Communicating with the customer has been and always will be essential to a fast, accurate diagnosis of a vehicle's ills. A tire dealer may have sophisticated equipment, experienced technicians and a thorough road test program. But unless service personnel communicate effectively with motorists, both diagnostic accuracy and customer relations will suffer.
I've been urging service personnel to build customer trust by developing road test skills. But to be completely fair, I must stress that you still have to communicate with the customer. Otherwise, road testing alone may not provide the answers you need.
In my last column, I explained how penny-pinching motorists trick competent service personnel into giving away invaluable knowledge during a road test. After hearing how no one else can diagnose the car, a tech proudly nails the problem during a brief road test-then the driver takes this free diagnosis to a cut-rate repair artist down the street.
Similarly, some service people have honed their road test skills so well that they've become known as ace ``diagnostic drivers'' who avoid hauling the customer with them because it saves them the hassle of accommodating the customer's schedule. Besides, they're the service experts-not the customer, right?
Unfortunately, the driver is the only one who knows when and where many relatively subtle problems occur. Unless service personnel involve the driver in the diagnosis, simple but frustrating problems go unsolved. As a result, the store's reputation suffers.
There are two easy ways to involve the driver in a diagnosis. First, have him fill out a standard symptom sheet or diagnostic list. Questions should prompt the driver to specify the type of symptom and when it occurs. For instance, select a description that best explains the noise: Tinny? Oil-canning sound? Drumming? Thumping? Metallic clicking?
A good symptom list also prompts the driver to describe exactly when the problem occurs: Only when braking? Only during turns? Only when crossing railroad tracks? Only across a severe dip in the road? Only when the vehicle is loaded or unloaded?
The second way to involve a customer in a diagnosis is to take him on the road test. Politely urge him to call out when he hears the noise, feels the vibration, notices the hesitation, etc. This is critical to customer satisfaction because you can't meet his expectations if you don't understand what he expects you to fix.
The average age of vehicles on the road today is 9 years. By the time you see the vehicle, it's likely to have several problems-some serious, others not so bad.
Never assume the problem the customer notices is the most serious one. Often, the condition that gets his attention is relatively minor compared to the slop in the steering linkage, the leaky exhaust, clicking CV joint or other problems you may notice.
Here, savvy service pros must also be tacticians. Back at the tire store, get the vehicle on the lift and carefully explain the sources of the other noises and vibrations you detected during the road test. Prioritize these repairs on a written estimate so the owner sees what needs to be done first. But don't neglect the item that actually brought him to your store in the first place. To meet expectations, you must cure that problem, too.
When I worked in the shop, I saw cases where the original complaint was a valve tap or squealing fan belt. Coincidentally, the car's brake pedal was almost on the floorboard because the brake lining was worn out. When I telephoned for a work authorization, the owner would ask if a brake job would correct the tapping or squealing under the hood.
Finally, no matter how good a road tester you become, you may need to put the customer behind the wheel to find the problem. For example, one brake specialist could not pinpoint the cause of an intermittent brake pedal pulsation. The shop owner had already wasted big bucks trying to solve this problem. Exasperated, he asked the driver to recap exactly when the pulsation occurred.
The frustrated senior citizen said, ``I'll do better. I'll make it happen!'' He jumped behind the wheel, raced down the street and slammed on the brakes. The panic stop activated the car's Bosch anti-lock brake system (ABS). When this popular ABS operates, it gives the driver tactile feedback by pulsing the brake pedal.
Further questioning revealed no one explained to the man that his Caprice had ABS-let alone that the brake pedal normally pulses during ABS operation.
Road testing is indeed vitally important. But it's just not productive without customer involvement in the process.