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Respect: The Customer’s Auto When in Your Possession

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Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for more than 20 years and is an avid photographer, writer and artist. Currently at work on what he expects to be his first book, Bailey resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.

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Do not smoke or eat in (or on) a customer’s car.
Do not steal the Viagra.
And never use the test drive to take a carload of techs to a local lunch spot
(or to solicit a prostitute).

When a customer drops off his vehicle at your shop for repairs, it’s common knowledge that he expects it to be returned in the same condition it was in before the accident. And when a vehicle isn’t as close as we can possibly get it to pre-accident condition, the customer is well within his rights to complain.

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For the sake of this article, let’s assume the insurance company is covering every necessary procedure. Also, let’s assume our technician has followed the repair order to the very last detail and has done the finest repair he’s ever done.

Aside from repair procedures and our inability to duplicate factory procedures, have you returned the vehicle to the customer in the same condition it was in prior to the accident?

Probably not.

You probably cleaned the vehicle after working on it so you may have cleaned some dirt and dust that wasn’t accident or repair related. That’s great. But what else has been changed while the vehicle was in your shop?

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What may seem petty to you or your employees could very well be a big problem in the eyes of many customers. And what turns out to be a problem for your customers may be the one thing that keeps their friends, family, neighbors, etc., from doing business with you in the future.

A customer once dropped off a car at the shop where I worked and left a note taped to the dashboard with a list of things we were not to do. The note filled about a half sheet of legal pad paper and consisted of instructions such as:

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  • Please do not change my radio station. 
  • Please do not smoke in my car. 
  • Please do not eat in my car.
  • Please do not drive my car off the property.
  • Please do not steal my change.
  • Please do not remove any of my personal belongings.

By the time the car had been repaired and painted and was ready to detail for delivery, the note had grown to a full page after nearly every jokester in the shop had added additional instructions. The revised list included:

  • Please do not play rap music in my car. 
  • Please do not pass gas on my seat.
  • Please do not drool on my girlfriend’s picture.
  • Please do not steal the porn magazines out of the trunk.
  • Please do not take a nap in my car.
  • Please do not have sex in my car.
  • Please do not smoke the joints in the ashtray. 
  • Please do not shoot anybody with the gun in the glove box.

The list went on and on.

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But the more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me that most people wouldn’t write notes like this if they hadn’t experienced, or at least heard about, occurrences such as those mentioned in the customer’s original note. And the more I read the additional material provided by the ghost writers, the more I realized that a lot of these situations have also taken place, regardless of the number of people who would actually admit to it.

So I made a list of my own, consisting of three simple rules that cover everything on the previous lists:

  1. Don’t steal.
  2. Respect the privacy and personal property of others.
  3. Think!

1. Don’t Steal

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  • Please do not steal my change/magazines. It really is that simple. If you don’t have change for a soda, drink water. If an interesting book or magazine in a customer’s car catches your eye, go to the library or bookstore. Most public libraries subscribe to a variety of periodicals, and they keep back issues for years.

    Now I’m not going to lie. I’ve been known to sit down on my lunch hour and read an article or two in a customer’s magazine, but a very strict set of rules apply here. I don’t show the magazine to anyone else. I make sure the magazine goes right back where it was. And above all else, I don’t follow the old "take care of it like it’s yours" policy. Instead, I take care of it like it belongs to someone else and like I’m not supposed to have it. After all, that is the case.

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2. Respect Privacy and Personal Property
 

  • Please do not remove any of my personal belongings. Okay, let’s delve into this one a little deeper. We’ve all seen plenty of vehicles with the trunk loaded with laundry, office supplies, toys or other personal belongings. As difficult as it is to resist the urge to explore, we should remember that there’s a fine line between curiosity and invasion of privacy. The fact that people leave things in their car when they drop it off doesn’t give us any more right to snoop than we had when the car was parked in the customer’s driveway. 

    When Viagra first hit the market, I was assigned a Honda Accord that came to me with the trunk, the back seat and even the front passenger seat absolutely LOADED with boxes slightly larger than a VHS videotape. Each box contained a VHS tape, an information pamphlet and a Viagra sample. I don’t think anyone could have squeezed another Viagra sample into that car.

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It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway … By the time that car was in the shop a whole day, it had become the brunt of every joke you can possibly imagine (and a few others you can’t imagine). Viagra samples were left on tool boxes, work benches and even the manager’s desk with little sticky notes attached, reading, "from your loving wife, boyfriend, cousin, etc."

I seriously doubt if all those samples made their way back into the car before it left. Had the owner known exactly how many samples were in the car when it was dropped off, he could have easily called us thieves and could easily have proven it. And had the owner come to check on the car and seen his personal property scattered all over the shop, we could have easily lost his business as well as the business of everyone he spoke to about the situation.

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Ordinarily I’m quite open-minded and have a pretty active sense of humor. However, because I was the tech working on the car and most likely the one who would have been stuck with the blame, I wasn’t happy about all the joking around. Before a joke gets carried too far, we should all seriously consider the end result.

Over the years, I’ve seen techs "borrow" a golf club out of a customer’s trunk, "just trying it out." When I see techs in the back parking lot hitting tennis balls or balls of masking tape, bounding them off other customer’s cars, I wonder how they would react to a customer doing the same thing in the employee parking area.

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And can we expect a customer to trust us if he comes to the shop and sees a tech tossing around a very familiar-looking football or Frisbee that he had in his trunk? Or maybe a customer’s daughter had a scooter or skateboard in the vehicle. Is it good for business if she sees a grown man playing with her toys?

Two other things people tend to leave in their cars are mail and cell phones. Grown men and women shouldn’t have to be told to leave these items alone. Yes, you can move them out of your way to do your job, but after that, they’re totally off limits.

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I know that I’d go on a major rampage over calls made on my phone while my truck was in a repair shop. And in these days of near epidemic identity theft, reading someone else’s mail can really cause problems. If I caught a tech reading my mail, I’d change all my bank account and credit card numbers, as well as my social security number – all at the expense of the shop owner, of course.

The variety of things people leave in their cars is as wide as the variety of human interests. Everything from lingerie to sex toys to weapons to grandma’s 182-pound Bible should be left alone. Imagine the embarrassment you bring to the entire business when a customer catches you showing her sexy underwear to the guys around the shop? More importantly, consider how you’d feel if she showed your worn out leopard skin boxer shorts to a bunch of total strangers. 

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  • Please do not change my radio station. One of the most common and most ridiculous customer complaints I’ve heard about over the years has been the complaint about radio stations being changed. I consider this complaint ridiculous, but not on the customer’s part. Instead, I find it ridiculous when a customer can legitimately complain about adjustments made to his stereo. The only adjustment we’re entitled to make is lowering the volume. Everything else is off limits. 

    In addition to the disrespect shown toward the customer, changed radio stations can be a bit counterproductive. Consider the amount of time office personnel might spend getting chewed out when the mellow jazz or classical music enthusiast turns on the radio to hear heavy metal or gangsta rap.

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    Five minutes? More? What else could have been accomplished in that time? Maybe a part you need could have been ordered, or a supplement you need could have been faxed to an insurance company. Also, the chewing out may bring down the office person’s otherwise good mood or may be just distracting enough for that person to forget your part order or supplement until the next day. 

  • Please do not drool on my girlfriend’s picture. Photographs of family members or friends should be left exactly where they are, whether on the dashboard in front of the speedometer in the console or in the pocket of the doors. If the customer has a picture of his wife and baby on the dash in plain sight and a picture of his girlfriend tucked away out of sight, the last thing you want to do is get them mixed up. No matter how pretty the girl in the picture might be, don’t take it out and show it around the shop.
    I worked in one shop where an employee found naked photos (and negatives) of the customer’s wife inside the vehicle. On his lunch hour, the tech took the negative to the nearest one-hour lab and had several prints made, after which he passed them around the shop. As it turned out, the customer and his wife happened to be good friends with one of the other techs. I think the customer and the tech both learned a hard lesson that day.
  • 3. Think!

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    If everyone would adhere strictly to rule No. 3, there’d be very little need for rules No. 1 and 2. By thinking ahead, you can avoid small problems and keep them from erupting into much larger problems. Exercise some (not so common) common sense in the workplace, especially when it pertains to a customer’s vehicle.

    Keep parts, boxes, keys, soda cans, coffee cups, etc. off the top surfaces of the vehicles you’re working on. Granted, the panel you put your soda can on may be refinished tomorrow, but isn’t it better for customer relations if you make a habit of not using the vehicle for a table?

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    Also, one of my No. 1 pet peeves is "borrowed" parts. Never remove parts from one customer’s vehicle to install on another vehicle in order to meet a promised delivery time. Even though you may be planning to install the new part on the donor vehicle, customers who find out about this will wonder what else has been "borrowed" from their car.

    • Please do not have sex in my car. 
    • Please do not smoke the joints in the ashtray. 
    • Do either of these really need to be explained any further? You’d think not.

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    However, I did work with an estimator who had a habit of calling his wife from time to time to inform her he’d be working late. After everyone left the shop for the day, his girlfriend would come by and they’d choose a custom van or other large vehicle in which they’d have sex.

    The next day, he’d come to work and brag about it around the shop. It didn’t take long for word of his behavior to get back to the shop owner. You’ve never seen a man lose a job so fast. 

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  • Please do not eat in/smoke in/sleep in/drive my car. These are also self-explanatory. Even though the shop may have the car cleaned after repairs are completed, you still should take care not to litter a customer’s car with food crumbs or smoke odors – and you definitely shouldn’t risk burning interior parts with a lit cigarette. 

    And, although I’ve seen dozens of techs do it over the years, never use the test drive to take a carload of techs to a local lunch spot. Four times in my career, I’ve seen situations where techs had to come back to work after lunch and explain to the employer that the vehicle they were test driving would be coming back on a tow truck from the scene of an accident.

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    One of those times, the lunch spot was a bar. On still another occasion, the test drive resulted in a customer’s vehicle going to the city impound lot after the tech was arrested for soliciting prostitution. Is it any wonder the general public doesn’t trust the collision industry? 

  • Please do not shoot anybody with the gun in the glove box. Anytime I come across a gun anywhere in a vehicle I’m repairing, I go straight to the office and get someone to contact the customer immediately. I instruct them to ask the customer to come by the shop as soon as possible to remove the gun. I don’t want the responsibility to fall upon me or the shop should the gun go off or should it turn up missing. Once this is explained, most customers won’t hesitate to come and retrieve the weapon.
  • Truth Is Weirder Than Fiction

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    Most of the material I’ve covered here has really been simple, common sense sort of things that easily fall under the Golden Rule. Give your customers and their vehicles the same respect you would want if you took your vehicle to a shop for repairs.

    There will always be times when curiosity will get the best of you. That’s understandable human nature. So when you’re feeling curious about the contents of a customer’s car, just try to remember how you’d feel if you caught someone rummaging through your personal stuff.

    Contributing editor Paul Bailey has been a collision repairman for more than 20 years and is an avid photographer and writer who maintains a consumer-awareness Web page in his spare time. He resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy. Bailey can be reached at [email protected].

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