Tire dealers who expect to succeed at automotive service must master the art and science of playing automotive detective.
What it comes down to is, they must tactfully but efficiently extract the whole truth and nothing but the truth from consumers who may be uncommunicative and/or suspicious.
Without the truth (the vehicle's actual symptoms), the best technicians in the world cannot diagnose and repair the vehicle efficiently the first time. As I mentioned in my last column, a diagnostic questionnaire is invaluable for getting the truth as quickly and accurately as possible. This is particularly important with first-time customers.
Creating and using a questionnaire does several things for you. First, it subtly raises your level of professionalism. Practicing medicine is perceived to be as "professional" as it gets. Doctors have been using symptom diagnostic questionnaires for years. I don't know of a doctor who'll look at you until you've completed the most basic health history and symptom questionnaires.
Second, requiring customers to fill out a questionnaire reinforces the fact that you take your diagnoses as seriously as a doctor does.
The days of shoot-from-the-hip guesswork are long gone. Labor, including diagnostic time, is so expensive that it's foolhardy to attack a problem without having as much background information as possible.
A mandatory questionnaire also telegraphs the concept that if your dealership's going to spend someone's money, it's spending it intelligently. It says you're either going to approach the task professionally or not do it at all.
Post a notice in a conspicuous place in the customer lounge: "All customers must complete questionnaire before we inspect or diagnose your vehicle!"
Third, the questionnaire may help screen out unreasonable people. For instance, some undesirable customers innately fear telling the truth about their vehicles' problems because they think this will increase rather than decrease the cost of repairs!
If a questionnaire scares away some of these flakes—or common tightwads—it's saved you additional time and grief.
OK, what kind of information should your questionnaire elicit? The same information a good detective would garner: What, where and when.
Begin by getting the most detailed description possible of what the vehicle does.
Next, find out exactly when the problem began occurring in the first place. Doctors want a medical history; I want an automotive history such as any repairs or services that have been done within the last year. Have any collision-related repairs been performed? Did the vehicle's current symptoms only begin after these repairs were done? If so, check that work first.
For instance, collision repairs have been done. The car abruptly changes direction when it hits a dip or bump in the road. This combination of conditions strongly suggests dynamic toe change ("bump steer") due to misaligned steering linkage. Incorrectly repaired collision damage is a common cause of bump steer.
How about this combination of conditions: The engine stalls, but it stalls most often when turning sharp corners with a relatively low fuel level. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this symptom combination tells you it's time to drop the fuel tank for a visual inspection.
Or, the customer follows your prompts on the questionnaire for a stalling problem. But it stalls most often during two conditions—immediately after a cold start up and during coast down (deceleration). You can almost bet the farm that this engine has a varnished throttle blade.
Or, a complete front brake job has already been done but the vehicle still pulls to one side during braking. Otherwise, it performs fine. If it only pulls during braking and the brakes are OK, suspect a sudden caster change due to worn strut/radius rod bushings.
See how quickly those small, seemingly innocent details help point competent service personnel in the right direction? Set up some team meetings with all your techs and service writers. If they all contribute something useful to the creation of your questionnaire, their collective experience is sure to produce a winner.