AKRON (Jan. 2, 2001)—Tire dealers who offer automotive services must get serious about identifying real, actual vehicle symptoms. If you want your service department to be profitable, you´ve got to stop the proverbial wild goose chase in automotive diagnostics.
To look at it another way, doctors can´t treat patients correctly unless they know where it hurts. Likewise, service personnel can´t prescribe automotive medicine until they know where the vehicle hurts. That means examining symptoms.
Identifying the vehicle´s symptoms takes patience, professionalism and a consistent, logical approach. To me, the easiest, most-sensible technique is to mimic what doctors routinely do. Have new customers fill out the automotive equivalent of a medical history/ symptom sheet.
What´s more, follow the doctor´s tactic of requiring "patients" to sign off on the veracity of the information they provided. Requiring a signature always reinforces the importance of the document to the participating parties: your dealership and the motorist.
Regular Tire Business readers know I have discussed this topic several times in the 11 years I´ve been writing this column. But it seems that every time I turn around, another service manager, technician or service writer is relating another horror story about a seemingly routine service gone wrong because the vehicle´s true symptoms weren´t identified.
In short, this seems to be a persistent problem with auto repair facilities of all kinds.
Over the years, I´ve addressed countless service industry groups, including tire dealers. I´m always intrigued by the nervous laughter audiences give me when I challenge them to test their own service departments. I urge them to listen while a friend or neighbor calls their dealership to schedule a wheel alignment or tune-up.
Does the service writer flirt with disaster by promptly and gleefully selling the caller an alignment or tune-up? (I goad the audience with a comment such as, "This CANNOT happen at your dealership, can it? This caller could never sucker your service writers into selling the wrong repair, right?´´)
Or does the service writer caution the caller that in order to spend his or her money wisely, the dealership has to determine where the vehicle hurts. What are its symptoms?
Respectfully, but cheerfully, the service writer asks: "Why do you think your vehicle needs an alignment or a tune-up? What is your vehicle doing that upsets you or concerns you?´´
Recently, I was told of a fiasco that occurred in a service shop out West. The service writer took the customer at his word that the car needed a "tune-up." But he failed to confirm the real problem: an intermittent stalling condition during highway driving.
When the customer returned to complain that his car was still stalling, he became so enraged that the service manager had to call the police to escort him from the premises!
Is this aggravation worth it?
From the start, service personnel must be clear-headed and patient enough to cull this information. If they don´t, they´re potentially committing the cardinal sin of auto repair: They may be overpromising and underdelivering.
My own experience at the service desk and informal, first-hand evaluations of service writers around the country have taught me something. The moment you agree to schedule an alignment or tune-up, you have tacitly promised this customer that you´re going to fix the vehicle. You have unintentionally confirmed the motorist´s impression that these services will fix the car.
Obviously, when the alignment or tune-up doesn´t fix the car, the customer is disappointed, because your dealership didn´t deliver on an unspoken promise to repair the vehicle. That´s human nature. And now that you have disappointed the customer, you have to work overtime to regain his trust. If you don´t regain his or her trust, will that motorist authorize you to spend more money chasing symptoms?
Or will you end up refunding the cost of the job and kissing this customer goodbye for good? Worse yet, will you face a confrontation such as the one I described earlier?
In my next column, I´ll discuss what a customer questionnaire should contain. I´ll also give you suggestions on politely forcing customers into committing to what the vehicle´s symptoms really are.