Making the right decision, not the profitable one.

By Chris Dekker

airdrie mechanic

“Don’t tell them about the loose ball joints; we don’t want to lose the brake job.” These were the words from my manager, at an auto repair shop that I worked for years ago. A customer had brought their vehicle in for a brake repair and agreed on a price. Once we brought the vehicle inside, we noticed the lower ball joints were very worn and loose. Besides being a safety hazard, this was also going to be an expensive repair. My manager made the decision to tell the customer about the ball joint issue after we repaired the brakes, for fear that the more expensive estimate “scare the customer off”, or lead them to not fix the vehicle at all. He didn’t want to lose the revenue from the brake repair.

Is this right? Of course not! But you’d be surprised at how often stuff like this happens in our industry.

Before I get too carried away, let’s change gears for a minute. This week, I met with a fellow to discuss some new shop equipment. He marveled at how quickly our business had grown over the last few years. He asked, “How, after only 4 years, are you so much busier than these businesses that have been in Airdrie for over two decades?”

I wasn’t really sure how to answer that question at first. We haven’t really tried to grow this quickly; we just do our best for our customers every day, and it kind of happened on its own. After I thought for a while, though, I was able to pick out what I feel is the principle driver of our growth: our reputation for honesty. We’ve worked very hard for this reputation, and continue to every day. I told the man, “It really comes down to all the little decisions that we make every day; decisions that aren’t always the most profitable for us, but they’re the right thing to do.”

That’s truly what it comes down to. Running our business the way we do costs a lot of money. It means that our profits on a given volume of sales will be lower than competitors, and lower than what is normal in the automotive repair industry. Every day in this industry, you find yourself in situations where you need to choose a path: The path that earns you the most profit, or the ethical path that usually means less profit – and sometimes a loss of money. You’ll be happy to know that we always choose the latter; and put our customers (and our reputation) ahead of any short-term financial gain.


Examples of these situations include:

1.) The “Sell just enough work that we can still get the job” routine:

The aforementioned scenario, where a customer will bring their vehicle in for a repair, and you notice other important issues that (if we were the customer), we’d want to know about first. If the issues are serious, we always stop work immediately and get in touch with the customer before proceeding. Quite often, even if the customer doesn’t want a full inspection, we’ll do a complete check-over on a customer’s vehicle before starting a big job – usually at no charge to them. This helps prevent us from doing a repair on a vehicle that’s not worth fixing, and we’ve actually talked a few folks out of fixing their car because of these inspections.

2) The botched diagnosis:

Even though we’re very good at what we do, we’re also human beings; and we make mistakes. Let’s pretend you bring your car in to diagnose a misfire, and we tell you it needs a fuel pump. You agree to the repair, and we replace the pump. However, we start the vehicle up afterwards and it’s still misfiring! Clearly we got it wrong, and something else is the issue. Let’s say that further testing reveals your problem is actually the spark plugs. This is a much cheaper repair than a new fuel pump. Here are two ways that some automotive businesses often handle this situation: 1) Discovering their mistake, the shop replaces the spark plugs and doesn’t tell the customer. The customer, none the wiser, picks up their smooth running car and believes the fuel pump fixed the issue – even though the correct repair would have been half the cost. 2) The shop calls the customer and tells them that their vehicle is “Better than it was”, or “Has a different problem now” and sells them the spark plug repair as well. They might even go so far as to make up a silly story about how the faulty fuel pump must have “taken out” the spark plugs. The customer pays for both repairs – the ones they did need, and the one they didn’t.

Now here’s how we handle this situation: We usually call up the customer right away, and inform them that we’ve made a mistake. We explain why we thought the fuel pump was the culprit, but that it didn’t fix the problem. We also tell the customer that they aren’t going to pay for that new fuel pump – but they can keep the new part. (Parts like these are usually non-returnable, and we’d lose even more money paying a technician to change the part again, anyway.) We then explain that the actual repair (the new spark plugs) was much cheaper and the customer usually picks up their vehicle feeling pretty happy.

3) The botched diagnosis, part 2:

Take example #2 above, but pretend that instead of needing new spark plugs, we discover the vehicle needs new fuel injectors. Let’s pretend that new fuel injectors cost even more money than a new fuel pump. Maybe the fuel pump replacement was $800, but the injectors would cost $1000; meaning the correct repair actually costs $200 more than we’d originally quoted. Now what? Well, as you may already know, all of our diagnostics are guaranteed. This means that it we told you it’s going to cost $800 to repair your misfire, that’s what it’s going to cost – and this customer just got a free fuel pump, plus a $1000 set of injectors for $800. It’s just the right thing to do.

(Obviously, there are cases where a vehicle does indeed have multiple issues; or one issue must be repaired first before you can tackle another one. This is different. But you can always count on us to own up to our mistakes if we make one, and be honest with you in these situations.)


We always believed that running our business this way would pay off in the long run, and now we’re seeing the payoff that we knew would come. Sure, we aren’t making the money that we could be making, but we’re OK with that. We’re very proud of our outstanding reputation in the community, because we’ve worked very hard – and made a lot of sacrifices – for it.

I’ve mentioned the “making the right decisions” thing before, so hopefully this helps give you a behind-the-scenes look at our management style, and how Tim & I have decided to run our company. We sincerely appreciate you and every one of our customers who support us. We know you have a lot of choices out there, and we don’t take it for granted that you choose us for your automotive needs. We also know that we’re not perfect. There are situations where we’re still learning; where we make mistakes; or where there is a breakdown in communication. We ask that you always bring these situations to our attention, because we really do care about our customers and we might be a lot more eager to “make a bad situation right” than you might expect!

Thank you from everyone at Tools in Motion for letting us help keep you on the road!

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