Words of Wisdom - December - 2016

Nothing’s More Important Than Listening

A few weeks ago, I was in Las Vegas for the 2016 Expo. It was a wonderful experience and, even after all these years in the transmission repair business, I can honestly say I learned a lot.

One of the most often repeated concepts for helping to shape the future of our industry was the need for us long-timers to share what we’ve learned over the years with the younger folks; “mentoring” was the catchphrase for this year. And to be honest, it’s something I’m only too happy to do, as long as someone is willing to pay attention.

I started working in the transmission business back in 1963, so I think that qualifies me as a long-timer. And if there’s just one thing I can share with the younger generations entering this business, it’s the importance of learning to listen.

I started out doing the traditional entry-level work: sweeping floors, emptying the trash, washing parts, and, eventually moving up into R&R and teardown. Later I went to tech school in Los Angeles and, when I graduated, I got my first real job as a transmission mechanic in a high-end transmission shop.

I’d only been working there for about three weeks when a customer came in with his 1958 Cadillac. The boss asked me to drive the customer to work and see if I could identify the problem.

The customer — a lawyer with absolutely no training in auto repair — told me several times that he thought it was the governor; or, as he put it, “the govern part of the transmission.” Yeah, right; like he had a clue!

I brought the car back to the shop and got ready to pull the transmission, all the while regaling the other mechanics with stories about the customer who thought he knew what was wrong with his car. Heck, he didn’t even know what the part was called!

The shop owner heard me and called me into his office. He said, “I hired you because I thought you wanted to learn to be a good mechanic.” I assured him I did.

“Then the first thing you need to learn is the importance of listening to the customer,” he said. “They may not know how to fix them, but they know their cars and are more likely to notice when something isn’t right. Listen well, ask questions, and you’ll be way ahead of anyone else in this business.” Then he sent me back to work on the car.

I was just starting to pull the transmission out, but what the boss said got me thinking: The governor was right there. Why not check it first? I removed the governor and — wouldn’t you know it? — a washer was seized up. I replaced the governor, changed the fluid and filter, and took the car for a test drive. The transmission shifted like new.

The boss asked me to deliver the car to the customer and the customer asked me what I’d found. I told him it was the governor, just as he’d suspected. He smiled and thanked me for my work. And over the years he became my most loyal customer: Whatever he needed — even if it wasn’t something I normally worked on — he’d ask me to handle it and supervise the repairs.

In retrospect, it’s not so surprising that customers would want us to listen to them. It’s what any of us would want when we have a problem. If nothing else, it shows respect for the customer: It proves that they’re important to you… that you value their needs.

And, as my old boss pointed out, no one has more experience with their cars than the customers themselves. They’ve been driving those cars for three… four… five years or more. Maybe they don’t know what’s wrong, but they’re sure to notice when something feels or sounds a little different.

Even if they’re completely wrong, their concerns are important to them, which means they should be important to you. That often means just being able to explain why the repairs you did over here corrected a noise that they thought was coming from over there.

There are a lot of things you need to learn to be good at fixing today’s cars. The folks at ATRA spent hours at Expo delivering just a small part of that education a couple weeks ago. But if you really want to be the best, you have to learn to listen — really listen — to your customers.

Do you have a tip you’d like to share with the rest of the industry? Something you’ve learned over the years that some of the younger crowd could benefit from? GEARS wants to hear from you!

Send us your idea or give us a call and let us know what you’d like to share. We’ll evaluate your thoughts and turn them into a message that everyone can benefit from.

Don’t worry if you aren’t comfortable writing: We’ll handle getting your ideas down on paper and publishing them. Just give us something that you’ve used to help grow and operate your shop, and we’ll do the rest.

This is your chance to help mentor the entire industry. Share your thoughts and let’s help improve everyone’s future.

Email your tops and ideas to: rbland@gearsmagazine.com or call (805) 604-2012.