I pushed the office door open and walked out into the middle of the driveway. I turned to my left and looked out toward the arroyo. That’s when I first saw the dark outline of a man walking up the hill toward me. The sun was in my eyes and I had to squint in order to try and make out who or what was coming my way. I took a deep breath and made the choice to meet my destiny, whatever it might be, head on. I could hear a harmonica softly playing its sad refrain in the background.
We stood facing each other less than 10 feet apart, close enough for me to make out the features of the old man standing in the middle of my driveway, armed only with a manila folder and a Haynes manual. He looked me straight in the eye and demanded to see the “Head Honcho.”
I looked around and finally figured out that it was me he was looking for. He had a problem and he wanted to settle things right here, right now!
It was a scene straight out of an old Western movie: two men, facing off in the heat of the noon day sun, both sure they were right, both sure justice was on their side.
I reached for the flashlight on my belt and watched him flinch as I slowly moved it out of its holster just a bit. He held his folder in front of him like a shield. He had something to prove and seemed convinced now was the time to draw a line across the asphalt and prove it. I looked him square in the eye and asked him why he wanted the “Head Honcho.” He said he had business to discuss. I asked what kind of business and he proceeded to tell me all about a car he had purchased from one of our customers: a car that was sold because of the work we said it needed. A car that didn’t need any of the work we had indicated it did, according to him. He said his intent was pure: that his only purpose in bringing this to our attention was the hope it would somehow improve our business and that he wasn’t here to start a fight. “Too late!” I thought to myself. I had already joined the battle emotionally, if not yet physically. I took a deep breath, centered myself and asked him to continue. My heart was pure, my strategy simple: discover exactly what was really bothering this man and then destroy it at its heart.
What was really bothering him was the list of needed services he felt were all unjustified; services that caused his next-door neighbor to sell him what he felt was an otherwise perfect vehicle at a distressed price; a vehicle he was fully willing to repair, but one that as far as he could tell needed no repairs.
He started to tell me all about what wasn’t wrong with the vehicle; what he had looked for, what he had checked, what it didn’t actually need. He started to stick our invoice in my face, but before he could finish I stopped him.
“Is the vehicle here?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Then why don’t we look at it together…”
I called the technician who had worked on the car off the job he was working on. This was a challenge that would not wait, could not wait, another minute. We put the vehicle up in the air and began to take his list apart, item by item, service recommendation by service recommendation.
We started under the vehicle with the first of the oil leaks that weren’t there. It seems they are easier to find when the vehicle is in the air and not resting on jack stands in the new owner’s driveway. We pointed out the plume of oil originating at the distributor O-ring seal. He said he couldn’t have an oil leak at the distributor O-ring seal because he didn’t have a distributor. We explained that just because the vehicle no longer had a distributor, it could still have a place to put one; a place that still needed to be sealed, a place that could and would leak if that seal failed.
We moved from there to the right-side fender well and with a long screwdriver and a very bright flashlight pointed out the corrosion and residue originating at the water pump vent hole, spreading to the inside of the pulley and radiating out. We moved to both the front and rear of the intake manifold and showed him the oil puddles at both the front and rear of the manifold and the residue of oil that could be traced directly to the intake manifold gaskets themselves.
We took a moment to demonstrate the play in the outer tie rod ends and explained the reason the vehicle no longer pulled hard right was because we had switched the two new front tires right to left before the vehicle had been released, mitigating the pull. We removed the rear wheels and the brake drums to show him the accumulation of moist, brake fluid-soaked “dust” and friction material accumulating on and around the brake shoes and then pulled the wheel cylinder cups back and watched him cringe as the fluid began to dribble out of the boot. Step by step, service by service, we demonstrated not only what we felt needed attention, but why it needed attention as well; the repairs that needed to be made, the services called out in the next few thousand miles at the 90K service. We finally got to a point where the only criticism he had left was a power steering cap that didn’t look like it had been disturbed, although the reservoir was mysteriously full; and the oil level, which was just slightly over the full mark.
After repeatedly asking this hombre if he was finally satisfied that everything we had recommended, did, in fact, need attention, I told my compadre, Javier, to saddle her up, smack her on the rump and get her out of my corral!
If it is possible to feel a sense of victory after disrupting the flow of work through the shop for an hour while two people were forced to take the time to explain the facts of automotive service life to one civilian, I suppose we were justified. But, I can tell you that while whatever it was we felt may have been satisfying, it still didn’t feel very good. Someone had called us out: challenged us to a gunfight, calling into question the very essence of who we are and how we see ourselves. He challenged not only our technical ability, but our integrity as well and he did it under the pretense of trying to help us “improve” our business.
I won’t stand here and suggest to you or anyone else that our business, this business, doesn’t need attention. Every business could stand a little “attention” now and again. But, like every good rancher, I know my spread. I know the cowboys who work it as well as the kind of work they are capable of producing.
I know an awful lot about some of the other spreads around here as well. I also know that no matter how much most civilians think they know about the cars they have been maintaining or the number of years they’ve been maintaining them, there is a vast difference between what they think they know and what they actually know. And, I know the dangers we face when one of these individuals proclaims himself a so-called expert.
That’s why something like this bothers me so much. This individual in a fit of perfect indignation challenged our integrity and ability and he did it before a valued and long-time customer and who knows where else. The only thing I will give him credit for was the courage and conviction he showed by walking right up to me and telling me to my face that we were guilty of not knowing what the hell we were talking about. I’ll give him credit for that and for finally admitting that what appeared on the invoice as recommended service belonged on the invoice as recommended service.
I maintained my calm throughout the inspection. I spoke in subdued tones and inhaled and exhaled normal breaths. My heart rate didn’t go up until his tail lights disappeared into the noon day sun and even then I managed to keep it within almost acceptable limits.
You see I had a secret weapon, something I knew that I know he could never know. I know the people I ride with. I’ve known most of them for what seems like a lifetime and I’ve ridden with them through good times and bad, hard times and times that weren’t quite so hard.
I helped train the young man who looked at this vehicle when it first came in. My brother helped train him. But, most important, my father helped train him. My father taught him there was plenty you could find wrong with a vehicle, any vehicle, and that there was never any legitimate reason to manufacture unnecessary repairs or services. He taught him to document anything and everything he found and never to put anything down on paper that you couldn’t walk a customer out into the shop to isolate, identify or demonstrate.
My other two technicians share the same philosophy, the same values. They would never, could never, do the things we were being accused of. Like me, they believe that no amount of money is worth your dignity, your self-esteem.
That’s good to know when someone tries to stare you down suggesting the people you work with, the people you share perhaps the greatest portion of your life with, have done something you know they are totally incapable of doing.
This Western saga ended like any good Western saga should, with the good guys coming out on top. Or, at least that’s my take on it. And, this evening, it will end with this tired cowboy riding off into the sunset exhausted, but secure in the knowledge that if you’re true to yourself and what you believe in, if you surround yourself with individuals who believe in the same principles just as passionately, there isn’t much to fear.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you can ride hard and shoot straight either!
Mitch Schneider is the co-owner of Schneider’s Automotive Repair, an independent repair facility located in Simi Valley, CA. An ASE Master Technician and ASE-certified C1 Service Advisor, Schneider is a 40-year veteran of the automotive service and repair industry.