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Automotive-related issues continue to rank in the top ten ofconsumer complaints received by the Better Business Bureau.  Even ifyou don’t deal directly with retail customers, the way you handleANY customer complaints can go a long way in determining your successor failure.

Particularly these days, in the economy we are facing, you needevery customer you can get. Treat a customer well and he or she willcontinue to use your services; treat them badly and they will findsomeone else to give their money to. And they’ll tell a lot of othersabout it, too!

Think about it. We have all run into instances that we felt we werenot treated properly. When it happened to you, what did you do? I betyou told yourself (and maybe your companions and other people you met)that you would never be back! Well guess what: you have customers thatthink that way too, maybe with good reason – maybe without. But I wasalways taught that the customer is always right.

Okay, okay; before you all start sending emails about thatstatement, yes, I know that the customer isn’t ALWAYS right – in fact,usually not. But when you are dealing with your customers, you need tomake them “feel” that they are right, and that they are the mostimportant customers you will ever have. In fact, we all like to feelthat way don’t we? Isn’t that the reason one waitress gets a generoustip, while another gets a less than generous tip, or no tip at all?It’s easy to get this customer service thing right, just look at yourreactions and feelings when YOU’RE the customer!

I want to relate a little story about several recent, related incidents that I went through.

As a journalist, I tend to travel quite a bit, particularly duringthe spring and summer, following various motorsport organizations fromevent to event. Many times I tow a fifth-wheel trailer. Needless tosay, I put a lot of miles on and cannot afford to be without my truckfor any length of time. This story all started last spring and threedistinct incidents with three different dealerships was the impetus forthis month’s column.

We can identify these incidents as “the good, the bad and the ugly”and it proves that customer service is a fleeting thing, even among agroup of automobile dealers representing the same brand.

I won’t mention brands, I’ll leave that to your imagination; butsuffice it to say that the last 3 trucks I have owned are of thisbrand, the last two being somewhat expensive diesel models.

The first incident occurred on a return trip from Colorado. Drivingthrough the Davenport, IA area, I lost oil pressure and pulled over tocheck it out. I found oil running all over the place and, of course,it’s Sunday afternoon. Anyway, I had it towed to a dealership forservice and finally got the repaired truck back – the followingSaturday. That’s no typo. I had a full week spent in a motel waiting onrepairs. They did at least give me a car to use.

As it turned out, it wasn’t even a major repair, just a broken elbowon the high-pressure pump. The problem here was that they were verybusy and somewhat shorthanded, hence the long wait. They found a fewother problems too, so I had them make some additional repairs whilethey had it in. This incident is the one I consider “the bad” because Ibelieve they could have made a much better effort to get me repairedand back on the road.

I understand that these things happen, and they didn’t want to upsetany regular customers, but how would you have handled it? I was alreadyupset because of the simple part failure on a so-called “super-duty”truck that was over the 100,000-mile engine warranty by about 6,000miles. Just getting me on my way a few days sooner would have takensome of the sting out.

While this particular dealer had the truck, they also advised me ofsome additional problems that needed attention, most of which I hadthem take care of. The one I didn’t have them fix led to incidentnumber 2.

That first dealer told me that I should get the oil pan replacedsoon, because it was rusted out and would soon start leaking. Now Idon’t know about you, but I have never, ever replaced an oil pan due torust out. Heck, my wife’s minivan, albeit a little newer and with notquite as many miles, still has an oil pan and transmission pan thatlook nearly like the day they came out of the factory. Another strikeagainst my truck’s manufacturer.

I should add here that my brother is a dealership mechanic. When Ireturned from the first incident, I knew I wouldn’t need my truck for afew weeks, but that in less than a month it was going to be on the roadconstantly.

I took it into my brother’s dealership and told the service writerwhat the other dealer had told me about the oil pan and asked him toreplace it. They could have it for a couple weeks, I just wanted to getthe job done right. I also had them replace some other parts like thewater pump while they had it apart.

The dealership had only one diesel tech (not my brother) so I knewit would take them awhile; besides it is a big job to replace the oilpan; removal of the cab is necessary.

Three weeks later I got the truck back. When I went to leave thedealership I found that the steering wheel was about 90 degrees off.That should have been my first clue. About a week or so later Idiscovered that it was again leaking oil. At the time I was gettingready to hit the road, so I called the dealership and talked to theservice advisor that had taken care of me.  I told him about the leak,but that I would not be able to bring it back for a while. (My firstmistake) He said that was fine; just bring it in when I could. I alsotold my brother about it and I know he also discussed it with theservice manager.

While nothing was ever said about a warranty on the repairs, nor wasthere anything on the repair order, when I finally got it back to thema month or so later, I was told that it was out of warranty and that Iwould have to pay to have the oil leak fixed. They did tell me that theproblem was that the silicone seal had failed.

Now, despite this truck having more than 100,000 miles on it without anoil leak until I had the oil pan replaced. I’m sure I don’t need totell you what kind of mood I was in now, but to top it off, they wantedmore to fix their screw-up this time around, than it cost me the firsttime, and this time I wasn’t buying an oil pan, water pump, or rightside exhaust manifold. WHAT!

Also at that time I found out that the technician that had worked onmy truck had been fired because he had too many callbacks. It turnedout that this was the second time this tech had been fired for thatreason by this same dealership. My brother was unaware of all thisuntil now.

I also found out that there was a service bulletin for the oil panissue that had been issued a couple of years earlier. It included arepair to the oil pan rust issue that didn’t involve a new oil pan.

If you haven’t guessed by now, this is the “ugly” dealership andwill be the reason I never buy another truck from that manufacturer.Ironically, I had planned on buying a new one this spring from thatdealership.

How would you have handled this customer service issue? Thisincident is a perfect example of what could be good or bad customerservice. Was the repair out of warranty? Yes, according to them. Butwhat would it cost them to make it right compared to the way it washandled?

If I remember right, the book rate was 13 hours for replacing theoil pan. So if they paid the technician $30 per flat rate hour, thatworks out to $390. Add in some materials, say another $110, and we havea cost to the dealership of $500. Yes, I know they have other overhead,but they have that overhead whether I have them repair the truck ornot.

Keep in mind that I had just spent more than three times that muchfor the original repairs. I was also a fairly regular customer at thatdealership, spending more than that each year on repairs andmaintenance. And, I probably would have been willing to pay part of thecharge, but I sure as heck wasn’t about to pay more than I paid thefirst time around.

I know some of you will disagree, but I would have repaired this forthe customer at no charge. After all, the dealer acknowledged that thesealant had failed. And in the long run, it will cost them much morethan that. They will no longer have me as a customer, they won’t beselling me a new truck and worst of all, I’ll be telling everyone Iknow about it.

The “good.” I saved the best for last and this incident happened inbetween the other two. I was in Buffalo, NY and had spent the nightbefore at a friend’s house just west of Buffalo. I was heading justover the border into Canada, but before I could get to the border, thesteering started feeling funny.

I had been hearing a weird noise, but thought it would hold till Igot back home. It turned out that a wheel bearing (sealed hub) wasgoing out. I had the truck towed to a dealership and found out theywere extremely busy. They would try to get at it as soon as possible.In the meantime, they gave me a car to drive and I went and checkedinto a motel, figuring I was going to be there for a day or two.

However, early in the afternoon, they gave me a call with anestimate and said it would be done sometime that afternoon. It turnedout that this dealership ran two shifts in its service department. Evenso, I had my truck repaired and back by about 5 pm. I wish I had knownthat – I wouldn’t have paid for a room!

They handled their customer (me) the way all businesses shouldhandle customers. They let me know up front that they were extremelybusy, but they would get my truck in sometime that afternoon. They gaveme a vehicle so I could get away from the dealership, and they kept meposted several times that day. And, they charged me what they said theywould.

I wish I had had both bearing hubs replaced at that time. Thoughthey did check the other one per my request and said it seemed to befine, I also know that when one goes, the other isn’t far behind; about6,000 miles later, the other one went out.

I would not hesitate to do business with this last dealership again;perhaps that is why they must run two shifts in the service department.If I were in the market for that brand of truck, I would even considermaking the trip back to Buffalo to make my purchase.

That’s what good customer service is all about: bringing the customerback again and again, and getting them to brag about you. Even if allyou do is high performance, you still need to be in the same mindset,and you need to have your employees in that mindset too! And justbecause these incidents are vehicle repairs, they could be any serviceyou perform.

Re-read each one of these three incidents and just think, “How wouldI handle this?” They are actual incidents and each one has thepotential to teach you a lesson.

Hopefully, you are already on top of your customer service, just likethe “Good” dealership. You’re not a car dealership, and may have noinvolvement at all  in that world. Likewise, these situations are notengine builder specific. However, but the lessons we have discussedhere transcend that.

It’s really quite simple, at least to me. Just use your good ol’ commonsense, treat your customers the way that you expect to be treated andyour future success will be assured.

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