Sometimes, this job can be heart-rending. When I tell a punter that their car is beyond economical repair, I sometimes feels like a doctor delivering bad news – maybe because they’re emotionally attached to their wheels, or because they simply don’t have the funds to repair or replace it, and being without a car would cause them untold difficulty.
At all times, I try to be sympathetic. I don’t believe in the ‘tough sh**’ approach shown by some other garages, who will turn down work if they believe the repair isn’t economically viable, or want cash on delivery for their work. The latter is, in all fairness, quite reasonable as you can’t run a business without secure income, but I take each case on merit, based on the way the customer is when I give them the bad news.
I’ve just put a 1998 Land Rover Freelander through its MOT at a cost of £800. For that, you could buy a similar vehicle in road-legal condition, but the old dear who owned it was beside herself when I broke the news that her trustworthy old steed not only needed a full exhaust system, but also some fairly major brake repairs, some welding to the rear subframe and a new steering rack.
Her problem was two-fold – she needed her car, as she looked after a number of less fortunate people locally by delivering meals on wheels and doing occasional gardening and cleaning jobs, and she’d also grown quite attached to the old thing.
Initially, I offered to sell her one of my part-ex bargains from stock, with a full MoT, for the £400 it owed me and allow her to pay for it in dribs and drabs (sometimes, you just know when someone has a sense of responsibility and WILL pay you), but she was adamant that the better option was to keep the car she knew and loved.
In the spirit of ‘better the devil you know’, I decided that there was some rationale behind her thinking. The car had served her well, and mechanically it was still in apparently rude health, so I agreed instead to fix it up, keeping the costs as low as possible. I sourced a second-hand rack from eBay, got my old mate ‘Sparky’ to do the welding in exchange for some beer tokens and did the rest of the work between jobs at a small discount from our usual labour rate.
Even so, the bill came to just shy of £800, which was more than her monthly pension. Aware of this, I told her to ignore the 28 days payment terms on the invoice, and to pay me in instalments as and when she could.
She left extremely grateful, having paid over £200 with a promise to come back with some more money for us in a few weeks. A soft touch? Maybe, but this is how I run my business, and there is more sense behind it than some people realise.
A fortnight later, I had an old Mondeo in for a service and MOT. Clearly well maintained under the care of its owner, a chap in his sixties, the car sailed through the test, and when he came in to collect it, the guy paid me £335 – £200 more than the actual bill – as ‘a contribution towards Sandra’s car’.
It turned out that she was a friend of his elderly mother, and under the pretence of looking after her garden, was one of the most valued people in her life for popping round and chatting with her twice a week.
She’d been there at the time of his last visit, and recommended us as the best garage she’d ever used.
A couple of weeks later, I was asked to give a body repair estimate for a four-year-old Ford Focus that had been side- swiped by an errant bin lorry. The owner was the Mondeo owner’s son, and he’d specifically asked his insurance company if he could use our garage to do the work, because he wanted to use a garage he trusted. Quite remarkable, really, as his car had only just come out of main dealer servicing and he’d never brought his custom to us before.
That job more than plugged the gap in the finances that the outstanding balance on the Freelander owed us, and still they keep coming back. Family and friends, friends of friends, all from one customer who is well-known in the community and goes out of her way to tell people nice things about us.
When she came back in last week to settle her final bill, I gave her half the balance back.
‘You can’t buy advertising like that,’ I told her. ‘But in this case, I’m making an exception.’
Look after your customers, folks.
Even if you need to carry a cost upfront, in a trade that has an unfairly unscrupulous reputation, a happy customer is the best source of revenue you could ever wish for…