I’m sitting at my desk at home watching the greedy hand of darkness grab for the last few remaining moments of daylight. It’s not an unfamiliar ritual. In fact, it happens with frightening regularity.
I finish up at the shop, head home, have dinner and talk about the day with my wife. By the time I head down the hall to my office where I collapse into an old desk chair that wraps around me like an old lover, it’s already late and I’m already tired.
As the light continues to fade, I try to make some sense out of the insanity that you and I accept so easily as just another day at the shop. Sometimes, that’s impossible. No matter what I do, or how hard I try, I can’t pull anything substantive out of the chaos. Other times, it’s somewhat easier; times when the events of the day find their way through me to the words and letters, thoughts and ideas you find before you once a month. But, even when it’s ‘easier,’ it still isn’t easy.
There are times when so much is going on, that all you’re left with is air between your fingers when you reach out to make sense of one event over another. Others, when the events of the day actually dare you to do them justice. Yesterday was such a day, a day so rich in bedlam it literally cried out for expression.
Yesterday, there was a black Jeep Wrangler in the shop driveway with a note simply suggesting that the clutch had failed. In the family for less than a month, the Jeep was just purchased by a customer who was, in fact, the grown son of another customer. He saw it, liked the way it both looked and ran, and passed his money across the table without the benefit of a pre-purchase inspection.
I couldn’t argue. The Jeep looked beautiful sitting in our driveway, shiny and black in the morning sun. But, it had failed on its first trip to the desert, a trip that resulted in a 100-mile tow home. The clutch was destroyed, screaming its displeasure every time someone tried to move it against its will.
It was obvious the transmission would have to be removed to determine the extent of the failure and, equally obvious, the clutch would have to be replaced in the process. We found a noisy exhaust manifold gasket, excessive play in both the front and rear universal joints on the rear driveshaft, and estimated the cost of a clutch kit, a replacement flywheel, new universal joints and an exhaust manifold gasket. We presented it to the customer and the estimate was accepted.
It was a “good” ticket.
We documented the authorization, ordered the parts and got to work. The next morning, 18 hours later, the owner’s wife called to inform us she was having the vehicle towed out of the shop. She had “called around” and determined that our estimate was high by more than $400. We were “ripping her off” and she wasn’t about to stand for it!
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Frank sits at my left shoulder. There isn’t much that can happen in his world that will escape me unless I allow it to. I listened in awe as he calmly and politely explained that we had already started the work that her husband authorized, and that while she had every right to remove the vehicle from our facility, there would be a charge for what we had done so far.
Frankly, he did a spectacular job of not losing his composure under the most difficult circumstances, and, in the end, reason prevailed. Confronted with the possibility of removing her vehicle in its current state of disrepair for a couple hundred dollars, or reassembling the vehicle and returning it to the condition in which it was received for a couple hundred more, she chose to accept the estimate as written. She made it clear, however, that she wanted a written copy of the estimate immediately faxed or emailed to her, and that we would never see her, her husband, her in-laws or any of their vehicles ever again. After the abuse Frank had just suffered, that sounded like an alternative we could live with!
As work progressed on the Jeep, we began to realize that beauty can be only skin deep. While the Jeep was beautiful on the outside, it was a mess underneath. The clutch had been replaced at least once before. Whoever installed it managed to crush the top of the pilot shaft bearing, more than likely when he muscled the transmission in without a transmission jack and “hung” the transmission by its nose while he took a break. The bearing was damaged enough to cause misalignment, and between the misalignment caused by the bearing and the clutch itself being “tweaked” during installation, the clutch disc had shattered.
The same person must have installed the U-joints because the same kind of rookie mistake was also made there. Whoever installed the rear joint allowed a couple of needle bearings to fall down flat inside the cup, removing just enough clearance to prevent the cup retainer from slipping into the groove. Rather than take the joint apart and reassemble it correctly, whoever did the work left the joint the way it was — out of position and without a retainer.
I can’t tell you whether or not the exhaust manifold and gasket had ever been off the vehicle, but I can tell you that all the bolts were loose — some only hand tight.
“SHOPPING” YOUR OWN ESTIMATE
While all of this was going on, I decided to check and see if our estimate was, in fact, correct. I’m insecure enough to realize that as hard as we try, we can still make a mistake every once in awhile. And, even though we work hard to ensure we know what’s going on around us when it comes to pricing both parts and labor, no one can be right all the time. But, what do you do to ensure your prices are both reasonable and competitive? Who do you call?
I called five shops, four within a couple miles of our shop and one in a nearby community. The only thing they had in common was a commitment to excellence. They are all shops I would have no problem recommending if we were too busy or too full to work on a vehicle ourselves. The only information I gave them was the year, make and model of the vehicle and the three jobs I needed to be estimated. Nothing more. Nothing less. I asked each of them to fax me a copy of their estimate when they were finished and promised I would explain later. Then, I waited.
The faxes arrived just about the same time the vehicle was going back together. We managed to clean up the retaining grooves on the yoke enough to ensure proper installation and had the clutch back together and working normally. Further inspection revealed a series of hairline cracks on both the inner and outer surfaces of the exhaust manifold and I determined it would be imprudent to go any further under the circumstances. We tightened the manifold, eliminated almost all of the noise and decided that would have to be good enough. And, I took digital pictures of everything we uncovered while working on the vehicle, just in case I might need them later on.
The estimates? Four of them were within $20 of our estimate, high or low, and one was $140 more.
What does that mean? It means that compared to other high-quality shops in our area we were right on target — each of us within 1.5% of the other. That’s a pretty tight circle by anyone’s standards.
Armed with that information, I called the customer apologizing for any frustration or anxiety we may have been a party to and went on to explain what we had found. I told her that I had “shopped” my own estimate just to make sure we weren’t out of line and let her know where we stood compared to the five shops we queried. I told her that I was aware there are cheaper places to access automotive service and that it was apparent the previous owner had found at least one of them the last time a clutch and universal joints had been installed on the Jeep.
She told me that all that was fine, but it didn’t change the way she felt. She had taken our written estimate and shopped it “apples to apples,” and was still convinced we were high — not nearly as high as she first thought, but high nevertheless. It also didn’t change the fact that she would never be in again.
I told her I was sorry she felt that way. I know the quality of automotive service available across the country and in our community. I know how we stack up and the value we’re able to offer our clients. I know that we’ll miss her. But, I also know there will come a time when she will miss us just as much. Perhaps, even more.
As I hung up the phone, a call came in from another shop in the community, the one the Jeep owner’s wife had called initially, the one who had allegedly told her that we were $400 high. He called to apologize and tell me that his first estimate didn’t include all the things we were doing because the woman who called hadn’t mentioned them, and that with those items included, he came up with virtually the same numbers. He told me he didn’t like being in the middle of a mess like this. It made him uncomfortable. I told him I didn’t like it either.
I called the husband and explained everything all over again. I told him there would be digital images of what we had found, along with the other five estimates if he wanted to see them. That wouldn’t be necessary, he told me. He trusted us; an odd statement after all that had transpired. He thanked us for staying with the job and told me he would be in the next day to pick up the Jeep. Then he told me the rest of the story.
You see, a pre-purchase inspection wasn’t the only thing he didn’t get when he bought the Jeep. He failed to get his wife’s approval as well. And, when the Jeep failed — an unbudgeted and unexpected failure accompanied by an obnoxiously expensive repair — we fell into the line of fire.
The vehicle was picked up. The bill was paid. And, life goes on. I don’t know if they’ll ever be in again. I’m not sure they know. All I do know is that it’s late, I’m tired and if I don’t get at least a little sleep I won’t be able to do it all over again tomorrow! another time.”