September 22, 2010

Not Hard to Keep; Easy to Lose

Frank Biolsi

Despite all of our technical understanding, experience and work ethics, without customers we are dead in the water. The TASC tips and other technical information published for you each month are not worth anything unless you have a paying customer. You know that already. Finding - and more importantly - working to keep customers is something that can easily slip out of the spotlight as we struggle to deal with the technical demands of our industry.

It has been awhile since I fixed cars for a living. There are parts which I miss and parts which I don't. Much of what I don't miss relates to the aches and pains I still feel now, even after 10 years away from the shop. (Ok, being over 60 may also be a factor, here). In the time I have spent NOT fixing cars on a daily basis, it also has become obvious that there are some things you forget and some things you don't. Here is a story about both.

Notice earlier I said "fixing cars on a daily basis." I have three children in their twenties and they all have cars. They grew up knowing "Dad will take care of it," and when possible I still do. Saving one of your hard-working kids a few hundred bucks by doing a timing belt or going through a valve body is still rather satisfying. Plus, you get to keep your hand in.

A recent foray into a Volkswagen Passat antilock brake failure warning light reminded me, among other things, of what you forget. The project was a great reminder on how challenging it can be for a shop to get good, reliable tech info on a model or brand or an area of the vehicle that is outside of what they normally repair.

What I found I did remember was reassuring. I learned that I could still read a wiring diagram, figure out how a system works and do some basic, reliable diagnostics, even though I could not access the module and read the fault codes. It became clear that the VW's sensors, wiring and the hydraulic side of the ABS unit itself appeared functional, but the module did not think so. This is a rather expensive pump/module assembly and I was not about to replace it on theory, so on a referral, I took it to a shop that specializes in VW and other German brands.

I was a great example of a customer who is "Not Hard to Keep." These folks got me in their door on a referral. They quickly confirmed my diagnosis, explaining that it was common internal fault in the control module. They had even found a source that would fix the module, saving hundreds compared to a pump/module replacement from the OEM. The only downside was turnaround time: pull the unit, remove the module, ship it out, wait and then reassemble with the repaired unit. This car needed a fair amount of other work that some other shops had shied away from, so we agreed to an estimate and scheduled a week for the car to be there. At that point as a customer I was "Not Hard to Keep." They had demonstrated that they knew what they were doing, explained things well and I was willing to put more than a thousand bucks into this car for several repairs.

I called them at the scheduled time and was assured that yes - the car is all set, on schedule and the bill would be as we had discussed. I arranged to have someone drop off a check and get the key and receipt before the shop closed. I would drive my son to the shop very early the next morning so we could fetch the car and then each go our separate ways to work, with each of us being there on time. The always-reliable "Dad will take care of it" took a serious hit when I saw my son's face after he started the car. Yep, the warning light came right back. We left it there and I called the shop when they opened.

At that point, "Not Hard to Keep" was still in play. All the shop had to do was find out what went wrong, tell me the truth and then tell me how we will proceed. It's not too hard.

Here's the story I got: "My guy road tested it when he was all done with the repairs and the light came on. He scanned it and left me a note, but I didn't see it so I told you it was ok to pick up the car." (This is a two-person shop and you have a new customer dropping 1,200 bucks on his first visit. I think somebody should have tried a little harder, but hey, stuff happens.) Ok, what was the light on for? "You need a right front wheel speed sensor," blah blah and he gives an estimate. Why so high? "Well, you have to pull the axle and drive them out of the knuckle, they seize in there." How come we just learned about this now? "With the original computer failure, we couldn't read a code before."

"Not Hard to Keep" was clearly in jeopardy now. They had replaced the left front axle and all upper and lower ball joints as part of the other repairs. Pretty easy to clip a wire or bash a sensor. I had verified resistance on all four sensors before they saw the car. Sure, I remember that sensor circuit resistance and good signal are not the same things, but my gut is telling me that they read the code and did nothing further to make sure it was accurate. I was just not comfortable laying out an additional couple of hundred bucks for the new repair, so I told him I would come get it and think on it.

Back to the "old guy" diagnostics: I tried to verify the need to replace the sensor. All the tone rings looked fine and all the sensors ohmed out the same. Then I noticed that the pin arrangement at the controller connector did not match the wiring harness connector on the vehicle. While inspecting the condition of the terminals, I spotted two instances of there being a blank in one where there was a terminal in the mating position of the other. A little research showed VW used two different wiring plans over a couple of years, and the controller connector I now had was looking for a circuit where my harness had a blank. Of course - that circuit was the RF wheel speed sensor.

When I called the guy at the shop to let him know my findings, I believed he was telling the truth when he said that he was never aware of the wiring change. When he called the module repair folks and they compared numbers, it was learned that no, they had not actually repaired mine, but had sent a shelf unit and the numbers did not match. My original module was repaired, sent back to the shop and installed (you bet, no charge) and the code was gone.

When does "Not Hard to Keep" become "Easy to Lose?" You all have customers and you have all had situations which do not go as planned. A sequence of poor choices clearly brought things to the edge in this situation. The technician failing to tell the shop owner that the car was not right was certainly a mistake, but all was not lost at that point. Failing to take a careful and serious look at the new-found code before telling the customer that they needed an additional repair on top of a very large bill showed me the kind of effort this shop put into retaining a customer.

You all know that if you do quality work at a reasonable charge, customers are "Not Hard to Keep." If you demonstrate minimal effort toward getting things right, however, toward being straight forward or in double checking before you ask a customer to spend more money, you will see firsthand that customers are "Easy to Lose."

Frank Biolsi is the self-appointed Chairman of the Old Guys Diagnostic Guild, Marketing Special Projects Coordinator and a member of the Sonnax TASC Force® (Technical Automotive Specialties Committee), a group of recognized industry technical specialists, transmission rebuilders and Sonnax Industries Inc. technicians.

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