Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2004   by Andrew Ross, Editor and Publisher

Vive La Difference

I had an interesting conversation with a U.S. journalist/shop owner recently. He was intent on discussing the future of the industry in general and the profit outlook for the service provider in particular.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the conversation, but it became pretty clear that this gentleman did not believe that the independent had much of a future. He stated clearly that it was not possible for independent service shops to either learn the myriad systems contained in the exploding variety of cars they must service, or to afford the information and equipment–particularly the diagnostic variety–even if they could.

He didn’t quite say it in so many words, but it became clear in the words he did utter that the question he was asking wasn’t really “Can independents survive?” as much as it was “Can independents survive by doing what they do today?”

Rather than taking the challenging tone, however, his was defeatist. Independents can’t afford access to the schematics they need, he said. They can’t afford the tools. And, perhaps the most telling, they can’t charge for diagnostic time because the customer won’t stand for it.

That is where I stopped him. Of course a shop can survive, but not at the door rate many are charging. Of course they can charge for diagnostic time. There is, I offered, a difference between a customer being happy to pay a repair bill, and their ability to do so.

There is a difference between a customer not understanding why they should pay for diagnostic time, and their ability or willingness to pay for it.

There is a difference between a customer asking about saving money, and the shop actually cutting corners.

That difference is communication, and it is not an impossible leap to make.

Now, most technicians and shop owners wouldn’t be mistaken for Dale Carnegie public speaking graduates. The truth be told, many are extremely nervous at the prospect of speaking plainly to a customer whom they have just met. They get tongue-tied and just want to provide themselves with the quickest way out of the conversation, which is often just to recommend the cheapest option for the customer.

It is not something to be proud of, but neither is it something to be overly ashamed of. There is, however, a difference between being nervous when communicating options to a customer, and avoiding it altogether. Avoidance is what most do now when they offer to cut corners. Communication is what anybody does when they clearly explain the options to the customer and then help the customer decide, even if it is done a bit nervously at first.

The former is nothing to be proud of, the latter nothing to be ashamed of.

I fully understand the reasons why so many shop owners and technicians, and counterpeople too, avoid the entire subject of selling. They want customers to buy and make all the decisions. This way they avoid accusations of recommending unnecessary work or selling products the customer didn’t need.

There is a very important difference, however, between talking to a customer about possible options and forcing unnecessary work on them.

A customer who walks into an auto parts store may or may not have any idea about what they really need. Letting them make the wrong decision is as bad as recommending the wrong part.

At the garage level, allowing a customer to leave without a full understanding of the work their vehicle needs, or the various options available to them, isn’t doing them a service. Parts don’t repair themselves.

Ensuring a customer understands which parts need replacing now and which don’t is possibly the most important part of a service provider’s job.

At least for ones who want to make a difference.

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