Car at a shop

One thing I’ve learned over several years of modding cars is that I’ve had a bad experience with nearly every shop that I’ve taken my car to at one point or another. I used to get really upset about this, but after realizing “everyone makes mistakes” I’ve come to accept a certain margin for error. This is really difficult for me to do, given that I consider my car an extension of myself, so I take poor service/work done on my car as a personal insult. However, a car is a complicated thing – with some many inter-dependent systems, the unpredictable nature of aftermarket parts, and shops being crunched for time, mistakes are bound to happen – even by the most scrupulous mechanics or craftsman.

I’ve heard people say that the only person they trust to work on their cars is themselves, and I can see why they feel this way – no one will take as much time and be as obsessive over the details as the owner, especially given that shops have to make a profit so spending hours on seemingly small details is not a viable business model for them (or if it is, it’s not affordable for the consumer to ever get work done there). The problem with the “better off doing the work myself” mentality is that most DIYers break things, lack competence/skills in certain areas, lack special tools that are necessary to install a part properly, or make other costly mistakes that can sometimes be counter productive. While I trust myself to install basic parts, and prefer to install those items that I can, I know when to outsource work to professionals and when not to. There are also times when I am simply too busy to install parts on my own, and I have a shop perform work simply out of convenience.

For many reasons, doing all of the work yourself is not a realistic possibility for most of us – so we must choose shops to perform work for us, and chose wisely. Over time, some of those choices will be bad. Others will be good choices, but we will have an unfortunate experience. This post is about knowing the difference between the two:

The question (for me) is how to distinguish between a bad shop, and a good shop that you had a bad experience at?

Several years ago, when I was fairly new to modding cars, one bad experience was all it took for me to swear off the shop for good. I would become irate, vow to never visit them again, often voice my dissatisfaction to the shop’s owner, and then find a new place to go to. This model was fairly sustainable living in a big city, although history kept repeating itself – shops would fall below expectations, and I’d keep having to find new places to try. Eventually, I’ve found places that do consistently good work, and treat me as a valued customer. I’ve learned even those shops make mistakes from time to time, and in turn I have learned how to be forgiving.

Now that I’m somewhat wiser/more experienced dealing with issues, here is the criteria I use to decide whether to return my business to a shop that made a mistake:

Do they admit their mistakes?

As noted before, every shop screws up one time or another – it’s part of the business. The shops that insist they did nothing wrong, blaming someone else (the part manufacturer, the customer, etc.), are the ones that do not get a second chance in my book. Admit your mistakes, tell me how you plan to fix them (or why they weren’t avoidable), and be honest with me. Nothing is more insulting than being lied to, and I just want to know what’s going on with my car – I’m less interested in playing the blame game and more interested in fixing any issues.

Do they fix the problem and make good on their word?

Do they offer to fix the problem (e.g. incidental damage that occurred while installing something)? Do they offer a discount or other service to “make it right” after a problem has occured? A shop that is willing to not only admit they screwed up, but do everything they can to make it right and earn my business is one that deserves a second chance. Those that leave me with a bad taste in my mouth and do nothing to correct that image are very unlikely to see me again.

Do they usually provide good customer service to me (or others)?

If I’ve visited this place before – was my experience an exception to the rule, or commonplace at the shop in question? Does the shop have negative reviews on forums, yelp, etc.? If I can determine if my bad experience was atypical, I might be willing to give the shop another chance. If bad experiences happen fairly routinely, it’s clear something at the shop is not right (lack of QA, lack of care, lack of knowledge, etc.) and I should take my business elsewhere.

Do the employees care?

Taking my car to a shop involves a good deal of trust – are the people working on my car going to treat it as if it were their own? Do they care about me, and my car? After a bad experience, it’s usually pretty easy to tell if a shop feels bad about it – does the owner express concern? Do they go the extra mile to make it right? Do they follow-up afterwards to make sure all of my concerns were addressed? Do they even bother to solicit feedback? A genuine & sincere display from a shop that my business (and car) matters to them is important.

I’ll visit/patronize shops simply because I like the employees – I see them as “good guys” (or gals) that care about cars. While this may sound silly, I want to know that my car is being worked on by people who understand what it’s like to be a “car guy” and understand my level of expectations and attention to detail.

Was the mistake an honest one, or a display of complete negligence/incompetence?

Last but certainly not least, the severity of the issue/problem is certainly important. While mistakes are inevitable, and how bad was the mistake? Could it have been easily prevented? Some parts/items are brittle and break easily, and thus the mistake is fairly common or inevitable and therefore pretty easy to forgive. Other mistakes/problems are more severe, and may have came from a complete lack of care or level of incompetence. Every situation is different, so I try to understand what went wrong, why it went wrong, and if this mistake was easily avoidable or not.

A recent example of what not to do…

Chipped paint

Perhaps my most frustrating experience came recently from a detailing shop in North Scottsdale. When I had my car detailed there, some paint got chipped off during the process – likely from the use of a buffer, although I’ll never know. This kind of mistake happens, and wasn’t the “kiss of death” to me – the lack of concern/care from the owner and employees is what made the experience truly appalling.

Rather than telling me that damage occurred, the shop tried to cover it up by using touch-up paint. I noticed and asked the shop about it, and they accused me of slander (rather than admitting the problem) initially, but later came back and admitted that yes, they touched up the paint, but no they didn’t cause the damage (despite the damage not being identified during the pre-detail inspection which is suppose to identify any pre-existing damage). While clearly upset at this point, the proverbial “kiss of death” was the attitude of the shop owner and his associates. The owner told me he did not feel they did anything wrong by applying touch-up paint and not telling me about the damage nor the paint they applied, indicating it was “standard procedure” and that they only tell customers about touch-up paint if the damage “was a big deal” – clearly, by how much I was upset, it was a big deal to me, something they didn’t seem to notice nor care about. Not only did they not admit a mistake, they blamed me for it, alleging I’m too OCD about my car and that a normal customer wouldn’t care – yes, this coming from a detailing shop! They were unwilling to apologize nor do anything to make it right, noting how long they’d been in business and how many happy customers they’ve had as a reason for why the problem was me, rather than them.

Had this shop simply admitted a mistake, taken responsibility for it, and offered to make the situation right, I would still return my business there. It’s the actions that happen after the damage/issues have occurred that influence my decision to return or not, and this particular detailing shop handled every step of it wrong.

A more positive example…

I had another shop that made a mistake installing suspension components. While installing coilovers, they over-tightened a bolt which caused the steering knuckle to crack – an easy mistake to make, as these knuckles are very soft and easy to over-torque. They admitted the mistake, replaced both broken steering knuckles, and gave me a discount on my next visit. They had me come back to fix everything, and the shop’s owner personally apologized and fixed the car for me, and he expressed genuine concern over the issue. This is a shop that I’ll continue to give my business to and advocate on behalf of, as I think how a shop acts after a mistake is one of the best ways to tell the integrity of the people & work they do. Furthermore, they seemed even more upset about than the mistake than I was, which demonstrated they care about their work and aim to please 100% of the time.

What do you think?

Do shops get a second chance to work on your car after an initial mistake? Do you confront them about mistakes? What are some good/bad experiences you’ve had after a shop made a mistake with your car, and did you forgive them? Do you post negative reviews online, or do you simply voice your bad experience to the owners and leave it alone?

I’d love to hear your thoughts…