Ask a stupid question...

James Dillon plays teacher in this month's Technical Topics case study

Published:  04 December, 2012

After all these years, I still find customers' attitudes to diagnosis and repair amazing. Fair enough, it's not the customer's job to understand the finer points of automotive engineering but still - many customers seem to lose access to their common sense and become extremely selfish when their car develops a problem. I find humour can often temper the situation and help put the customer in a more realistic frame of mind. Being what the Americans call an 'Educator', I also take a bit of time trying to provide information to the customer in an attempt to educate them in the ways of diagnosis and repair.

The common questions which 'get me' every time are:




And my all-time favourite:



I've picked just a few of the common situations and questions to highlight the situation. Please be assured that these replies to customer's questions aren't aimed at being flippant or disrespectful, they are meant to be thought-provoking. Some of them may appear as a dumb answer to a dumb question and perhaps they are. The following case highlights several of these points mentioned above, even though the job came via a trade customer, there is a retail customer involved further down the chain. My trade customer approaches problems by 'doing a quick scan'. The customer gets what they want but importantly, not what they need. From the customer's perspective, my trade customer delivers a bad experience, even though they are trying to do a good job, and they have a bad view of the garage.

Real-life example

Figure 1

The following day I got a phone call - "have you looked at it yet?"  I reminded the customer of their 'no hurry' statement and that this was the condition on which I'd agreed to look at the car. "But I've had the customer on the phone," was the retort.  I agreed to look at the car the following afternoon for an initial examination. Lunchtime the following day, the customer was back on the phone again, "Any news?"  "Yup, the crisis in Syria is deepening." I replied. Silence on the phone.

Their initial lack of a structured diagnostic approach had resulted in the car owner already having been without his car for some time. They were under pressure from the customer to get the car back quickly and were attempting to pass this pressure onto me. I realigned my customer's expectation with reality and told them to prepare their customer to be without the car for several days, or they could take it away now and throw some more parts at the problem. They agreed to leave it and take the phone flak.

Intermittent fault

Intermittent faults are often problematic due to the fact that the vehicle runs faultlessly 99% of the time and if there is no symptom, it is nearly impossible to find the cause. You have to be lucky or tenacious, or both, to get to the bottom of this type of problem. It took several sessions running the vehicle on short journeys to even experience the fault. The vehicle appeared to surge then stall for about two seconds, once in a while, mainly during the warm-up phase. Of course, there wouldn't be any fault codes stored for such an intermittent fault.

Figure 3

Figure 4

On a vehicle of a vintage such as this one, the most cost-effective solution is either a repair or a second-hand ECU. These are risky courses of action, as the condition and performance of the replacement unit or repair cannot be guaranteed. Forewarning the customer, and confirming understanding of this fact, prevents comebacks (on further time delays or failure to fix).  The trade customer supplied the replacement unit and I coded it to suit the vehicle immobiliser. Diagnosis done, part identified, replaced and coded, problem fixed and, it took as exactly as long as it took.

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