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Scolded by Grandma

You’re better off assuming your customers are car experts rather than car-ignorant. One shop manager learned this valuable lesson from a little old lady who knew her vehicle all too well.

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Several years ago an elderly lady drove up for an estimate. She was having trouble getting out of her car so I went out to assist her. She looked about 70 years old, her back was hunched over, she was very frail and walked with a cane. She asked if I would write her an estimate.

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“Sure,” I replied.

Her car was a 1988 Oldsmobile Delta 88 that needed a right quarter panel. I wrote the estimate, and we talked for a few moments. I explained the repair process and our warranty. She decided to let us do the repairs and wanted them done as soon as possible. I assured her the repairs wouldn’t take long.

I ordered the parts and within two weeks, the repairs were completed. When I called the lady to tell her the car was ready, she was very excited it was done so quickly and said she’d be there soon to pick it up.

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I was sitting in my office with the bill in one hand and her keys in the other when she arrived. She was almost in my office when she turned to the person who had driven her here and said, “I may not pick up this car, so don’t you leave yet.” I wondered what she meant by that and thought maybe she didn’t have the money to pay the bill.

“Young man, you can put that bill down,” she said to me, “I’m not paying anything until I inspect my car.”

Surprised at her tone and her actions, I immediately dropped the bill.

“Why sure, ma’am. Come on, we’ll both take a look at it,” I replied.

Unexpected Inspection
Taking her by the arm, we started our journey 25 feet from from where the car was sitting. We were moving at a snail’s pace – so slow and I was thinking I should’ve brought a sandwich or a canteen of water with me.

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When we finally reached our destination, she stopped and gazed at the quarter panel for awhile. Then, lifting her cane ever so slowly, she tapped it and said, “Sounds like a new panel.”

Moving her cane toward the right rear door she said, “Looks like you painted the door so the quarter panel would match.”

I was amazed at how much this old lady knew about body work!

She grasped the rear door outside handle and lowered herself to the pavement, scaring the daylights out of me. I instantly grabbed her by the arm.

“Ma’am, are you OK? Are you sick?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “I told you I was going to inspect your repairs and that’s what I’m doing.”

I stepped back a couple of feet and watched with amazement as she moaned and slowly lowered herself flat on her back. I could hear the technicians’ muffled giggles from the shop. Fearing this lady might hear them, I quickly turned and pointed a finger at them. They hushed instantly and ducked behind the large tool box, eyes wide and chins on the floor.

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I turned my attention back to the lady who was starting to low crawl like a war soldier under a razor wire. I knew I had to end this fiasco soon, so I bent over and asked her to come out from under the car.

“No!” she replied. “You come here. My paint on the bottom of the quarter panel doesn’t match the bottom of my car and I want something done about it!”

Problem Solved
I told her I would fix it right away. But before I could get out from under the car, the tech who had repaired the car was there with a can of rubberized undercoating. A couple squirts was all it took. Job completed.

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After the tech and I helped the lady with the payment, she pointed her cane at me and asked me why the repairs weren’t checked before she was called. I had no answer for her. She just shook her head, paid the bill and drove off.

I never saw this old lady again, but I certainly think of her often because she taught me a valuable lesson: Never underestimate your customers’ knowledge. Similar to a first impression, estimators establish what type of customer they’re dealing with within minutes of meeting them. We size them up as either easy- or hard-to-please and treat them based on their knowledge of the repair process.

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Unfortunately, sometimes we base the repairs on these assumptions, and like first impressions, quick assumptions are usually wrong. I assumed a little old lady wouldn’t know anything about an automobile – and boy was I wrong!

This habit is hard to break, but there’s one thing that seems to help. Have you ever said a bad word in the presence of a stranger – only to find out that stranger is a preacher? Makes you feel awful doesn’t it? I did that once, so now I always assume all strangers are preachers. Likewise, I assume everyone who walks through my door is an autobody technician.

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Expect More, Receive More
Another valuable lesson I learned from this lady is how important pre-delivery inspection is. Even your best tech can forget or miss a small detail that results in a dissatisfied customer.

Since that day, I always perform pre-delivery inspections, and the number of come-backs has dropped dramatically. Much like an estimate, the best way to perform an inspection is to take your time. Bring the repair estimate with you and check out every item on it to make sure everything was repaired correctly. To me, there’s nothing more embarrassing than a customer finding something wrong with the repairs before the car leaves the lot. But, if you take the extra time to perform a pre-delivery inspection and a little old lady decides to get down on all fours to inspect your work, you may find it strange – but at least she won’t find a reason to scold you!

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Writer Jerry (Mickey) Noel manages the collision shop at Scott Oldsmobile-Nissan, Inc. in Hopkinsville, Ky.

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