Mitch Schneider: How to Pass the 'Reasonable Man' Test

Mitch Schneider: How to Pass the ‘Reasonable Man’ Test

We've been doing a fair amount of restoration work lately. Certainly, more than we've done in a very long time: a 1962 red Corvette convertible (Like there is another color...), a number of vintage '50s and '60s Cadillac Coupes and Sedan De Villes, a few early '50s Roadmasters, a couple of classic '60s Mustangs, a 1931 Oldsmobile (I know...How did that one sneak in there?) and more.

dn’t burn. So, we drained it, cleaned it, flushed it out and then refilled it.

We flushed out all the remaining fuel lines as well. We took the top off the carburetor and, after looking inside, removed the carburetor from the vehicle. We had to clean and hand polish just about everything inside, which is pretty depressing when the outside looked like the carburetor had just been removed from the box. We verified valve timing and adjusted ignition timing and, ultimately, got the little V8 running.

It’s hard to explain how once you’ve gone through the pain of figuring out your first broken valve spring or “stuck” valve, you never forget how it sounded before you figured it out, but you don’t. Or, at least, I didn’t.

One of the intake valves was bent and stuck about halfway open. So, we removed the heads, sent them out, found that just about all the valves were tight or “sticky,” had them redone and then put it all back together.

After servicing some of the issues with the internal parts, the Falcon’s engine came “alive.” The Falcon started and someone in the shop started shouting: “It’s alive! It’s alive! My monster is alive!”

It ran and it ran strong…at speeds above 35 mph. Under that, it just loped. The customer — in his late 70s — came in, went for a ride with the technician who worked on it, pulled into the driveway smiling, paid the bill and left.

Now, I’ll bet you’re thinking that’s it…and, this is an uncharacteristically short column! Well, if that’s what you were thinking, you’re wrong.

The Falcon returned a couple of weeks and just a few miles later with a shredded serpentine belt. Looking at it revealed the pulleys were out of alignment. We took it apart and put it back together a number of times, but no matter what we did the pulleys wouldn’t quite line up.

The air conditioning compressor (Did I mention the little convertible had aftermarket air?) was too far back. The power steering pulley was too far forward, and the idler pulley wasn’t quite where it was supposed to be either.

After a fair amount of consideration, consternation and configuration we got it to work with everything lined up just about perfectly. And, then we screwed up!

No! That isn’t exactly accurate…WE didn’t screw up. I screwed up! And, I screwed up monumentally!

Instead of zeroing out the work order and “eating” the cost of the belt and the labor to modify the vehicle so it would work correctly, I allowed an invoice to be written and the bill to be paid. I say “allowed” because I didn’t stop it.

Frankly, I’m not even sure I was aware that it went down that way until the vehicle owner’s son appeared at the counter that night to question how we could have charged his father for a failure that occurred so soon after pick-up.

His primary concern was that we hadn’t seen the misalignment before the vehicle was released. He even admitted that he would have been willing to pay for the work we had done had it been identified and presented before the vehicle left the shop.

I’d be lying if I said I felt good about this conversation. After all, the pulleys were out of alignment and the vehicle wasn’t running when it was towed in, and…

And, given enough time and the right motivation, you can justify almost anything.

I asked the owner’s son to let me think about what he had to say and told him I’d get back to him in the morning. And think about it I did…I thought about this and just about nothing else for most of the night until it came to me.

Being in business brings problems, and being in this business only magnifies that realization.

All we do all day is solve problems or at least that’s what we try to do.

I thought about what I’ve always called “The ­Reasonable Man Test,” a test I reserve for difficult situations just like these. It goes something like this: If we were to stop someone on the street, a “reasonable man,” a stranger, someone neither of us knew, and explained what just happened…what would he say? What would he think?

And, then I thought about the last chapter I finished in the book I’ve been reading that suggested the best way to handle a problem is to handle the problem — to write your own ending, a positive ending; the kind of ending that leaves the person you are dealing with only one alternative, and that is to say only good things about you and your company.

So, I came in early the next morning and composed a letter to the vehicle owner expressing my regret for having charged him and enclosed a check for the full amount of that last invoice accompanied by a $20 gift certificate at our favorite coffee shop.

When I was finished, I called his son and left a message to call so I could explain what I had done and why. When he didn’t respond, I called him later that evening and told him about the check, the letter and the gift ­certificate — and he was blown away!

I’m not sure how all this will work out. I’m not sure anyone can be sure. Nor, am I sure it matters. But, I do know how terribly this could have ended and I know just how costly that could have been.

What I am sure of is that instead of telling everyone how we failed, which I’m sure would have happened had I not turned the situation around, all he can do now is finish off the story by telling everyone how we came through for his father and more than made everything right.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s about as reasonable an ending as a “Reasonable Man Test” can provide. 

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