Mitch Schneider: Got a Minute? When Customers Steal Your Precious Time

Mitch Schneider: Got a Minute? When Customers Steal Your Precious Time

I just watched one of the most frustrating blocks of time I've ever spent evaporate as I found myself explaining the how, why and how much of an engine failure to someone who would be far more comfortable discussing the intricacies of a Mozart Concerto.
By Mitch Schneider
Contributing Editor

Time is an interesting construct. If you look at its history, you begin to realize that there is no real reason for a minute to have 60 seconds, an hour to have 60 minutes or a day to have 24 hours, or for us to divide that 24 hours into 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.

Time is arbitrary in the respect that no one knows exactly how much time they have either. Yet some people are willing to squander their time while others guard every second as if it was their last.

In a reactive business like ours, a business where many times you find yourself at the mercy of someone else’s concept of what time is or how precious it might be, you may often find yourself fantasizing about a trip to the gun locker! This is especially true if the person you are dealing with lives in a universe where the consumption of great chunks of time does not have the same significance it has in our world.

I just watched one of the most frustrating blocks of time I’ve ever spent evaporate as I found myself explaining the how, why and how much of an engine failure to someone who would be far more comfortable discussing the intricacies of a Mozart Concerto. The only thing I can say in his defense is that he might find himself equally as frustrated if the situation were reversed, although, frankly, I doubt it. You see, even though he is a high school music teacher and I’m not, I know I have a better chance with Mozart than he’ll ever have with anything mechanical!

It started on a Monday with a 1999 Pontiac Montana, parked facing the street in our driveway — a dead giveaway the vehicle had been towed and left with us over the weekend. The note was cryptic: “Vehicle quit!” But, it wasn’t anywhere near as cryptic as the author turned out to be.

The initial underhood inspection revealed just about everything we needed to know. The dipstick came out looking as if it had been dipped in a coffee milkshake. The oil fill cap was covered with the same milky goop. The serpentine drive belt was shredded and one of the pulleys on the belt tensioner was nowhere to be found. The other two were rough to the touch when rotated. The radiator was empty. The battery was dead and there was a plume of corrosion originating from under the water pump pulley. All this and we hadn’t really done much more than open the hood, take a quick look around and then try to start the engine.

While the exterior and interior were somewhat less than perfect, it was obvious the transmission had just been replaced with a rebuilt that hadn’t even been in the vehicle long enough to get dirty. I know the transmission and I know the shop that did the work. I know what the vehicle owner had just invested. I know a little about human nature as well, and my concern was an owner making bad decisions trying to chase a good investment gone sour.

We estimated the obvious after realizing there was nothing much more we could do. The estimate included replacement of the head gaskets, pressure checking and resurfacing the heads, resurfacing the exhaust manifolds if required, a tensioner assembly, the other two pulleys, a serpentine belt, a battery if necessary, the water pump, a quick-disconnect heater fitting that had a sea of multi-colored corrosion growing at its base, flushing the cooling system twice to restore it to a baseline of performance after someone had mixed Dex-Cool and glycol, and some fresh oil and a filter.

We did so realizing the likelihood of additional services discovered along the way corrupting the estimate, not the least of which could be a valve job or perhaps even the need to replace the heads altogether. We created a second estimate for a replacement engine, taking into consideration the fact that we had no way of knowing exactly what kind of care the vehicle had received during its first 140,000 miles, and that with that kind of mileage the most prudent thing to do would be to replace the entire engine with a quality rebuilt or remanufactured engine.

Leslie called the customer first and as patient and understanding as she can be, and despite her excellent communication skills, she gave up and tagged Frank. Frank jumped into the ring with the confidence of WWF super star and then jumped right out again. I’m not sure how or when I got thrown to the wolves or, in this case, the wolf, but the next time the phone rang I found myself sitting there with the receiver in my hand.

I don’t know about you, but there are few things in this business that make me as uncomfortable as someone who cannot or will not understand what you are trying to explain, especially when you know you are pretty good at the explaining part. The only thing that makes me more uncomfortable faster is someone who uses words like “all” or “every” inappropriately, or someone who keeps trying to stuff your mouth full of their own words in order to twist what you were trying to say into what they want to hear.

His demeanor on the phone was nothing less than courteous and he was maddeningly patient. I explained what we had found, the nature of the failure as well as the choices he had in approaching the restoration of his vehicle. When I was done, he started over again with virtually the same questions. “How could this have happened? Why was there no warning? How come no one ever told me? Why do we have to…?” and, of course, the ever present, “Why does it cost so much?”

Generally, these questions don’t really bother me. After all, I’ve been listening to them for more almost 40 years. But, when they are accompanied by phrases like, “So, you want more than $1,800 from me just to…” it starts to feel very much as if someone just poured sand over an open wound and then tried to clean it off with emery cloth.

To compound my growing frustration came a whole new set of “Are there…” and “What if…” questions: “Are there any other alternatives? Are there any less expensive options? What if we…” Each one coupled with a “How much would it be if…” question of its own.

I’m sitting here at my desk with all the normal chaos of running a business like yours or mine swirling around my head, dazed and confused because I just now finished another 30- or 40-minute session with the same customer going over the same issues, only this time providing a bit of “Show & Tell” for virtually every item on the estimate.

He’s a teacher! Teachers should understand and appreciate “Show & Tell.”

He came to the shop and we walked out to the vehicle together and I showed him every problem. He rotated the pulleys and felt the roughness, looked at the plume of corrosion under the water pump, held the shredded belt in his hand and did just about everything save taste the funky looking goop on the bottom of the oil fill cap. I explained the “what” and “why” again, complete with three different estimates for three different ways of approaching the repair and then I took a deep breath.

Why was I so patient? Why did I take so much time with this individual? How did I manage to stay so calm while he stole precious minutes and seconds from me? I’ve always felt that a motorist has the right (and the responsibility) to seek an answer to their questions that makes sense to them: an answer they can understand. It is, after all, their vehicle and their money. But, by the same token, I believe that we have both the right and the responsibility to protect ourselves and that means using our time and our talent as effectively as possible.

The question then becomes was this an effective use of my time? And, the answer is: I don’t really know. I won’t know until I find out whether or not he is going to accept one of the many estimates he’s received although, to tell you the truth, I’m not really sure I’ll do the work once he’s made his decision. You see I’ve always held one inviolate principle very close in this business and that is, if you find yourself unable to communicate with someone effectively when there isn’t a problem, you haven’t a chance in hell of communicating with them effectively if or when there is.

This individual was making me increasingly more and more uncomfortable each time we came in contact with each other and we hadn’t done anything more than look at his vehicle. How much more of my precious time should I be willing to give? How much time is it reasonable to allow him to “steal?”

It’s one thing to offer that time freely, willingly. It’s quite another to have someone make demands on it even if those demands are draped in courtesy.

In the end, it’s really a matter of what each of us is willing to give, isn’t it? A simple return on investment equation: I give you time, skill, tools, technology, talent and ability, and you give me money. But, money has a finite value defined by what it will buy. Time is a different animal altogether. It’s different because none of us can know how much sand is in the glass or when the last grain of that sand will fall.

So, you see, it’s all about time and that forces us to look at things in a very different way.

To effectively use the time we have, we cannot waste it. That means that both the person giving it and the person receiving it should equally value its worth. If that happens, we have the basis for a relationship. If it doesn’t, we have a responsibility to tell whoever it is we are dealing with “Goodbye. Perhaps things will work out better… another time.”

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