Mitch Schneider: Left-Handed Compliments

Mitch Schneider: Left-Handed Compliments

I suppose when you do what we do, you should learn to accept a compliment graciously without questioning its intent, regardless of when or how that compliment is offered. After all, it isn't every day someone manages to commend you for everything you've spent a lifetime working to accomplish in a tight, two-page missive. But, here I sit...two-page missive opened, unfolded and resting on top of my computer, wondering how in the world to make any sense out of it ....

By Mitch Schneider
Contributing Editor

    I suppose when you do what we do, you should learn to accept a compliment graciously without questioning its intent, regardless of when or how that compliment is offered. After all, it isn’t every day someone manages to commend you for everything you’ve spent a lifetime working to accomplish in a tight, two-page missive. But, here I sit…two-page missive opened, unfolded and resting on top of my computer, wondering how in the world to make any sense out of it.

In many ways, this letter was everything any one of us would love to receive if for no other reason than to show a first-time customer demonstrating even the slightest reservation about whether or not they had found the right place to service, maintain or repair their vehicles, that their fears and anxieties were unjustified.

The letter came from someone we haven’t seen for awhile. The last time he was in was about 18 months ago. His wife had just succumbed to a long, debilitating illness and he was talking about getting away from it all; about filling his life with a combination of volunteer work and travel.

Well, while I’m not all that comfortable letting the customer tell this story in his own words, his words are what this column is all about. So, I think I’ll lay it all out and let you decide…

“Hey, Mitch,

Don’t drop dead — it’s me! Where the hell have I been? Around!

In any case, I’ve been meaning to contact you for some time. Yes, I’ve been feeling pretty bad that I at least didn’t drop in and let you know why I haven’t been coming to you for service any more.

I’ll try to explain. First of all, you’re still the most competent…and most caring mechanic (actually, you are “the Professional Mechanic”) in my book. In fact, you’re the only mechanic I trusted implicitly — and, that’s the truth. And, you take pride in your work…and you charge what is fair.

I guess what I’m saying is I can’t afford the quality of the work that you do…at least, not right now.

Actually, I have only minimal work done on my truck — just to get by. I know you have a passion for excellence…and, I won’t blame you if you feel I’m really shortsighted — and stupid!

Anyway, I had to get this off my mind…so I feel I can just drop by now just to say hello.

I do hope you and your family are well.

P.S.: I just re-read this letter and it definitely is a clumsy attempt…but, the bottom line is I wanted you to know that you’re still one of the most honest men I ever met!”

So, what do you say to that? How do you react?

In the middle of an otherwise “normal” day, while quietly sitting and opening the mail, you find yourself suddenly immersed in all the elements of a great novel or a classic screenplay: distinctive characters, a good story line, conflict, tension and maybe even a little resolution, if we’re lucky.

A good plot line draws us in, sometimes against our will or better judgment. A good story has something to say, something to teach us, something for us to learn, or at least understand about the human condition, even when we would rather ignore its lessons or its message.

Are we the best shop in town? Are we the most honest technicians? Do we care more than anyone else? Do we try harder? Are we more neurotic? Are we focused on quality or, perhaps more importantly, to the people we serve, the value that our quality represents in the long run?

I hope we are! I hope the answer to every one of those questions is a resounding, Yes! But, what good is success if the individual you’re working so hard to convert from a consumer to a customer, and then to a client, suddenly realizes that while they want everything you’re working so hard to deliver, they can’t afford it! What do you do then?

Do you re-evaluate? Has quality become “relative” or “situational,” like so many of the other attributes that built our nation and then our industry? Could you live in that world? Are you capable of offering the people you work for or the people who work with you any less than the best you’re capable of?

I don’t know much about a lot of things, but I do know a little bit about this industry and the people in it. It’s my world; the world I’ve chosen. I’ve become somewhat expert in it and I don’t think you could scale back the quality of your product or service offerings any more than I could! Not when the safety and well-being of the individuals depending upon that quality put it to the test every day!

That brings us to conflict and the resulting tension that generally accompanies conflict in a story like this. If you can’t or, more appropriately, won’t scale back the quality of the products and services you offer, what can you do?

You could lower your prices to make those high-quality products and services available to more people — you could, but you would more than likely go broke in the process. Why? Because the cost of automotive products and services hasn’t managed to keep up with increases in the cost of living or inflation. Because most of us have been subsidizing the differences between what these products and services should cost and where we’ve priced them for almost 100 years.

How many shops do you know or know of that performed excellent quality work and used nothing but the best parts and accessories, only to price themselves out of business as the result of a genuine concern for what their customers, clients and friends could afford?

I’ll bet it’s more than a few! And, where are those “customers, clients and friends” going for their automotive service today? More important, perhaps, what are they paying for those parts and services today — more, or less? My guess is more!

Isn’t the very essence of business increasing your customer base? And how can you do that if you eliminate a significant portion of that base by pricing yourself “out of the market?”

I think my “friend’s” letter provided me with the resolution I was looking for, the only resolution to be found in a script like this. It forced me to reconsider everything we do and have done for a lifetime of service in this industry and when all was said and done, it helped me to realize that I can’t be anything less than I am, I can’t do anything less than I’m capable of. I won’t ask it of myself. I won’t ask it of anyone else here!

Quality is not negotiable, nor is it subjective. It’s neither situational, nor is it relative. If quality is the ability of a product or service to meet or exceed the client’s wants, needs and expectations, it’s our responsibility as the professionals in this relationship to deliver the best quality we’re capable of.

Does that rule apply to everyone? No more or less than any other rule! Are there exceptions? Of course, that’s what makes it a rule! Should we — can we — work for everyone? I don’t think so — not unless we are ready to pay a very heavy price, both emotionally and financially.

I’m going to respond to my friend’s letter. I will let him know just how much and how sincerely I appreciate his kind words. I will invite him to come by whenever he would like, and that means whether he brings his wallet with him or leaves it at home. What I won’t do is adjust my prices to accommodate his suggestion that we are somehow too high. If we are, what does that have to say about the quality, trust, competency, concern, ability or commitment he just lauded us for?

I know how my story will end. It will end the only way it can, with us doing whatever we can to deliver an even higher level of quality and service, not only to those customers who appreciate and can afford that quality today, but to those who will find us and choose to remain with us into the future.

And sometimes all it takes to figure all of this out — to help you write the story of your life — is a letter filled with left-handed compliments, even if you don’t understand what that letter has to teach you at first!

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