and intervene. Can
you just imagine how uncomfortable that was? She will never be back, I'm
sure of that.

THE PROBLEM - The service writer did not last long at the store, because
this was just a SYMPTOM of what his true problem was. The reason he ended up
getting fired was because, after a series of mistakes, his real problem was
that he did not take money seriously.

He gave the wrong change frequently.
He read the wrong total off the screen. He'd cash out the wrong customer. He
counted the money in the drawer incorrectly. He would enter the wrong price
on the invoice. He would quote the wrong dollar amount on the phone to the
customer, then end up in arguements when the customer would come to pick up
the car. He would forget what number he entered and sell an item at cost
with no profit. On and on and on and on.

He was an utter financial disaster,
and I should have seen it coming by how casually he handled that woman's
money. Money, at least my money, was not important to him. Whether the store
made money or not did not matter, whether the customer lost money or paid
the wrong amount or was given the wrong change did not matter, because it
was not his money, so he didn't care. You have to notice these things about
your counter people. They should focus, count the money exactly right every
time. There is no reason, no excuse, to ever give the wrong change or count

#4 - does not take the customer seriously

THE SYMPTOM - I had another service writer, a very pleasant and personable
lady who insisted on calling everyone by their first name, no matter what
the situation. This bothered me and I tried to break her of that habit,
although there were many things about her work that I liked, so I tried not
to jump up her nose about this one little thing. It's just ... it is not a
little thing.

No matter where you are, it is simply not appropriate to
address a stranger by their first name unless they consent. When we check
people in, we do ask for their first and last name, their address, and their
phone number. Not so we can become best friends with them, but for
identification and clarification purposes in our records, and frankly, so we
can better market to them and send them propaganda. After doing this for 15
years, I have a few customers that actually will not give me their first
name or their address, they will just give a last name and first initial.
Hey, none of my darn business anyway, so I don't care. Not important for
fixing their car. Of course, they pay cash only ... I'm not taking a credit
card without checking ID and verifying the full name, but if they want to
pay cash, they can tell me their name is Howdy Doody or Marilyn Monroe or
even Marilyn Manson or Hey You and I won't care.

So anyway, there are also
customers that after many years, even though I know their full name and
address and will have their ticket filled out with their vehicle information
before they even finish walking up to the counter, I still call them "Mr.
Wyatt" or "Mrs. Adams." I have many, many customers that are friendly and
polite to me, but I have yet to say their first name out loud. Additionally,
we are in the rural South, where everyone is either "Ma'am" or "Sir" whether
or not they are older or younger than you, but just because their social
position demands it since they are the customer and we are serving them. So,
after a few weeks of hearing the new lady who worked for me startle total
strangers by belting out their first name like they were long-lost twins, I
told her for the final time to stop it.

THE PROBLEM - Wasn't anything to do with names. It was that in general, she
did not take the customer seriously, and basically did not respect the fact
that they were spending money to be with us. It was all about her, and her
feeling important, and feeling like all these people were coming in the door
to see her, and getting the ego boost when she would learn something
personal about someone and tell someone else about it. All the customers
were all players in her world, and her ego started to show after a few
weeks. She didn't last either.

Bottom line, you need to be sure that when
someone new starts, it is fine for them to be confident and outgoing. But
since that person is new, and the customers walking in the door are more
important and of a higher status than she is, check to be sure the new
counter help is respectful and treats people with deference and dignity, at
least until they go "Oh, stop that, call me Joan!"

#3 - does not take time seriously

THE SYMPTOM - Our shop is busiest around lunchtime, as a lot of people try
to run their errands on their lunch hour, and yet somehow think that they
are the only person in the world to have that idea. So, the place
bottlenecks between 11:30 am and 1:00 pm daily. We are prepared for that, we
try to mitigate the damage. We start taking turns taking lunch at about
11:00, stop taking turns when it fills up, and resume after the rush is

Our shop has a large window in the lobby so
that a customer can see everything that is happening to his car. Every bay
is visible from the lobby window, so customers can see if a tech is in their
car, under their car, staring at their car, working on their car, or talking
on their cell phone and eating a sandwich while leaning on the hood of their
car. The customers can also see, and really get irritated when they
see another customer who bypasses the front counter entirely and just walks
or drives up to the techs working in the service bays and tries to interrupt

Techs that have worked with me a while know this is one of my major
freak-out triggers, breaking in line. Get in line. Wait your turn. It's not
all about you. Your time does not mean more than anyone else's time. GET IN

Just a few weeks ago, I was the lone person behind the counter
fielding phone calls and ringing people out because every employee I had was
working on one or more cars and the place was full. Customers were waiting,
several were in the lobby staring impatiently at their vehicles. I was
checking in a part that was delivered when I heard a collective groan and
general grumbling in the area of the window. I stopped and looked at what
was going on.

Outside, in the bay, a customer (well, since he was
freeloading and not paying, he was not a customer, I will just call him a rude jerk) had walked into the shop and was getting two employees to help
him mount a lawnmower tire on a rim. He had pulled two employees, each of
which were working on paying jobs, and more than one each, and each who was
working on at least one car that had an owner waiting, and watching! Oh, and
did I mention, we are NOT a lawnmower shop? We don't work on lawnmowers or
lawnmower tires.

I hurried out the door and addressed the two
employees and told them to "Drop that right there and get back to work, NOW,
please!" One of the employees had been with us a while and knew what was
about to happen, so he went back to the car he was supposed to have been
working on and I made a mental note to discuss with him later ways he can
keep this from happening again. The second employee was somewhat new, and
thought that perhaps I did not have all the information, and maybe he just
needed to explain to me what happened and then I would understand and tell
him to go about with what he was doing. I interrupted him with "I said, DROP
THAT RIGHT THERE and get back to work!" and a little confused, he did.

I turned to the person who had interrupted the work, who was starting to
sputter at me, "but it was only going to take a minute! I just needed some
air in the tire!" and I told him "You need to wait your turn. If you need
this done, please check in with me in the front counter, and I will sign you
in for the next available technician. Right now we are full for the next
hour and half, but you are welcome to make yourself comfortable in the
waiting room."

At this point he became angry, which I expected, because
rude people who think people should drop everything just because they say so
don't understand concepts like "turn", "line", "wait", etc. He said "I'm not
waiting an hour and a half for something that will take two minutes! Can't
one of them do this right now?"

I said "NO, that's not how it works,
look at that window with all those people waiting! They all waited their
turn, and their work is being done right now, and you just thought you could
break in front of them? Tell you what, either you take that tire out of
here, or you follow me in there and we will ask every single person who is
waiting if it is okay if you break in front of them. If they all say yes,
then we'll have someone stop what they are doing to fix your tire. If you
don't want to do that, leave right now and stop taking us away from our
WORK!!" I turned around and went back inside, not looking behind me until I
was inside. When I turned around, he was nowhere to be found.

THE PROBLEM - The tech who made the mistake of breaking away from paying
work to do some nonsense that had nothing to do with his job is still with
us. I am hoping he is teachable, but I will let you know. The bigger
problem is not understanding the value of people's time, and not taking time

When you demonstrate to the customer that you do not respect
their time, and you don't care that they don't want to spend extra time in
the waiting room while you semi-ignore their car, it is a larger problem
that has to be addressed. After things calmed down, I spoke with the two
technicians involved and gave them the benefit of the doubt. I thought maybe
they just didn't have the coping skills to deal with rude people. So I told
them if they felt they were unable to do what it took to get rid of someone
who was being rude to them, that they just needed to tell that person "I'm
sorry, but I can not talk to you right now. Please check in at the front
counter. I have to get back to work." or something similar and let me deal
with it.

#2 - does not respect the customer's property

THE SYMPTOM - This is another one that will make you cringe. Brace

A nice lady came in and checked in at the front counter, she had
just bought a new car and was very excited about it. She was bringing the
car in for its very first oil change, and had come to our place for years,
so she wanted us to look it over. She said it was a car she had wanted since
she was a teenager, but after she was married and they had children, they
could not afford a new car. Now her kids were grown and she was rewarding
herself with that new car she always wanted. She even named the car "Baby"
because it was her new baby.

The car was a Volkswagen Beetle. Not my style,
but she was excited about it, so I said I was happy for her. There was a
technician at the computer next to me, he was looking up a part, and he was
not really paying attention to the conversation. He heard someone say
"Beetle" and he noisily snorted, rolled his eyes and said "Oh not another
one! I hate those cars!" then went back to looking up the part and walked
back out to the shop before I could disembowel him with the ball point pen I
was holding.

He was totally unaware of what he had just done. If you could
have seen the look on this poor woman's face you'd have wrestled me for the
ball point pen so you could disembowel him first. She was shocked, hurt, and
suddenly doubting her choice, because the automotive shop she had trusted
for over a decade had just called her an idiot with a stupid car. What's
next, hang Santa Claus in effigy while her grandchildren are visiting at
Christmas? So me, being the liar I am, as soon as he was on the other side
of the door I quickly laughed and said "Don't mind him. His ex-wife has one
of those, and she loves it, and it never breaks down and he's just bitter."
She found that funny and we snickered about his frustration and what a cute
car she has. I don't really care that I was gossiping about one of the
employees, I couldn't think of another way to handle this fast enough, and
besides, what a disrespectful thing for him to do!

THE PROBLEM - It may shock you to know he didn't have an ex-wife because
he's never had a wife. Really, that smooth-talking devil with the obvious
charm with the ladies is single? He demonstrates a lack of respect for
someone else's property so easily, casually, and thoroughly, you just know
that translates into other parts of his life.

This is the kind of person you
have to watch. This is the type that doesn't care when they leave
greasy handprints on someone's steering wheel, loses the chrome valve stem
caps, and breaks hub caps because he yanks them off and slams them back on.
With this tech, his work is near-perfect because he has a personal pride
with how he does the job, but he has no respect for what he considers
personal items. Your choice in this situation is deal with him and learn to
look at everything behind him and run through a little checklist of common
problems (grease, broken things, etc.) or replace them with someone who
demonstrates a greater respect for someone else's property.

#1 - does not take the customer's request seriously

THE SYMPTOM - Have you ever heard the saying that customers always want
every product "Free, perfect, and now" and that you will never have more
than two of the three? In auto repair, that translates into "Cheap, safe and

Think about it with each word taken out, one at a time. You can have
your brakes done fast and cheap and they won't be safe. You can have your
engine rebuilt safe and fast but it won't be cheap. You can pick through
junk yards, the internet, and discount auto parts shops and find every
little nut and bolt and bearing and seal needed to rebuild your rear
differential cheap and safe but it won't be fast. When I check people in,
and I have the conversation with them about what is going on with their
vehicle and what is most important to them, we are pretty much just
discussing the order of importance of the three main tenets of auto repair.

A customer may say "I don't care what it costs, but I'm leaving to go to the
beach this afternoon and my brakes have to be done before 3:00." Or, "I
don't care what manner of crap you use to glue it together because I'm
getting rid of this car as soon as it rolls out of here, but just stop that
oil pan from leaking as cheaply as possible." Or, "This is the car I'm
giving to my son to go away to college. It doesn't need anything fancy, but
it has to run perfect and be as safe as possible, so just call me when you
are done." Here is the crucial point. This is where a service writer will
either get it, or they won't.

THE PROBLEM - If they do not understand this, they will fail. If you do not
understand that they do not understand, they will drag your business down
with you until you realize this is the problem. If you can understand this,
and find people who actually listen to the customer, you will avoid a lot of

Figure out what your true mission is with this job with this
customer - does time, money or safety matter the most? And adjust
accordingly. I can name examples where three different customers came in for
a brake job on a Toyota Camry within two days of each other and each of the
three paid a different price. Why? Because they each had different goals and
priorities, and I listened to them, and each was happy and got what they
wanted and paid what they expected.

If you can find counter help that, at the
very least, understand time, money and safety, you'll conquer about 70% of
your problems. Think back over customer complaints and misunderstandings.
Weren't most of them "But it wasn't done when you said it was ..." "But it
cost more than I wanted to pay ... " or "I expected better than this ..."

As an owner, recognizing these things early and dealing with them swiftly
and mercilessly is key to establishing the kind of culture you want your
store to have. Do you all want to be rodeo clowns, or do you want to be a
business that is taken seriously?

As a customer, recognizing these flaws in
the personnel who are entrusted with your vehicle is key to getting what you
want. If you see a problem that leads you to believe you aren't being taken
seriously, bring it to the attention of the owner, if at all possible. If
that's not possible, it's just going to be a little more of a burden on you
to be sure your wishes are followed and your vehicle is returned to you the
way you expect. If you suspect the service writer is not paying attention,
ask for the details of your conversation in writing before the work begins,
and ask to go over the bill before you pay for the vehicle once the work is
completed. Oh, and count your change.


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