Good, Bad or Ugly, Customer Service is Your Key to Success or Failure
Automotive-related issues continue to rank in the top ten of consumer complaints received by the Better Business Bureau.
By Jim Walbolt
Automotive-related issues continue to rank in the top ten of
consumer complaints received by the Better Business Bureau. Even if
you don’t deal directly with retail customers, the way you handle
ANY customer complaints can go a long way in determining your success
Particularly these days, in the economy we are facing, you need
every customer you can get. Treat a customer well and he or she will
continue to use your services; treat them badly and they will find
someone else to give their money to. And they’ll tell a lot of others
about it, too!
Think about it. We have all run into instances that we felt we were
not treated properly. When it happened to you, what did you do? I bet
you told yourself (and maybe your companions and other people you met)
that you would never be back! Well guess what: you have customers that
think that way too, maybe with good reason maybe without. But I was
always taught that the customer is always right.
Okay, okay; before you all start sending emails about that
statement, yes, I know that the customer isn’t ALWAYS right in fact,
usually not. But when you are dealing with your customers, you need to
make them “feel” that they are right, and that they are the most
important customers you will ever have. In fact, we all like to feel
that way don’t we? Isn’t that the reason one waitress gets a generous
tip, 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 your
reactions 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 during
the spring and summer, following various motorsport organizations from
event to event. Many times I tow a fifth-wheel trailer. Needless to
say, I put a lot of miles on and cannot afford to be without my truck
for any length of time. This story all started last spring and three
distinct incidents with three different dealerships was the impetus for
this 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 a
group of automobile dealers representing the same brand.
I won’t mention brands, I’ll leave that to your imagination; but
suffice it to say that the last 3 trucks I have owned are of this
brand, the last two being somewhat expensive diesel models.
The first incident occurred on a return trip from Colorado. Driving
through the Davenport, IA area, I lost oil pressure and pulled over to
check 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 for
service and finally got the repaired truck back the following
Saturday. That’s no typo. I had a full week spent in a motel waiting on
repairs. They did at least give me a car to use.
As it turned out, it wasn’t even a major repair, just a broken elbow
on the high-pressure pump. The problem here was that they were very
busy and somewhat shorthanded, hence the long wait. They found a few
other problems too, so I had them make some additional repairs while
they had it in. This incident is the one I consider “the bad” because I
believe they could have made a much better effort to get me repaired
and back on the road.
I understand that these things happen, and they didn’t want to upset
any regular customers, but how would you have handled it? I was already
upset because of the simple part failure on a so-called “super-duty”
truck that was over the 100,000-mile engine warranty by about 6,000
miles. Just getting me on my way a few days sooner would have taken
some of the sting out.
While this particular dealer had the truck, they also advised me of
some additional problems that needed attention, most of which I had
them take care of. The one I didn’t have them fix led to incident
That first dealer told me that I should get the oil pan replaced
soon, because it was rusted out and would soon start leaking. Now I
don’t know about you, but I have never, ever replaced an oil pan due to
rust out. Heck, my wife’s minivan, albeit a little newer and with not
quite as many miles, still has an oil pan and transmission pan that
look nearly like the day they came out of the factory. Another strike
against my truck’s manufacturer.
I should add here that my brother is a dealership mechanic. When I
returned from the first incident, I knew I wouldn’t need my truck for a
few weeks, but that in less than a month it was going to be on the road
I took it into my brother’s dealership and told the service writer
what the other dealer had told me about the oil pan and asked him to
replace it. They could have it for a couple weeks, I just wanted to get
the job done right. I also had them replace some other parts like the
water pump while they had it apart.
The dealership had only one diesel tech (not my brother) so I knew
it would take them awhile; besides it is a big job to replace the oil
pan; removal of the cab is necessary.
Three weeks later I got the truck back. When I went to leave the
dealership I found that the steering wheel was about 90 degrees off.
That should have been my first clue. About a week or so later I
discovered that it was again leaking oil. At the time I was getting
ready to hit the road, so I called the dealership and talked to the
service 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 first
mistake) He said that was fine; just bring it in when I could. I also
told my brother about it and I know he also discussed it with the
While nothing was ever said about a warranty on the repairs, nor was
there anything on the repair order, when I finally got it back to them
a month or so later, I was told that it was out of warranty and that I
would have to pay to have the oil leak fixed. They did tell me that the
problem was that the silicone seal had failed.
Now, despite this truck having more than 100,000 miles on it without an
oil leak until I had the oil pan replaced. I’m sure I don’t need to
tell you what kind of mood I was in now, but to top it off, they wanted
more to fix their screw-up this time around, than it cost me the first
time, and this time I wasn’t buying an oil pan, water pump, or right
side exhaust manifold. WHAT!
Also at that time I found out that the technician that had worked on
my truck had been fired because he had too many callbacks. It turned
out that this was the second time this tech had been fired for that
reason by this same dealership. My brother was unaware of all this
I also found out that there was a service bulletin for the oil pan
issue that had been issued a couple of years earlier. It included a
repair 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 and
will be the reason I never buy another truck from that manufacturer.
Ironically, I had planned on buying a new one this spring from that
How would you have handled this customer service issue? This
incident is a perfect example of what could be good or bad customer
service. Was the repair out of warranty? Yes, according to them. But
what would it cost them to make it right compared to the way it was
If I remember right, the book rate was 13 hours for replacing the
oil pan. So if they paid the technician $30 per flat rate hour, that
works out to $390. Add in some materials, say another $110, and we have
a 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 or
Keep in mind that I had just spent more than three times that much
for the original repairs. I was also a fairly regular customer at that
dealership, spending more than that each year on repairs and
maintenance. And, I probably would have been willing to pay part of the
charge, but I sure as heck wasn’t about to pay more than I paid the
first time around.
I know some of you will disagree, but I would have repaired this for
the customer at no charge. After all, the dealer acknowledged that the
sealant had failed. And in the long run, it will cost them much more
than that. They will no longer have me as a customer, they won’t be
selling me a new truck and worst of all, I’ll be telling everyone I
know about it.
The “good.” I saved the best for last and this incident happened in
between the other two. I was in Buffalo, NY and had spent the night
before at a friend’s house just west of Buffalo. I was heading just
over the border into Canada, but before I could get to the border, the
steering started feeling funny.
I had been hearing a weird noise, but thought it would hold till I
got back home. It turned out that a wheel bearing (sealed hub) was
going out. I had the truck towed to a dealership and found out they
were 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 checked
into 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 an
estimate and said it would be done sometime that afternoon. It turned
out that this dealership ran two shifts in its service department. Even
so, I had my truck repaired and back by about 5 pm. I wish I had known
that I wouldn’t have paid for a room!
They handled their customer (me) the way all businesses should
handle customers. They let me know up front that they were extremely
busy, but they would get my truck in sometime that afternoon. They gave
me a vehicle so I could get away from the dealership, and they kept me
posted several times that day. And, they charged me what they said they
I wish I had had both bearing hubs replaced at that time. Though
they did check the other one per my request and said it seemed to be
fine, I also know that when one goes, the other isn’t far behind; about
6,000 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 consider
making the trip back to Buffalo to make my purchase.
That’s what good customer service is all about: bringing the customer
back again and again, and getting them to brag about you. Even if all
you 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 just
because these incidents are vehicle repairs, they could be any service
Re-read each one of these three incidents and just think, “How would
I handle this?” They are actual incidents and each one has the
potential to teach you a lesson.
Hopefully, you are already on top of your customer service, just like
the “Good” dealership. You’re not a car dealership, and may have no
involvement at all in that world. Likewise, these situations are not
engine builder specific. However, but the lessons we have discussed
here transcend that.
It’s really quite simple, at least to me. Just use your good ol’ common
sense, treat your customers the way that you expect to be treated and
your future success will be assured.