AKRON (April 25, 2005) — Tire dealers who offer automotive services must be shutterbugs. What's more, there are no longer any legitimate reasons why they shouldn't be equipped to photograph important problems on a customer's vehicle.
I have espoused photographic documentation of vehicles' problems several times in previous columns. For example, I have encouraged readers to, at the very least, keep an “instant” camera handy in order to photograph pre-existing conditions on a vehicle, unusual damage on a part or an unusual component failure. Of course, the Polaroid brand name had been synonymous with instant pictures for years.
Several savvy bosses I've met have kept Polaroid instant cameras handy and used them successfully to document unusual or newsworthy pre-existing conditions on a vehicle. These conditions could be body, glass or paint damage or mechanical problems such as leaks or damaged suspension parts.
Today, many people forget there was a time not too long ago when everyone was not carrying a cellular telephone. Therefore, reaching someone immediately wasn't always practical or possible.
One cheap and fast way to keep the job moving while trying to protect your technicians from accusations of vehicle abuse was to snap some Polaroids of the damage. My colleagues told me that a cantankerous or shifty motorist usually would back off from any confrontation once they knew you had recognized and documented existing problems—especially unusual ones.
There's no question that defining unusual pre-existing conditions is a totally subjective or judgment call on the part of the owner or manager. Photographic documentation could consume five to 15 minutes and slow down the productivity of that service bay. However, this minor time sacrifice up front could save countless minutes and dollars later on in a confrontation with a scheming customer.
Ultimately, honing service personnel's instincts is the only way to determine the kinds of pre-existing conditions that always should be photographed.
I think readers will agree that the overwhelming majority of motorists are decent people who don't get up in the morning scheming to take advantage of someone. However, photographic evidence of pre-existing conditions is some defense against those schemers and shysters.
As video cameras became more affordable, I urged you to consider investing in one just for shop use. The basic theme of photographic documentation is the same, but here the visual “document” is moving pictures instead of still photographs.
Today, digital cameras offer instant and effective documentation at very reasonable prices. If you haven't looked already, you can buy a decent digital camera with a built-in flash for under $300. These cameras enable you to snap the picture and preview the results immediately. If you're unhappy with the results, you can retake the shot right away.
The typical digital camera carries a memory card or data “stick.” The camera stores the picture on the memory card. If you're only taking a few pictures at a time, the common 16-megabyte cards are adequate. Many modern color printers have a port or receptacle for these memory cards so you can plug in the card and quickly print out the pictures for your owner records and for the customer.
If your store's computer is fairly modern, it should have USB ports on it as well as software that will accept digital pictures. A good digital camera comes with the necessary software for those who don't already have it. What's more, a good digital camera package includes an adapter cable that allows you to quickly download the photos through a USB port.
Then you can print them out in color or black and white as needed. For that matter, you can even e-mail them to the customer in less time than it takes to print them!
As long as you have this spiffy new digital camera, start your own little catalog of meaningful show-and-tell pictures for the service desk. They could include rust and scale in a neglected cooling system; sludge on engine parts caused by infrequent oil changes; tire wear caused by misalignment or abuse; cracked drive belts; bloated coolant hoses and the like. Now that camera is a sales tool instead of simply a self-defense mechanism.
Try it, you'll like it!