Communication and Rapport


There are a lot of things our cars can do to communicate their problems to the driver. One way is by burning too much gas or bucking and jerking. They can fail to start or start hard. They can overheat or have less than normal power. They can make odd noises. They can turn on warning indicators of various colors and shapes to warn us of issues we might not notice otherwise. They can create weird sensations, either through the steering wheel, the seats, or whatever. And when we take our vehicle in for service, we have to use our human ability to communicate to the service advisor who’s writing the ticket. He or she needs to know what our cars have communicated to us.

That sometimes weary, stressed, and overworked individual (remember, he listens to peoples’ problems all day and gets shouted down a lot when things go sour) has to use very few words to accurately outline the concern as the customer describes it, and like the rest of us, sometimes the service writer either doesn’t listen well enough or isn’t told everything the technician needs to know about the concern. Some customers don’t want to even describe their concern because, well, communication takes energy and effort. One girl who drove a company vehicle when I was doing fleet maintenance 30 years ago would call me when her car gave some kind of trouble and simply say, “Richard…. MY CAR!!!”

This kind of driver just wants to throw their keys at the service advisor and have their car fixed while they do very little to explain what’s wrong. Unless the problem with their vehicle is painfully obvious, that non-communicative way of doing things just doesn’t work.

Well, after the work order (or repair order, if you wish to call it that) is written, it becomes a part of the shop’s paper trail and a dispatcher hands it to a technician who will read the description of the concern and launch his or her investigation. If things go the way they should, the customer will be satisfied. When he or she isn’t satisfied, well, in a large percentage of those cases, a breakdown in human communication is the problem.

This vehicle just a machine, right? In the eyes of the service writer, a technician should be able to make a diagnosis, then promise that that the $320 worth of parts and labor will fix the customer’s problem and that nothing else will be needed. If the service writer can extract that kind of promise from the technician, he or she feels really good in making that same promise to the customer and comes off looking like a hero – unless the promise happens not to be kept. No tech with any experience will make that promise – the words, “Verify Repair” are at the end of every repair routine where troubleshooting has to be done.

Well, that’s communication, you see – when things work the way they should, the customer has described his or her concern to the best of his/her ability, and knows which questions to ask for clarification. Then the service writer has either typed or written a work order that communicates to the technician what the customer wants repaired – with a note to see the service advisor for clarity if there isn’t room on the repair order line to tell the whole story. The service writer/advisor has received communication from the customer, properly creating the work order, and then the technician is supposed to use his/her ability to read and comprehend and has applied knowledge and experience to determine as nearly as possible what has to be done. Then the technician has to test drive the car to make sure the problem is completely fixed.

Even after the authorization has been given, there’s that annoying part of any repair that tends to sour the service advisor’s stomach. When the “Verify the Repair” stage of the job comes to pass, sometimes more work is needed, even when a good technician makes the most accurate diagnosis possible.

Case in point: Following factory training procedures, I once confirmed that the ignition module was faulty on a high mileage Renault Alliance by pressing on the potting material on the back of the module near its wire connector – the engine stalled. The Renault instructor had taught us this as a reliable test for a vehicle with a stalls-while-driving concern. \

I communicated this information to the service advisor – he didn’t communicate it to the customer, he only told the man that the module needed replacing. That was enough to obtain authorization for the repair, and I replaced the module, then test drove the car. It didn’t stall on that test drive. A week later the car stalled again and the guy came back.

That time I found a bad crank sensor, but it was far more difficult to get the crank sensor to fail – I had to drive a LONG time with my equipment connected before the sensor stopped working. The customer was totally convinced that he didn’t need the first part, and no amount of communication at this point would un-convince him. Ideally, I would have been able to demonstrate the test procedure I used the first time I checked the car. That would have been perfect communication because he would have seen the problem for himself. As it was, things went kind of sour.

Granted, there are times when the technician simply misdiagnoses the problem, and those are the times that seem to stand out, but misdiagnosis, while it is more prevalent in some shops than others, isn’t the case every time – and the situation is compounded when customers and service writers think they know more than they actually do. In those cases, it doesn’t matter what the truth is, it just matters that they’re ticked off.

Then there are the land mines that come from communication that is deliberately withheld. For example, I know of a man who bought his vehicle AS IS from a used car lot and then found out after his first oil change that the engine was loaded with thick, gooey ‘motor honey’ to keep the engine from knocking. A simple oil change uncovered a problem that necessitated a massive repair.

Incidentally, one piece of communication that should make any buyer shy away from purchasing a used vehicle from an individual is when the seller says, “I’m not a mechanic…” That typically means the the seller knows the vehicle has a hidden problem but wants plausible deniability when things go south, which they usually do.

There are also those times when one repair leads to another repair that was unrelated, and the mechanic has to communicate to the customer why the work he or she did couldn’t have caused the second problem.

Case in point. My dad put brakes on my sister’s car. As soon as she backed the car out of his shop, her radio wouldn’t work. She replaced the fuse and it blew as soon as she plugged it in. She was convinced that my dad had destroyed her radio while he was replacing the brake pads until I found the problem – a shorted capacitor inside the radio was blowing the fuses. Replacing the brakes had nothing to do with the radio even though the radio was working just fine right before the brakes were replaced. The best way I could communicate that to my sister was to fix her silly radio for free.

Having worked as a technician in shops of various sizes, rubbing shoulders with service advisors, service managers, shop foremen, parts guys, and even customers was the order of my day for twenty five years, and no two days were alike. Service advisor/writers could really put some strange stuff in the work order description. Sometimes the communication failure was painfully evident. I don’t remember which service advisor wrote it, but I remember a fellow tech drawing one work order that read this way:

“Windshield won’t separate rain from water.”

I’m not kidding! What the heck is a technician (or anybody else) supposed to do with communication like that?

Here’s another one:

“Engine won’t start unless left hand turn signal is activated.”

That was on a repair line with three other repair lines under it showing various additional concerns. I slid behind the wheel and found it exactly as he had said. Interesting problem, I thought. So I spent 30 minutes on that to find out that the van had been re-wired to work that way. When I asked the service writer about it he nonchalantly told me that he only put that on the order so I’d know how to start the van. That was a goofy thing to write on a repair line, making me think it was something that needed fixing – he could have attached a sticky note or something, for Pete’s sake!

When the work is done, particularly if it’s a warranty claim, the technician has to be able to clearly communicate why he or she did the work that was done so that the warranty auditors won’t be able to use the technician’s description of the work for a reason to charge the repair back to the service department. And the work order has to be written truthfully, accurately, and in such a way so it is easy to understand.

One of the most important aspects of communication is to always tell the truth. When a question has arisen about something I did or didn’t do in a shop situation, the management always took me at my word because of my track record of telling the truth. Always remember that. The truth needs to be your friend and ally rather than your enemy. I always say that if everybody always did what they were supposed to and didn’t do what they weren’t supposed to there would be no temptation to lie. That being said, a loud and angry supervisor may find himself left out of the loop sometimes simply because the technician doesn’t want to be shouted down.

I was pulling the rear seat out of a nearly new Lincoln one time and I guess I was kind of clumsy that day, because I managed to scratch the paint behind the passenger side rear door – I immediately fetched the service manager and had him bring the customer to the service area. That silver-haired old banker just smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it – If I decide I can’t live with it, I’ll bring it back and have you guys fix it.” Honesty is the best policy, you see, and it’s a lot easier when your service manager isn’t a jerk. But even when he IS a jerk, honesty is still the best policy.

Case in point: Once back in 1995 I had to do some work on a factory installed cell phone in a Crown Victoria, and about a week later, the service manager called me into his office, claiming I had made a personal call on the customer’s phone. I told him the only call I had made on that man’s phone was to Ford – a necessary call as a part of the repair. He said the phone had been used to call a number right there in town, and I asked him to show me the bill.

“See the timestamp on that call?” The service manager looked where I was pointing at the call he had highlighted.

“That’s eight thirty…” he mused.

“Where was I at eight thirty?” I asked.

“That call was made by the salesman when he was delivering the car back to the customer!” He almost shouted.

“No duh,” I replied, and left his office, not waiting for the apology I knew wasn’t coming.

Then there’s LATE communication that comes from NO initial communication. One day I couldn’t find my favorite 3/8 ratchet. Two weeks later I still couldn’t find it. Finally I bought a new one ($54) off the tool truck and etched my name on the handle. Later that afternoon, my service writer came from his desk bringing my missing ratchet – said he had borrowed it several days earlier to do a simple recall in the write-up area and had covered it with some papers, then forgot he had it.

Communication with customers is extremely important. A technician needs to be able to concisely explain WHY a repair is needed. After the customer is done talking to you, that customer should have confidence in what you know and what you do.

If the customer has no confidence in you, (and that confidence always has to be earned over time) then your employer will have less confidence in you as well. Get credentials. Display them appropriately. Communicate professionally.

And just because you think you know more than other people about some things, well, that doesn’t give you a license to be an arrogant jerk or a ripoff artist. Ever met a mechanic who was an arrogant jerk? He’s insecure and immature. My personal axiom is that it is NOT possible to be both rude and mature at the same time.

At the shop where I worked the longest, the general manager discovered that I could generally calm a customer down even when nobody else could.

Sometimes saying the right words at the right time will do the trick. In those cases, less is more. Example: Customer brings his truck to our shop because the engine hunts and surges when he’s taking off… This one has a stick shift, not an automatic. The technician who worked on it found the problem and corrected it, but the porter who brought the vehicle around wasn’t too good at driving a stick and so it looked to the customer like the truck wasn’t fixed when in reality it was.

The service writers tried to explain the situation but he only shouted them down. He had paid his bill and his truck was “jus’ like it wuz,” so to speak. So I heard my name over the loudspeakers calling me to the writeup area even though I wasn’t the one who did the work.

“Can you talk to this guy? He’s pretty furious and we can’t get him to calm down.”

“Sure,” I said, moving to where the customer was standing with folded arms and an icy glare.

“Let’s take a test drive,” I told him. We settled into the seats of his truck with me behind the wheel and I eased out of the parking lot onto the bypass and then down into the Wiregrass Commons Mall access circle. He ranted while I drove. The truck always accelerated smoothly, every time I took off. I let him rant and rave until he had pretty much spent his emotional energy before I interjected a comment.

“Ya know, I sent a VCR to North American Phillips in Atlanta to have it repaired awhile back, and when I got it back it was still giving the same problem…” He banged a fist on his knee..

“YEAH! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Ain’t it a pain?” He raved on for another thirty seconds and then calmed down, convinced that I had walked in his shoes at least once. He noticed as I accelerated from a standing stop two or three more times.

“I guess it’s doing better than it was. I guess I’ll just drive it for awhile and see how it does.”

I smiled and nodded, turning off the access road on my way back to the dealership. He drove away satisfied.

For any workplace to operate efficiently, the various players have to communicate accurately. When communication breaks down, the job breaks down. That’s why they stopped building the Tower of Babel, but that’s another story.

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