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Are You Leaving Customers With A Bad Taste In Their Mouths?

When things go wrong — even if it is out of our control — it is up to us to make them right.

We dropped off the Clifford family minivan at our local Honda dealership late last May. There were myriad issues that my wife had reported, including clunking, wheezing, and, most notably, an absence of air conditioning during the beginning of a rather hot and humid Virginia summer. Domestic harmony would not be restored until the Odyssey was put in good working order.

Car Repair - Customer Service
It does not look good… Photo: Getty Images.

I explained all of the issues as best I could to the good folks at West Broad Honda (names have been changed or kept the same to protect no one). I gestured wildly, waved my arms around, and did my best sound effects to mimic actual field conditions of the mechanical SNAFUs. They nodded. I left hoping for the best.

I received a call later that day informing me the vehicle needed a new transmission. It struck me as odd that a 2018 Japanese vehicle with less than 100,000 miles would need a new transmission, but I indulged the service writer and heard him out. “How much?” I asked. “$7000,” he replied. I couldn’t fathom how this wouldn’t be covered under warranty. They pushed back and assured me the vehicle was 3000 miles outside the coverage period and “rules were rules.” I pushed back a bit and let them know I didn’t quite agree with their perspective and would appreciate them going to bat for me with the manufacturer. They told me to call Honda myself. I then asked them, if they were indeed an authorized dealer and manufacturer’s representative, might it make more sense for them to connect and cut through the red tape on my behalf? After several tennis volleys with the service writer, I ended up connected with the service manager, a really nice, matter-of-fact gentleman named Brett.

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Brett explained, much as one of our own technicians might explain, clinically, the ins and outs of the repair. I love tech, so I appreciated Brett’s style. No nonsense, just the facts. I asked Brett to stay involved in our project and see it through. He agreed, somewhat reluctantly, and I let him know that we’d be away for the next month or so, giving them plenty of time to fix the car. Brett seemed to indicate that would be plenty of time. “Good,” I said. “For the sake of my marriage, thanks in advance for having the car fixed before we return.”

So, we left on a family vacation and had a great time. I decided to check in with Brett the week before we returned to check on progress. The news wasn’t so great. Apparently one of the products we needed was backordered. I decided to break this news gently to my wife, who was not amused. I then instructed Brett and his team to get the car fixed ASAP and let my wife know when the work was 100 percent. They agreed.

We returned from our vacation and my son and I left for Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico 12 hours later. The Honda dealership started hounding my wife to come pick up the car and pay for the work completed. One of my favorite use-cases-of-rage involves people messing with my wife while I’m out of town. This was a prime candidate. She began texting me, asking me to sort it out. I had to contact the Honda folks again to remind them that we would only pick up the car once work was 100 percent and we weren’t going to pay anything more until that time. The sooner they completed the work, the sooner we’d be in to pick up the vehicle and we could all move on with our lives.

The Honda folks decided to keep calling my wife and asking her to pick up a half-completed vehicle with no working AC on a 97-degree day. Clearly we had reached the “absurd” stage of the program. Needless to say, we did no such thing and reiterated the simple message we’d previously communicated around picking up the car when the work was completely finished.

I returned from Philmont last week to find the car was finally ready the day I got back. I called in and spoke to Brett for a final confirmation that everything was indeed complete. He assured me that it was.

My mother-in-law drove us over to the Honda service center where we began the arduous march of picking up the car. I walked in and asked to speak with Brett. The service writer disappeared into the back and Brett appeared a few minutes later. He appeared confused as to why I wanted to speak with him. “I wasn’t really involved with your job,” he said. I politely jogged his memory and his eyes began to register who I was and the history we shared.

I asked Brett to walk me through the bill. The document ran 15 pages long with a lot of Byzantine nomenclature almost designed to confuse. I assured Brett once I understood the bill, I’d be happy to pay. He stared at the bill. He looked at me. He furrowed his brow. It was clear Brett was having trouble deciphering his own reports. He finally figured out which end was up and stepped me through the detail, which resulted in him figuring out there were some improperly applied charges that he pledged to remove from the final balance.

Also by Henry Clifford: A Tale of Two Warranties

Once we’d reached a final understanding, I asked Brett to step back and take into account the entire process, beginning to end. I told him we both probably agreed that things could go differently next time and that, in my business, when there’s a situation like this, we usually do something to make it right with the client. “What did you have in mind?” asked Brett. “That’s up to you,” I said. “It’s not as much about the money as it is a demonstration that our business matters and you want us as repeat customers.”

Brett then thought a minute before partnering with the service writer to issue us a discount. Brett mentioned that he would do 10–15 percent off the bill. Our total was around $4000, so that seemed more than fair. I thanked him and then he tried to apply the discount. Brett and his service writer then fumbled with their computer systems for the next 30 minutes while I stood by with my children. We were rapidly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

After 30 minutes, Brett showed me the final total while meandering through an explanation of how the discounts were applied and the capability (and incapability) of their billing system. Brett’s post-fumble number was only $100 less than the original total. After being psychologically primed for 10–15 percent, that didn’t sit well. I asked Brett about it. “I thought the money wasn’t important,” he said. That also didn’t sit well. Here I was, promised something, which I attempted to anchor back to, only to find it weaponized against me.

I decided enough was enough. I paid the revised total and left. I could tell Brett didn’t feel good about the situation. I got in the car and drove home, deciding to fight another day.

I emailed the general manager of the dealership the next day with a fairly detailed account of my experience, figuring he would appreciate the candor and coaching opportunities. A few days went by with no reply. I followed back up, this time copying in the CEO of the entire auto group. We stayed in limbo until I sent them a copy of this article. That elicited the following response:

Mr. Clifford,

I have been well informed of everything that has transpired since your visit, and I am under the belief that we went above and beyond to assist in your situation. I also believe that Brett did everything possible to help you with this matter and that nothing further could be done on my end. We strive to be perfect and deliver the highest level of customer service every day and while that is our aim with every customer, I do understand that not every customer will feel completely satisfied, and for that I apologize.

We will use your input to educate our team on how to best take of our customers who do have a choice of where they service their vehicles. That being said, it is your right to express your opinion on your visit anyway that you feel you need to, but the threat of a bad review does not progress this situation in a positive manner. We use these experiences to learn and grow and we try not to dwell on the negative.

Thanks for your time,
General Manager

This entire experience screamed at me as a perfect analog to our long-term jobs at my CI business, Livewire. We have all the same issues. Backorders, frustrated clients, and blown deadlines. I’d like to think we handle these situations differently. Our own approach is usually wrapped in empathy and begins with that all important phrase, “I’m sorry.”

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My Honda experience is a nice reminder of how important empathy and emotional intelligence are to our business. If we’re not treating our clients the way we want to be treated, we’re going to leave them with a bad taste in their mouths. They’ll never do business with us again and will tell, on average, nine people about their experience in gory detail.

What are you doing to avoid leaving a bad taste in the mouths of your clients?

Stay frosty, and see you in the field.