Shop Management: Doctor’s Orders
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Shop Management: Doctor’s Orders

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Doctor’s Orders

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By Glen Beanard, Technical Contributor

John is sitting in a doctor’s exam room after having several tests run. The doctor enters the room and informs John that he has been diagnosed with a high blood pressure condition. The doctor explains the condition to John. He informs him that he must make an immediate change in his diet, reduce his exposure to stress and take medication. He writes John a prescription, outlines his diet, and schedules him for future check-up intervals.

The doctor warns John that if he does not follow his directions, the condition could easily turn life threatening. That is the last time the doctor sees John. Sadly, John dies of a heart attack some months later that might have been prevented if he had only listened to the doctor. John’s widow then files a lawsuit against the doctor for malpractice. She claims that the doctor said nothing and gave John a “clean bill of health.”

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Fortunately, this story about John is fictional. Unfortunately, the situation is not entirely fictional. This sort of thing happens regularly and our industry is a prime target.

In the fictional story above, the doctor’s reputation, huge sums of money and even his establishment are all hanging in the balance of a “he-said-she-said” debate. It was not the doctor’s fault that John failed to listen to him. Nor was it the doctor’s fault that John even had such a condition to begin with.

That pretty well sums up our involvement with parts on people’s vehicle when they fail. We didn’t buy it, build it or break it, but that doesn’t seem to stop some people from passing blame to us. So how do we protect ourselves from such unfortunate entanglements?

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I believe that the majority of accusations are a result of a person who genuinely believes they were wronged. Most people have no clue how their vehicle works or the repair procedures involved. Since they don’t understand the parts involved and how they work, they don’t understand how they wear out. They understand even less the fact that parts usually work fine until they can no longer perform their duty. As automotive professionals, we know that parts usually aren’t broken until they’re broken (to put it simply).

We see it every day, but customers don’t have that benefit so it’s only natural for them to want to focus on things that they do understand and look for a connection between those things. “It didn’t do that before the wreck” or “It didn’t do that before you worked on it”; those sound familiar don’t they.

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In reality, it probably didn’t “do that” afterwards either. The customer doesn’t understand that the vehicle has a problem because something has worn out. So, they associate events that they do understand and try to link them to why the vehicle now has a problem; such as a wreck, recent repair work or maybe a friend that borrowed the car.

In many cases, those events are days, weeks and even months from the time when the problem started with the vehicle. But that doesn’t stop them. They inaccurately convince themselves with these falsely drawn connections. Sometimes your shop just happens to draw the “lucky” straw. Another big contributor to all of this is the epidemic trend to shift blame to someone else.

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Look at what happens in a traffic accident; it is always someone else’s fault no matter which involved person you talk to about it. I believe this plays a role as a motivator for someone to draw connections between events that link blame to someone else. Of course it always has to be someone else who is responsible for their misfortune. Maybe they are the ones that drove the car every day for the last week putting that much more wear on it, but it was you that changed the oil last week so it has to be your fault the check engine light came on.

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As a minority, there are a few con-artists who abuse our attempts to satisfy customer complaints, as well as abuse the legal system. They do this to get a “free-ride” on various things like meals, service work and product purchases to name a few. Is there any defense against these people? Yes, I believe so, even against the con-artist.

Your front line of defense is a strong set of communication skills. The service advisor must be, in a sense, bilingual as well as an interrogator. The customer may come to the counter and say: “Sometimes my car won’t start.” To the customer, that is a good description of the problem. However, the invoice cannot simply read: “Car will not start at times.” That does not tell the technician anything more than he/she is dealing with an intermittent problem. So the service advisor must interrogate the customer for more information. The service advisor must ask he customer about the exact symptoms that surround the “no start” condition.

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For example:

  • Does the engine crank over with the key, but fail to actually fire up and run? Or when turning the key, does the engine not even crank over at all?

  • Do other things in the car seem to work when it fails to start? Such as dome lights, radio or anything else electrical that the customer may have noticed working or not working during the event.

  • Do you know if you have an anti-theft system, whether factory installed or aftermarket? If aftermarket, where is the “valet” switch hidden? If factory installed, can we also have the other key to the car?

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  • Is there any pattern to making the problem reoccur, such as being parked overnight versus a short sitting like stopping to refuel?

    Of course, these are just a few examples. The actual line of questioning has to be custom tailored to the complaint. After all, you wouldn’t be concerned whether the dome light is working for a complaint of noisy brakes. However, the idea remains the same for any issue that the customer brought the vehicle in for. A write-up that only says: “Brakes are noisy” is just as bad. The “who, what, and when” of the complaint must be on the invoice. Not only so that the technician can duplicate the concern and be able to find the problem for a more accurate and faster fix, but also for future reference.

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    Have you ever had a customer complain that “it is doing the same thing,” and it actually turns out to be something completely different with different symptoms? Proper documentation of the exact symptoms can help keep you falling into a trap. But we’ll talk about documentation more a little later. In order to be able to even get to this point, the service advisor must be bilingual. The service advisor must be able to understand the customer’s often misused terms in order to choose the correct questions to ask, and then translate the information into terms the technician can use. For example, I once received an invoice that stated: “At 40 mph, the engine idles high.”

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    If we take that statement for face value, the only logical explanation would be that the engine must be idling so fast that the car can drive along at 40 mph without the customer touching the gas pedal… right? Well, during the initial test drive, the engine idled normally. However, at 40 mph the transmission slipped and caused the engine to rev up. The term “idling” had been improperly used.

    Fortunately, that was a straightforward problem that occurred at all times and had been easily found with a simple test drive. But not all problems are so cut-and-dried. Wasted diagnostic time, repeated phone calls to the customer, wrong repairs performed, at least one irate customer and even lawsuits are all possible outcomes stemming from lack of communication with the customer at the time the repair order is written up.

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    What about when it is time to sell the repair work? Strong communication must be used. The customer must know exactly what items they are paying for, what concerns the items address and an accurate account of the costs.

    For example, if the water pump is leaking and the technician also recommends a new thermostat, radiator cap and coolant flush to go along with that water pump as preventative steps, take a few extra minutes to explain the recommendations to the customer.

    Simply saying to the customer, “The water pump, thermostat, radiator cap and coolant are all bad. That should cost you $XX,” is a lousy explanation. Sadly, this is an everyday occurrence, and some don’t even explain that much. In this example, the customer should be told directly that “the water pump is the source of the leakage.” Then, explain the recommendations and their reasons.

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    Such as:

    • “The seal is degraded on the radiator cap and result in a leak in the near future. Since it is an inexpensive part and has to come off anyway to refill the system, I recommend installing a new one.”

    • “The coolant has become acidic from chemically breaking down with age. (You can mention the pH level if you want but the customer may not understand that.) That may have been a contributing factor as to why the water pump failed, so I recommend doing a chemical coolant flush to neutralize the acids to help protect the new water pump, as well as the rest of the system.”

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  • “The age of the thermostat combined with it having the same acidic coolant passing through it that the failed water pump had, I suggest replacing the thermostat for dependability reasons.”

    Yes it might seem like a mouthful, and it’s true that some of what you said may go in one ear and out the other. However, it is far better to talk about these details in private on the phone (or with the customer in the bay in front of the car) before the work is done, than to have to go over all of this at the counter at cash-out time with a line of other customers within ear shot. With a proper explanation before hand, no one can (with just cause) accuse you of misleading them. You have informed them in the difference between what is required to fix the concern, what items are suggested for better performance, general maintenance and what helps insure reliability.

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    Another issue to address at the time of the sale is the price quote. The quote must be accurate — it is expected. Most customers expect it to be accurate to the penny and are only really happy when it is less. For this reason, I suggest building your estimate by billing the parts and labor right to the open invoice (assuming you are using computerized invoices) and print that as a quote sheet. This way, the dollar figure at the bottom reflects the exact amount the customer will be paying over the counter should they authorize the repair, including all taxes and any shop supply fees. If the customer requests to see an itemized estimate, then you already have a neat and professional looking estimate to hand them or fax to them.

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    If they authorize the repair, then your paperwork is already mostly finished. If they decline certain suggested items that are truly optional to the repair, then simply take the bottom line price and subtract from that each omitted line on a calculator. You then have a newly updated price to answer them with. Don’t worry about removing the tax difference for the quote, the actual pay-out at the counter will just be that much less and they will be happy with that.

    If they decline the repair or just certain items, then most automotive invoicing systems will allow those items to be changed to a quote that will print out for the customer at the time they pick up the car and retain that quote in the shop’s system for a few months to use later. If you use a system that won’t do that, then that’s OK too. Just print off an extra copy as a quote to hand to the customer and keep the other copy in the customer’s file should they return. That way, everything matches if they return a month later or so for the work. This not only makes a professional looking operation, this also protects you from the customer claiming that the quoted price was something much lower if they return.

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    When it comes to verbalizing the price to the customer, I suggest using lump sums of all labor, parts, taxes and other fees together. Only itemize if they ask you to (or unless your state law requires you too). It just makes things simpler for them to understand.

    If you throw too many numbers at them at once, they could misconstrue the price be much lower than what it actually will be. That can be a very big problem at the counter later. I also suggest leaving out talk about “how many hours it calls for” (unless your state law requires you to say it). Again, that kind of talk is useless to the customer and just adds to the confusion. After all, they balance their check book and pay you in dollars, not hours. How many hours that a book says it should take to repair the car, is not a part of the discussion unless you drag it into the discussion.

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    If you are asked when the car will be ready, avoid saying something that points to flat rate time like, “The book says it takes about three hours to do.” Instead, just provide a time on the clock as to when it will be ready “about 5 o’clock… we’ll call you when it’s ready.” Be sure to call when it is ready like you promised, and be sure to call before that time if it looks like it will not be ready for one reason or another.

    When the doctor (from the opening story) spoke with John, he was clear in his communications with John. Either John failed to tell his wife or she is just trying to cash in on the situation. So what do you think will help save the doctor in court? Proper documentation, that’s what. In this example, the doctor has excellent documentation to back him up. He has a file with John’s medical reports, a copy of the scheduled appointments that John failed to come to, a written copy of the prescriptions, a statement from the pharmacy that the doctor called in the prescription to, and maybe even a signed release statement from John that states the doctor made him aware of his condition. In a way, that is all the same things we have to protect ourselves.

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    Declined estimates are the same as a patient ignoring the doctor’s orders. Doctors prescribe medicine and we prescribe new parts, they are not very different from one another. For example, an opening invoice reads: “Brake lights are inoperative at all times.” The shop finds a faulty brake light switch and the customer declines it. The closing invoice states “estimate submitted for new brake light switch, recommend not driving vehicle,” along with an estimate copy for the customer and one for your file.

    The customer pays for the diagnostic fee, signs the final copy and leaves. The customer is then rear ended when they had to stop suddenly. The driver of the car in the rear will be trying to push blame onto the person ahead of them (your customer) because they had no brake lights. Now what? With proper documentation, as in this example, the shop should be fine.

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    The opening invoice had clearly shown that the customer knew that they had no brake lights at all times, and the closing invoice clearly shows that the shop gave them an estimate to fix it and advised them they shouldn’t drive the car, yet they chose to drive away without brake lights. With that, it would be absurd for anyone to include the repair shop in the circle of blame (unless their state has some kind of law that says that they have to hold the vehicle). However, what if the documentation wasn’t as complete? What if the opening invoice only said to “check the brake lights?” Then, the closing invoice has no notes about an estimate or not driving the vehicle.

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    The customer is left wide open then to claim anything. They could claim that the diagnostic fee they paid was to fix the lights. Whether they are knowingly lying about it or just honestly mistaken, that shop would now be in that circle of blame. This is something that you can not afford to ignore. You didn’t buy it, build it or break it, but lack of documentation could make you responsible for it.

    Proper communication with the customer from beginning to end combined with proper documentation from beginning to end, is essential. That is your protection against people who are either deliberately trying to defraud you, or are simply just confused and incorrectly think that you brought harm to them. If things turn ugly, at least you can show that they disobeyed the doctor’s orders.

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