Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2008   by Allan Janssen

A Question of Ethics (May-08)

You agree to do a 'quick and simple' job for free . . . what do you do when it turns into a nightmare?


A Question of Ethics


The nightmare repair



A stranger comes in with a quick and easy request, and, feeling generous, you agree to do it for free. But because of the condition of the car, this simple job turns into a nightmare, and soon the vehicle is no longer safe to drive. Are you obligated to finish the job for free? Or do you go back to the stranger, explain what has happened, and try to sell him on a proper job?


Pull the tech off the job

At this point you have to try to sell a proper job. We would pull the tech off the job and simply explain to the customer that the job has turned into a much bigger project than originally anticipated, and his vehicle is not safe for the road.

Brian Pellerin

Brian Pellerin’s Moncton Rust Check, Autopro & OK Tire


Moncton, NB

Who said it would be simple?

First of all, why would you ever offer to do anything on a stranger’s vehicle at no charge? But if that’s what you did, I think you have to explain to the client that the car needs more work than anticipated, and unfortunately you will have to charge for complete and proper repairs. Remind the owner of the vehicle that it was actually him who said the repair would be simple and quick.

Ed Jagt

Pro-Tech Tire & Auto


Barrie, ON

Cover your butt with a disclaimer

Boy oh boy, this happens! But once you’ve been in business for a while, you learn never to agree to do anything for free! With that said, I always cover my butt by explaining beforehand that if this job requires more time than anticipated, there will be a charge. Always communicate ahead of time in a friendly but professional manner. Never agree to do anything for free. The client believes they get what they pay for. Think about that!

Bruce Eccles

Eccles Auto Service

Dundas, ON

Few things are ‘quick and easy’

In my experience, very few things are ‘quick and easy.’ I would explain to the customer that we’ll inspect the vehicle at no charge. After the inspection. We’ll offer a complete estimate (including taxes). If the vehicle is truly unsafe, we’d also advise accordingly.

Lee Ann Brazolot

College Auto Tech

Guelph, ON

The car’s condition is not your fault

You’re not obligated to continue the job for free. Explain to the customer what transpired and offer to perform the job the proper way. You may want to reduce the price to mitigate the situation, but explain that you’re doing this to help him out, and not because you accept any responsibility. It’s not your fault that the vehicle is in the condition it’s in.

Ed Andrade

Beverly Automotive Specialists

Cambridge, ON

Yes, you’re obliged, but try to talk it out

I’d show the customer the problem, and come to an agreement on the next step. Yes, ethically, I’d have to finish the job, but for the most part, people understand that problems can be hidden and an honest conversation usually solves the problem.

Ian Handrahan

Quick Wrench Auto Service

Charlottetown, PE

Murphy’s Law comes into play

The answer is in the question. We volunteered to help solve what seemed like a simple issue, in the interest of goodwill to a stranger, only to find that the problem was much bigger than expected, the correct thing to do is deal with the issue immediately, before it gets worse. We all know Murphy’s Law… well, lots of Murphy problems can enter into the equation. Remember the basics. Listen carefully, and make a visual inspection before volunteering free work.

Chuck Armstrong

Anderson Motive Power

St. Mary’s, ON

There are bad customers out there

We’d try to inform the customer (or ‘client’ as ‘guest’) about safety issues and offer to do the job properly at a fair price. But remember that just as our industry has some bad apples. society has bushels of bad customers! Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

Shant Ghazarian

Goodyear Tire And Auto Service

Mars Tire

Agincourt-Aurora-Newmarket-Richmond Hill, ON

Did you really say it would be ‘free’?

As with any work, there should have been a work order opened up and signed by the customer. Hopefully you didn’t say your work would be ‘free.’ Hopefully you said something along the lines of, “Let’s look at it and try to find out what’s going on.” Once the job changed into a nightmare, I’d have stopped and kept the client informed. If he doesn’t want to pay for the repair, I’d stop work and remove car from shop. I’d also make sure he gets an invoice, signed off, with a disclaimer saying the vehicle is unsafe to drive.

Brian Madeley

Madeley Automotive Diagnostics

Kingston, ON

Everything has to be discussed

For starters, I’d have quoted a fair price to do the repair. If it was a truly simple job, and I was feeling generous, I might have given a discount. But I’d also explain, before I started the work, that if it didn’t turn out to be as easy as it looked, there would be additional charges. Everything has to be discussed and agreed upon before the work commences so that there are no surprises to either party.

Doug Lowther

Doug’s Mountainview Auto Service

Penticton BC

Soften the blow

I’m not obligated to finish the job for free. I’d explain the situation to the customer and show him why there’s going to be a cost. To soften the blow, I might discount the regular charge. I’d want to keep the stranger (now a customer) happy.

Frank Bongiovanni

Superior Tire & Auto

Toronto, ON

Sell them a proper fix

Most likely that vehicle was not safe to drive, even before you started your work. I’d explain this to the customer, and then try to sell them a proper fix. They have to understand that what you tried to do for free is not working. Hopefully they’ll appreciate your efforts. If not, you really don’t want them as a customer anyway!

Alan Gelman

Glennalan Motors

Toronto ON

Host of “Car Talk” on Newstalk 1010 CFRB Radio Toronto

The bane of our industry

Number 1, I wouldn’t agree to do anything for free without seeing the job first. Number 2, why would you do it for free for any reason? This is the bane of our industry. Do we really need to give away freebies to get business? In this situation, you’re no longer doing the job that you’d agreed to do. You have to explain the situation to the customer, and if they want a proper job, they’ll have to pay for it.

Sean O’Gorman

Glenn’s Import & Domestic Auto Repair

Courtenay BC

No obligation to finish the job

The agreement was for a “quick and easy” fix. When the job became a nightmare, we were no longer under any obligation to finish it for free. The job now needs to be properly estimated and sold. It should have been noted at the start that we would try to do our “good deed for the day” at no charge, but we weren’t making any promises.

Michael Hoffman

Automotive Brake Renew & Tune Up

Kelowna BC

This shop owner blew it

This one is easy. Both of the golden rules apply: 1) Never work for free and 2) Never quote a job without a thorough inspection. The shop that has agreed to do the job for free should have made a disclaimer at the absolute minimum. The shop owner wasn’t doing anyone any favors by offering free labor – not his shop, his staff, his industry, or the potential new client. He’s ended up looking unprofessional, he’s disappointed the customer either way, and he’s gonna lose money.

Hans Zundel

Suncor Energy, Light Vehicle Fleet.

Ft. McMurray, AB

Take a look, before you agree to anything

If it’s a part that was broken due to our work, of course we’d take responsibility. But as always in this business, inspections are the key. Take a look before agreeing to do any job. I can’t really see this scenario happening when a proper inspection is completed.

Sean Staples

Can of worms

You have opened a can of worms and brought this dilemma upon yourself because it was handled improperly from the onset. Remember, this is a stranger and not a regular customer. The best strategy would have been to offer a modest inspection fee and a written estimate for repairs. This eliminates obligations, hard feelings, and negative situations.

Derrick Smith

Maple Leaf Motors

Sault Ste. Marie, ON

Offer a reduced rate

If the free job you were offering goes south, approach the customer with the problems you’re experiencing and explain that, unfortunately, you can’t do the job for free. Offer the job at a reduced rate if necessary. You tried to offer up some goodwill, but conditions negated that.

Don Cook

Edwards Ford

Kingston, ON

These are troubled waters

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If the job is one that by nature is prone to go sideways, we should have pointed out that possibility before we waded into such troubled waters. The boss and I both agree that we would sit the person down and sell them the proper job.

Ward Zintel

Perfection Automotive

Saskatoon, SK

We should have known

Communication is key in situations like this. Experience should have told us that small problems can turn into much larger ones, and we should have said as much before starting the job.

Tony Pesce

Tony’s Academy Auto Service

Winnipeg, MB

We’re not obligated

If the job started to turn sour, we would stop the job, and explain the situation to the customer. Then we’d look at how much it will cost to complete the job properly. We’re not obligated to finish any “free” job.

Rob Music

Access Automotive

Edmonton, AB

Let the customer decide

So many mistakes were made in this situation! First, why are we working for free? Second, once we saw the car, why did we not anticipate possible problems? Third, why did we not stop the work immediately when things started to go wrong? At this point I’d have to bring the customer in and explain what has happened. I’d give the options of what could be done and let them decide what they’d like to do.

Steve Booy

Steve’s Automotive

Woodstock, ON

Was the owner up front with us?

I’d tell the stranger I can’t do the work required without charging properly for it. I’d also have to wonder if the vehicle owner knew it was going to be a lot of trouble and hadn’t told me the whole story from the start. I can’t be responsible for the condition the vehicle is in. So he either pays for a proper fix or it gets towed. We experienced a similar situation. The customer said he didn’t do the work himself because he was afraid something else would break… and sure enough it did. And this was not a freebie.

Dennis Frey

Lloyd Frey’s Garage Ltd.

Floradale, ON

Be a professional

I used to feel generous and would help strangers. But not anymore. Ask yourself why his regular mechanic isn’t doing the job. He probably doesn’t have one. Do you think he’ll become your regular customer? Most likely not. The condition of his car tells you everything you need to know. Be a professional. Offer to open a work order and tell him you will charge for your work, based on the time, parts, and equipment it required. Chances are, this stranger will be out the door before you finish the sentence.

D. Ivkovich

AMD Service centre

Markham, ON

We would be obligated

We would to talk to the customer, but if a compromise cannot be reached, unfortunately we would be obligated to repair it. Whose ethical dilemma is really at question here? The shop which tried to do a good deed, or the stranger who expected to get something for free?

Eugene Roussin

Manager, Fountain Tire

Winnipeg, MB

Should have opened a work order

We would never agree to do something for free in the first place. We’d open a work order and if the job turns out to be quick and easy, we may feel generous and not charge the customer. But if it turns into a nightmare, we’re covered. If he or she decides not to fix the vehicle, we’d get them to sign a waiver stating as much, and we’d have the vehicle towed out.

Melody King

King’s Auto Repair

Deep River, ON

We don’t work for free

I have a customer who owns a restaurant where I sometimes eat. I once asked him if I could bring in two eggs, and have him fry one and boil the other for me. He got the message.

Bill Martens

Green Acres Wheel Alignment

Chilliwack, BC

Stop work immediately

This is an easy one. It’s happened before. I stop immediately when the job starts to get out of control. I explain the situation to the customer, and tell him that further work after this point will be chargeable time. If he agrees, we proceed. If not, we stop and don’t charge him up to that point. Most people understand. And if they don’t then maybe they’re not the type of customer we’re looking for.

Clark Lawson

First Street Garage

North Vancouver, BC

A question of semantics

Stop and contact the customer. Explain in detail what the problem is and offer a quote for a repair that will make the car safe to drive again. If the stranger insists that you said you’d do the work for free, you’re into a question of semantics. Did you say you’d ‘look at’ it for free? Or ‘fix it’ for free? If you said you’d fix it, I’m afraid you’re stuck. I would feel compelled to fix it for free whether I wanted to or not.

Steve Penrose

Brake Masters

Glendale, AZ

Weigh in on an upcoming Ethical Dilemma

You’re doing two different wheel-off jobs on the same vehicle at the same time. Do you charge the full time for both jobs, or reduce it because you only had to take the wheel off once?

Tell us what you think. Send your answer to

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