AKRON (Feb. 13, 2006) — Thorough, effective communication is advantageous to all service personnel, but communicating carefully both before and after the service sale is vitally important when the symptom is uncertain and the topic is brakes.
In my last column I discussed cultivating communication skills. Coincidentally, an occurrence with a neighbor's car last week illustrated and emphasized the need for more than just a good interrogation of the customer. It highlighted the importance of verifying the motorist's complaint up front and then following up later to be sure the problem is solved. Sadly, this embarrassing incident is a practical lesson in how not to approach automotive service.
If my memory serves me well, last fall a neighbor asked me about a perceived brake problem on her car. Whereas I cannot cite every bit of that conversation, I'm sure that the symptoms were anything but clear cut. Rather, she complained that the brake pedal didn't “feel right” and the car no longer braked to her expectations. I didn't get a satisfactory explanation of what these vague performance expectations were.
At that time, the car wasn't at her house and I was about to head out of town, but I learned that she worked only 10 minutes from a reputable repair shop so I urged her to have its technicians check the car. Regardless of how wacky or unclear some symptoms sound, experience shows that covering the fundamentals fixes the overwhelming majority of problems.
Since then, I had seen her driving the car in our neighborhood so I assumed everything had worked out OK. So much for wishful assumptions.
Last week she flagged me down while going to her mailbox. I pulled over, expecting a cheerful “attaboy” for my referral to that repair shop. Instead, I heard an embarrassing comedy-of-errors update.
To begin with, the car was tied up for two weeks. Two weeks! Thank goodness this woman owns a second car. The techs tried several things and sought diagnostic advice from car dealers and specialists for that make and model.
According to my neighbor, they charged her for the work but qualified their effort by saying that the brake performance was as good as it would ever be on that car—whatever that meant.
Although she wasn't entirely satisfied, she continued driving the car until her parents happened to visit.
Her father drove the car and proclaimed it totally unsafe because it was supposedly obvious that the front brakes weren't applying.
No, her dad is not and has not been a trained technician of any kind.
For me, the final insult was her news that she was taking the vehicle to the local car dealer because she believed there were no repair options left.
The people I referred her to were basically honest and sincere, she noted, but just not smart enough to fix her car. (This isn't the kind of rousing endorsement aftermarket service personnel need.)
As of this writing, one visit to the car dealer made the car brake normally again. I have yet to see an invoice or work order detailing the repairs that fixed it.
My main interest here isn't what really fixed this car; rather, what concerns me very much is the simple but vital communication that never occurred before or after the techs touched this car.
First, the shop owner admitted to me that no one at his business road-tested the car with the owner on board to verify exactly what the symptom or symptoms were. Whenever the symptoms sound vague or unclear, that doubles the importance of the initial road test.
Second, he couldn't recall if anyone contacted the lady regularly to update her on the job's progress.
Third, no one phoned her afterward to verify that she was satisfied with the brake work.
I can only sum up this sorry episode with a trite baseball analogy: Three strikes and you're out!