CAR TALK: So what makes a great customer?
RAY: There are some customers who have been coming to the garage for years, who we love to see. First of all, they're pleasant people. They're non-confrontational; they don't come in ready for a fight, or assuming we're going to rip them off - which is especially important when things go wrong.
We consider some of our customers to be our friends. They have the same qualities that you would want in a friend.
TOM: And they can describe their problem clearly. That's really important. It saves us hassle - and saves the customer money. We're more likely to get it right the first time, which is important to our sense of self-esteem.
RAY: Right. You know, mechanics suffer from an extremely low sense of self-worth.
TOM: And then, of course, there are the customers who come bearing fresh baked goods. Somehow, they never seem to need transmission rebuilds. Isn't that interesting?
CAR TALK: And the customers who are less than friendly?
RAY: There are some people who are jerks. They're adversarial, because they treat us as if we're trying to rip them off. They're attitude is accusatory from the get go.
TOM: And nobody wants to be approached like that.
RAY: We've actually fired customers.
CAR TALK: You've fired customers?
RAY: Absolutely. We had a sign for many years that said, "We have the right to throw out jerks." We've had to invoke it a few times over the years.
I've actually said to a few folks, "I'd be very appreciative if you never came back." But they're very few and far between.
CAR TALK: Do you think you go out of your way for friendly customers?
RAY: I've always discovered that the people who go out of their way to establish a relationship with you are the ones that you, as a shop owner, are going to make sure you treat well.
Let me give you an example. I've had new customers come into the shop and say, "I just moved to the neighborhood, and I'm looking for a garage. One of my neighbors told me you were good guys. I have two cars. I'm going to be coming here on a regular basis, and I want to know what I need to do for these cars." That's kind of nice.
TOM: The same goes for people who come in and understand that I'm a human being, too. Even though I may not look like one.
RAY: No. He looks like the missing link. But follow the basic rules of pleasant human interaction: Say "hello," and "how are you." Smile occasionally. Don't always be demanding.
CAR TALK: Do the same rules apply when going to a dealer?
RAY: I don't have any personal experience with dealers, but others have told me they can be more impersonal.
TOM: You don't get to talk to the guy who actually fixes your car, for example. You only get to talk to the Service Advisor. But the Service Advisor can go the extra mile for you, too, so I'd say the same rules apply.
CAR TALK: You think impersonal service is the norm for every single dealer?
RAY: No. We have customers who have had very good experiences with certain dealers... places where the Service Advisor remembers who they are, what problem they had last time, and where they like to be dropped off when they leave their car.
TOM: And that's good for business, so it's in their interest to do so. I hope we'll see that at more dealerships.
RAY: Of course, in most dealerships, everybody is on commission, so the Service Advisor has incentives to keep you coming in. But if that results in a better experience for you, great.
CAR TALK: How do you like people to explain a problem?
RAY: Be observant. Come with data. Be able to answer questions like, when does the problem happen? When did you first notice it? Is it worse now? Is it worse when it's cold or hot out? Does it change with the speed of the vehicle? Does it happen if you're in Park or Drive, or both? Stuff like that is very helpful. It helps us, and it saves you money because it saves us diagnostic time.
TOM: But we probably don't want your complete Excel spreadsheet on the car's oil usage going back to 1962. Give the basic information that you think is pertinent, and then answer any questions we have.
RAY: We'll ask all the same questions we ask on Car Talk. Except without the public humiliation.
TOM: Overall, however, it's better to have too much information than it is to have too little. When in doubt, err on the side of too much data. But if we start covering our ears and shouting, "Enough! Enough!" that's your cue that we've already got a pretty good idea of what it is.
RAY: Also, be realistic. If you have a ten-year-old car, and it has a little rattle at 43 mph when it's raining out, don't expect us to spend only 10 minutes and find it.
CAR TALK: But how do people know when they're nitpicking or if a noise is something serious?
RAY: It's impossible to know. So, there's no harm in asking. But you can present it as, "I'm not sure if this is something I should be concerned about, but... ."
TOM: Right. But if your car is older, you have to be willing to accept a certain degree of imperfection.
RAY: My brother's ex-wives know all about that.
TOM: For instance, if we're not busy, we may be able to track down the decoder ring that little Ralphie dropped somewhere behind the back seat when he was three. But if you didn't mention it when you made your appointment, we may not be able to fit in a full-scale search and rescue that day. We may have six clutches to do.
RAY: And even though something is insignificant to the safe operation of the car, it may not be insignificant to fix. So you may end up paying for three hours of labor for us to fish around for the decoder ring, and then get ticked off at us for the size of the bill. So, if you're not sure if something is something worth fixing, ask. We'll give you our opinion.
CAR TALK: What about when repairs go wrong?
TOM: Don't come in yelling.
RAY: Cars are complex. In addition to being difficult to diagnose, there are plenty of chances to break something else. You have no idea how easy it is to leave off a vacuum hose, or leave a wire unplugged. Then, the check engine light will come on.
TOM: Here's our rule. If you're absolutely perfect in your work, and you've never made a mistake, feel free to be a jerk and expect everyone else to be perfect, too.
RAY: But if you're human, and you've forgotten an appointment, or been late finishing an assignment, or lost something that you thought was on your desk, think about how you'd like to be treated in that circumstance.
TOM: Basically, you want to be told about it so you can make things right, but you don't want to be treated as if you're an utter failure as a human being because you simply forgot to reattach something small... like the lug nuts!
CAR TALK: What's the biggest mistake you've made?
RAY: That's easy! Dropping a car off the lift.
CAR TALK: What kind of response did you get?
RAY: Considering what happened, he was okay after we got his blood pressure under control. Most of our customers are pretty nice folks.
TOM: Yeah. If the mechanic is generally pretty good, assume that it was an honest mistake, rather than an attempt to rip you off. Approach it that way, and you'll be seen as a great customer.
RAY: Also, I think it's bad form to complain about a mistake we've made in front of other customers. We really appreciate it when folks who are having a problem with our work come into the shop, and don't immediately start yelling. They'll call me over and ask if we can speak. We'll go out of our way for those folks.
TOM: But if you continue to have problems with that shop, and they often make mistakes, head somewhere else.
RAY: Here's one final suggestion. If you do go somewhere else, it's a gesture of kindness on your part to tell the shop owner why you left. You can do it nicely, but you should do it. If I lose a customer for whatever reason, I like to know why. If it's something we can change, we'll try.
TOM: Before you do take off, though, it's always good to give someone a second chance - even your lousy mechanic. A third or fourth chance? That's unlikely. But a second chance? Absolutely.
CAR TALK: Anything else?
RAY: I'd encourage anyone reading this, to learn a little bit about how their car works. Take a course, read a book, or kill a few more minutes on our lousy web site. The more you know, the less threatening your car will become. And the better you'll be able to understand why your mechanic has that 1,000-yard stare in his eyes when you say the "check engine light" is back on.
TOM: It might even save you a few bucks, if it helps you prevent a more expensive repair, or helps you better explain a problem you're having.
RAY: One other gripe I have is with people who never clean the inside of their car. It can smell like hell. I, for one, will never forget one customer. We'll call him Dave, because that's his name. We think he was probably living in his Jeep.
TOM: It smelled like a combination of rotting food, moldy underwear and sweat. Whenever he drove in to the garage, everyone would dive for cover.
RAY: Yeah, he was a customer nobody wanted to see come into the shop. And you don't want to be one of those, for any reason.