Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2007   by

A Question of Ethics

Bob’s mid-90s Chevy has a couple of noisy lifters.

Shop #1 gives him a low quote, citing the need for two lifters, a set of intake gaskets, and four litres of oil.

Shop #2 comes in higher, recommending a full set of lifters, new push rods, rockers, and an engine flush to clean out the sludge.

Who gave Bob the most honest quote? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. Shop #1 may have deliberately left some items off the estimate in order to win the sale. On the other hand, Shop #2 may have added some items to inflate the bill. Bob wouldn’t know either way.

Or maybe both shops gave it their best guess, based on their experience and training, and are prepared to stand behind their estimates, even though the bottom lines differ by hundreds of dollars.

That’s what makes discussions about ethics in this industry so interesting – and often so heated.

A lot of factors go into a repair estimate. The condition of the vehicle certainly comes into play, as does the customer’s desire for reliability, and the shop’s past experience with similar repairs. Second guessing a written quote can be risky business, especially if you don’t have all the background information.

Sure, there are cases of over-billing, over-selling, and making a customer pay for your mistakes. And these are easy to judge. There are many times where right and wrong are clearly defined. It’s black and white.

Unfortunately it’s not always so cut and dried in this industry. What we deal with very often is ýsituational ethics’ where we have to consider not only what’s right, but what’s right given the facts surrounding a particular situation.

The best shops already know the importance of charging properly, treating people fairly, and standing by their word – even if it comes at a cost.

If you break something by using the wrong part or procedure, you should own up to it. If it broke because of rust or previous damage, you need to explain that. If your quote was way out of line, you have to make it right with the customer.

Most professional organizations work according to a standard of ethics – a code of principles that tells customers what they can expect.

But repeated consumer surveys and anecdotal evidence show that most people view repair facilities as having very low ethical standards.

How did it ever get this bad?

There are two main places where ethics fall apart: in the bay, and at the front counter.

Decent mechanics can bust their butts doing good honest work, only to have upper management overprice the job or add in extras that were never done. As a result, their personal reputation suffers by association.

"Oh!" people utter with dismay when they’re introduced. "You work there? I’ve heard some stories about you guys!"

Conversely, management may adopt a code of conduct, and preach it monthly at staff meetings. But if even one person in the shop cuts corners, or lies to cover up their ignorance, the shop will suffer in the court of public opinion.

Many shop owners and technicians agree that being honest and up front with customers is critical for long-term survival. It sounds simple enough, but those deceptively calm waters can hide some treacherous undercurrents. Difficult choices have to be made, almost on a daily basis.

How do you keep your head above water, providing full service to your customers without appearing to be self-interested or unfair?

Sometimes giving a customer too many options is not the best thing. Let’s use an extreme example to prove the point: Could you save 92-year-old Mrs. Jones some pension money by suggesting a used radiator hose? Sure, but what happens when it blows five miles out of town on her way home from her weekly late-night bridge game?

On the other hand, if a cash-strapped college student needs to patch up the Firefly just long enough to make it through exam week, is it right to suggest only the most expensive brand name parts, when cheaper alternatives will get them through?

When it comes to the type of repairs you provide – from patch jobs to full-meal deals – each shop needs to make a comfort-level decision. Just be aware that to your customer, you are the professional. They look to you to tell them what makes a vehicle safe and roadworthy.

At first blush, the question of ethics sounds like a debate between the car owners and the technicians, but not entirely so. Even among themselves technicians routinely come to different conclusions about what’s honest and fair.

For example, Joe brings in his car in for service, asking the shop owner, Frank, to check his all-season tires for wear. A tread depth measurement tells Joe that he’s still got 50 per cent life left in his tires. Joe thinks it through, and says, "No, I want better than that; put on a new set."

So Frank tells the technician, Mike, that even though it’s not a critical item, Joe wants new tires. Mike installs them grudgingly, complaining to his colleagues that the boss is cheating his customers again. Mike thinks Frank should have talked Joe out of the sale.

In this case, Mike is forgetting the main reason Joe brings his car in for service. Joe is a klutz with mechanical things, and he knows it. He’d rather spend money than be caught out on the road with a breakdown.

Preventive maintenance is another common bone of contention between shop owners and technicians. Ironically, despite their mechanical knowledge, technicians are notorious for letting their own vehicles run on the edge. The majority of motorists don’t act this way.

What shop owners have learned from painful experience, is that although customers might grumble about repair and maintenance costs, they’d rather pay up front than be towed in for problems that could have been prevented.

Communication is the key, but it’s not always the silver bullet. Even if you’re always up-front with your customers, there are times when you’ll lose some work. On the other hand, honesty makes life simple. You never have to remember what you said.

Here Are Some Other Ethical Dilemmas to Think About:

* While installing new tires, you notice signs of wear in the brakes, ball joints, and axle boots. It’s not serious enough to make the vehicle unsafeý yet. Long-term, though, this work will need to be done if the car is going to stay on the road. You know the customer is toying with the idea of getting a new car. If you tell him about this pending work, he might cancel the new tires and sell the car. Do you tell him?

* A new customer insists he knows what’s wrong with his car and he wants you to do the work. You’re not convinced he’s right, but he doesn’t want to pay for diagnostic time. He’s got his cheque book out. Do you do the work?

* A new customer brings his car in. He’s upset with his previous service provider because of shoddy work. You know who did the work, and they are normally conscientious and competent. What’s more, you know they’d probably redo the job for free to keep the account. Do you keep your mouth shut?

Send me your comments and opinions on how to handle sticky situations. If you faced similar situations before, how did you handle it? How did it work out for you? Most importantly, what do you think is the best industry response? Make sure your response includes your

* full name
* shop name
* address
* city
* phone number
* your position with the company.

And if you have any other ethical dilemmas that you care to pose to the panel, send those to me as well!

Send them to

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1 Comment » for A Question of Ethics
  1. says:

    We have agreed,as a shop, that it is in everyone’s (shop and client) best interest if we strictly enforce the use of TPM sensors in winter wheels (or others if originally equipped). At first we were concerned that clients might balk at the new rule and we would lose business, this has not been the case. In the last two years since we started, we have had maybe 6 people go elsewhere (drop in the proverbial bucket)while our revenue has increased from the sale, installation and programming of new sensors. We are in a very rural area so if we can do it successfully, so can everyone. 🙂 Ted.

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