Mitch’s World: Arrested Development
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Mitch’s World: Arrested Development

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Demand What You’re Worth, Rather Than Accept What You’re Offered

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I suppose there are a lot of things I just shouldn’t let bother me at this stage of my life. Especially, since most are things over which I realize I have little or no control. Nevertheless, there are times when some of those things tumble around in my head like the numbered balls in a lotto cage and I can’t make them go away.

I wrote about one such incident just last month, an event that has been haunting me ever since it occurred. Not so much because of what happened, although what happened would have been enough to cause even the strongest among us to walk away mumbling incoherently. But, because of what it ultimately has to say about us and about our industry.

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The column was entitled “Wrangling In a Herd of Repair Estimate Issues,” and it was about a Jeep Wrangler left at the shop with a shattered clutch, bad universal joints and a noisy exhaust manifold. More than the damage to the vehicle and what transpired as we worked our way through the repair, this particular event had more to do with our damaged industry and the misconceptions we are judged by every day. It was much more about broken people and our fractured industry, than it was about broken cars or the effort and energy to restore them.

This particular repair left the realm of reason when the owner’s wife called to let us know she was having the vehicle towed out of our shop 18 hours after her husband had authorized the replacement of the clutch, rear universal joints and exhaust manifold gasket.

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I don’t know about your shop, but we are constantly working to return a customer’s vehicle as quickly as possible without compromising the quality of the job. The easiest way to do that is to attack the process, eliminating as much non-productive and counter-productive time as possible. That means anticipating “next steps” and “worse-case scenarios” and considering both the logical and unforeseen consequences of the actions set in motion by the choices we make. What it really means is a constant vigilance aimed at problem prevention.

To that end, we estimate our jobs as completely and comprehensively as we can, including everything that might be necessary to complete a professional repair. Our philosophy is simple: If we don’t need it or we don’t use it, we can always take it off the invoice later, which will just about ensure the job comes in under the estimate. By the time we’ve completed an estimate we have the price and availability of just about every part we will need. We know where it is, what it is, what it’s going to cost and how long it will take to get it here.

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When we receive authorization for an estimate, all the parts are ordered and work is begun almost immediately to ensure the vehicle is “Ready When Promised.” Eighteen hours is a long time and, as you might imagine, the Wrangler was much closer to going back together than it was coming apart. When we shared that with our customer and asked what prompted her decision to want to remove the vehicle, we were told that our estimate was $400 over what it should be. That is a 30% differential — almost impossible, even in one of the most competitive automotive service environments in the country.

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We explained where we were in the process; that her transmission and clutch had already been removed from the vehicle and that the U-joints were in the process of being replaced. We made it clear that we understood she had every right to remove the vehicle, but that there would be a charge for either taking it apart, or taking it apart and then returning it to its pre-inspection condition. And, that it made far more sense to complete the job for the contracted price than it did to pay us for disassembly, take the vehicle out of the shop in pieces and then pay someone else to put it all back together again.

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She agreed, but not before she let us know just how angry, frustrated and upset she was. I don’t know about you, but I was feeling almost insecure enough to wonder if we really had failed; if our estimate really was that far out of line. I did the only reasonable thing I could think of — I called five shop owners who I know approach this industry and their profession the same way I do. Four of the estimates came within $20 of each other and one was significantly higher, not lower. That is pretty close when you consider our original estimate was more than $1,300.

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So what happened and what does that have to say about who we are and what we do, about our industry or about our future? What does it have to say about our relationship with the people we serve? Or, perhaps more important, about our relationship with each other? A lot, I’m afraid.

First, where did the estimate that started this downhill skid come from? How could it be so much less than my estimate, or the other five for that matter? Could the six of us be so far out of line, that far out of touch with reality?

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That first estimate came from a shop owner down the street. Someone called and asked how much a clutch replacement on a Wrangler was and he gave them a number off the top of his head. He knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but he believed it would be close. He didn’t add parts or labor for the universal joints because no one mentioned universal joints. He didn’t add time or material for the exhaust manifold gasket because he didn’t know the vehicle needed one.

His estimate was $400 low because $400 worth of parts and labor were not included in it — parts and labor that weren’t included because the customer had no idea what to say or what to ask! Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the customer from asking. Nor, did it stop the shop owner from answering, starting all of us down a road better left untraveled. I found all this out when he called to let me know that he hadn’t intentionally created an unrealistically low estimate just to get the job. It seems his labor estimate was lower than ours because he felt he could do the job in less than book time. I thanked him for calling and began rolling the day’s events around in my mind, desperately trying to find something positive to focus on.

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Certainly, the fact that the six of us were so close was at least something to be grateful for, but that isn’t very much to hang on to when you are drowning in an ocean of ignorance. All it really means is that a very low percentage of a very large number of shop owners finally recognized the costs involved in doing what we do and the profits required to sustain a successful automotive service business.

But, how many other shops could, and probably would do, that very same job for less? Too many, and for as many reasons as there are shops who haven’t a clue what their cost of doing business is!

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There are shops who won’t charge what they need to because they have no idea what they need to charge. There are shop owners who won’t charge what they need to because they don’t think they can get it, and others who, frankly, don’t believe they are worth any more than they’re asking. There are shops that can charge less because their cost of labor is less. Why? Because they have unsupervised people doing work they’re unqualified to do, some are operating without insurance employing people who don’t exist, and some employees are paid off the books or under the table. There are other shops that can charge less because they use inferior parts; some because they don’t know any better, others because they choose to “Buy Cheap and Sell Dear.”

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Is it the customer’s fault for wanting to pay no more than necessary, or is it the shop owner’s fault for failing to charge what they need to? If you ask me, this is one quest that begins with a mirror!

We are facing a critical shortage of trained and qualified people. Why? Because this industry has never paid its professionals what they need or deserve. Why? Because this industry has never charged what the job is worth, choosing instead to couple compensation with production as if we were all factory workers and not the skilled craftsmen we have always been or have come to be.

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We’ve never been able to offer the same benefits as the other skilled trades, nor have we ever been able to speak with one, clear voice. Why? Because we all share the same insecurities that come from a failure to take care of the most basic human needs. We are too busy surviving to succeed.

If we are too engaged in our battle for survival to talk to each other, how will we ever find a way to communicate with the people we serve?

Instead of demanding what is, or at least what should be rightfully ours, we are content to settle for what the motoring public is willing to give us. It’s the same motoring public that has no idea of what it is we do, how difficult it has become, how well we have managed to do it or how well served they really are!

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The cost of automotive service is artificially low. How low? Too low! So low that over the past 40 or 50 years it has fallen well below increases in the cost of living and inflation.

It remains that low because we allow it to remain that low, and we allow it to remain that low because as an industry we are terrified to ask for more. Because we are afraid someone else can do it better, faster or cheaper than we can.

We are paralyzed by our own insecurities, held captive by fears so powerful they almost guarantee our failure. We work in a critical industry that enables virtually everyone in our society to achieve success by allowing them the freedom only personal mobility can provide. And, yet, we have no idea what that freedom is or should be worth. We are frozen in time, trapped in a kind of perpetual adolescence; unsure of ourselves, unsure of our future. It’s the most dangerous kind of arrested development imaginable because it can and will ultimately destroy us.

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Why was this particular event so difficult to get past? Because it identified so clearly where we are and where we have yet to go. It pointed out that we are what’s wrong with this industry. We are holding ourselves back. And until we fix that, until we understand who we are and what we contribute, we will remain content to accept what we’re offered rather than demand what we’re worth.

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