Project Management

Don't let car problems bring your consulting business to a halt

A road warrior IT consultant recommends applying the same troubleshooting skills to your car emergency that you would employ when confronting a downed server.

I recently dealt with one of the worst calamities that can befall a road warrior consultant: My 1998 Toyota Camry died in Tuxedo, NY. I didn't have a plan in place for such a business disaster, and some of the hasty decisions I made while sorting things out were horrible. I was, however, convinced that I would get through the awful event, and of course I did. I'm sharing the lessons I learned from this nightmare.

Draw on your troubleshooting skills

The emotive impact of a car disaster is horrendous. If you cannot drive to clients, you cannot do work, get paid, keep creditors in line, etc. The future seems to be reduced to asking your customer if they want fries with their order is suddenly very real, provided you can even get to the fast food place at all! I had a real sense of failure, and it clouded my judgment at times. Don't let that happen to you.

When car problems bring your business to a grinding halt, you should apply the same troubleshooting skills that you would employ when confronting a downed server. Break the problem into parts and solve one issue at a time. That is the only practical way the mind can operate in stressful situations.

Be honest with your clients

Whether your car is dead or will require a longish stay in the repair shop, let your clients know of your travel difficulties immediately, and the ones you were set to visit tomorrow morning come first. Some clients will understand (they may even help); the clients who don't understand are probably ones you shouldn't care about very much.

Figure out your temporary transportation

We don't have an extra vehicle for use in emergencies (I know a family that had five Volkswagen Bugs parked in their yard), so sharing my wife's car and taking public transport were temporary solutions. Now, sharing a car with your significant other is a burden, too. I made it clear to my wife that I was using her car and that she had primary rights to it at all times.

Public transportation is a good option as long as you can use it with minimum discomfort to clients. Be sure to check online for bus and train schedules, or you might consider whether walking, biking, or taking a taxi are good options for you.

You have to hope that you've done a good job with your clients so that emergency calls do not wreck your schedule. Some clients will get mad, and you have to accept that as best as you can.

Prioritize quick paying customers

Since you'll be in need of money, you should prioritize the customers who pay their invoices on time. (In Business Continuity, the first department a company should get up and running after a disaster is Accounts Receivable).

Ask other consultants for help

My recent car situation was somewhat similar to a seven-day hospital stay I had back in May 2010 when my business turned itself off. When I was hospital bound, I used a co-consultant to do emergency work for me and such a relationship can save your business and client relationships. Do not be afraid to share your clients with a trusted consultant. He or she may even drive you around a bit, and the company can be invaluable. (Related: Five contingency planning tips for independent consultants.)

Plan ahead before disaster strikes

I drove my Camry into the ground, and before the engine fell apart, I had just shelled out $800 for repairs -- that money that is non-recoverable. Then, the process of selling the wreck was wrenching to the extreme. One night I went to bed early, following the wise axiom "I shall lay down for a while to bleed, and rise to fight again on another day."

Car shopping in a rush is a horror, and this path to a replacement car took me to some dark and frightening places. I recommend that you periodically look at and price cars (there is nothing at all wrong with Certified Used Cars or an inspected used car), so you can possibly start putting aside money in an emergency fund and so you'll have an idea of what's available in case you do have to make a quick car buying decision.

The first law of being a road warrior is to keep your vehicle in good working order. If you hear a knock, sense a change in sound, feel something different when driving around town, get your car looked at by a reputable and trustworthy mechanic before you head off on that long drive to see a client. Your vehicle may not break down today, but it could collapse tomorrow.

22 comments
mjd420nova
mjd420nova

Used cars can be a real problem solver and a quick OUT when your present wheels fall off. A smart buyer won't rush in unless something looks promising. A good example was a 94 Taurus I bought in 2004. The biggest clue was only 30,000 miles on the dial, after ten years. It started fine, ran great but after a good warmup, the plastic radiator opened a crack and sprayed coolant on the serpentine belt, making a hellish squeeeel. A VIN check showed it was a Hertz rentacar from 94 to 98 and had 18,000 when sold from the fleet. The first buyer drove it for three years and parked it when it blew the radiator. It was left for a small dealership to sell when the owner went to Mexico and never came back and I got it for $1,500. I've put 100,000 miles on it in eight years and it has had your normal problems as a result of it being used like a taxicab. No major events but it is now in need of catalytic converters(three) or a trip to the local parts provider and a replacement found. Even some simple maintenence can go a long way to getting high mileage out of any vehicle.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I have had to rent a car to get to my non consulting computer job, when I had transmission and engine rebuilds. Many garages have arrangements with car rental places for less expensive rates. You should be able to write off the expense.

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

Where I live, I can't give "My car won't start" as an excuse. They would wonder why I didn't just take the bus or jeepney ( I live in The Philippines ). However an acceptable, universal excuse is "traffic", "flood" or "transport strike".

allennugent
allennugent like.author.displayName 1 Like

Sorry for tipic creep, but most Toyota's will last forever if properly maintained. Just think of the car as a computer... and spend the money. You wouldn't skimp on HDD, RAM, or O/S upgrades if you needed them, would you? I built and maintain my own PC, and I do as much work as I reasonably can on my own car. What I hate is when something needs to be diagnosed and fixed, and my choices are trying to do it myself after hours or taking it to a pro: the former carries the risk of being off the road longer, while the latter will cost a lot more. The pressure is much worse when there are no public transport options to get to the client, of course. Just take the car to a good mechanic twice per year, and don't skimp on the important stuff.

mfc133
mfc133

There are definitely cars that are more reliable than others (the Toyota Camry he mentions being a perfect example). But inevitably, parts fail on old/high mileage cars even if they are properly maintained. Components such as starters, alternators, engine gaskets, etc. you don't really know they're going bad until they go...which could be on the way to somewhere important. It doesn't make financial sense to replace everything under the hood proactively (if there was nothing wrong with your car but your mechanic wanted to replace the head gasket 'just in case' you'd walk out). The whole thing with used cars is you drive them as long as you can and you hope the big ticket items don't fail.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Many years ago when I worked for a Car Dealer they had a New Model with 2,500 Modifications to it before they actually saw one on the floor. Lots of little things like Servos in the Auto needed Tweaking and many other things needed Tweaking during predelivery and Routine Services. That's why it's always a good idea to go with the Dealer Service which costs more but gets the Mods Installed unlike the Third Party Service Agents who can only service the car and not replace what is needed according to the maker. Col

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Of an Apprentice who went to College for an Ignition Course. When I asked what he knew about Kettering Ignitions he just said we only did Points Coil not any of that Fancy stuff that you play with. :D Today well 25 years ago now they didn't even teach the Mechanics coming through the names of things, I'm not sure just how well trained the new guys are who could have had 15 years experience easily since that time. But back then there was only one other guy there who knew what I was talking about and he was the Resident Old Guy who should have retired years ago according to the others. While there are quite a few After Market parts that work better than Original we still have the problem of Car Companies trying to save every fraction of a cent on parts that they use in cars that they build so we don't get the Best Possible car just what is cheap enough for the maker to actually use. Then there is the Government Mandated Crap that they bolt onto newer cars which is a nightmare to deal with and even worse to keep actually working. Though these days looking at Modern Engines I really have to question how well they are built and the quality of the materials used in them. Col

JamesRL
JamesRL

I once had my car in for service at an independant. The cause of the problem was a valve cover gasket. The original part (OEM Chrysler) was an oiled paper gasket. The third party replacement was a foam gasket with steel mesh and plastic on the outer layers. The cost for the third party gasket? $5 retail. Around here if you find the right mechanic, most of the good ones have worked in dealerships and received some training from the manufacturers. They may not be up to speed with the latest and greatest, but they are generally more experienced, and that can make up for it. I generally recommend servicing a car at a dealership until the warranty runs out, because if you do have a warranty claim, the dealership's service department may go to bat for you if you have done all your routine maintenance there. After the warranty runs out, you are often better off with an independant. I've had independants buy parts from dealers and still charge me less for them than the dealership would.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Now if it was a Hilux diesel, he could have dropped it off the top of a building, set it on fire, drowned it in the ocean, drove it into a tree, and it would still be working. http://www.pictures-of-cars.com/image/img_PICT2597.jpg

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Recently I went down and looked at a car for a friend. Apparently his son borrowed it and said that it was losing water so he had parked it where it stopped and left it there. When I got there after a 4 hour drive it had no fuel in it a flat battery which was more or less expected and just plain nasty. Turbo Diesel's are ultra reliable supposedly but when I first started it I turned the key off immediately as I was hearing the Big End Bearings rattle away something atrociously. The owner said just start it and was quite happy to listen to it try to self destruct while my teeth where on edge and I had to fight the urge to turn it off to prevent the finial explanation of the poor thing. What I found interesting was even highly qualified people and here the owner is a Surgeon while his son is a Gas Pumper for other Surgeons in Theater so he puts the victims to sleep and makes sure that they stay that way. Anyway regardless both are highly qualified and neither saw a problem with listening the the Big End Bearings try to self destruct while I had to fight every fiber of my being just to leave it running. Sure it couldn't do any more harm as the engine was destroyed by that stage anyway but what I found difficult to believe was that anyone could drive it that way. Oh and during the entire thing I didn't notice any water loss from the cooling system or a blown Head Gasket. But then again I wouldn't attempt to drive it either. Col

jred
jred

I just replaced the intake gaskets on my Monte Carlo (same as a Lumina). After mostly dismantling the engine just to get to the lower intake gasket (!?!?) I've started looking for a vehicle with rear wheel drive and a honest-to-goodness carb. I'll never again buy a FI, computerized car. Give me a gas guzzling old heap that works when it's supposed to, and if it doesn't, you can fix it on the side of the road in an hour or two. I don't care what you say, these new plastic cars are disposable junk. (/crochety-old-man-mode)

JamesRL
JamesRL

When I went to replace my Mazda minivan, which was rusting away and having transmission issues, I decided to give the GM minvans a try. The older ones had the 3.4 engine, and a weak trasnmission. I decided on a 2007 which had a new 3.9l engine, and an upgraded version of the transmission. Just to be safe, because I tow, I added an auxilliary transmission cooler, even though GM warrants I can tow 3500 lbs with the stock HD cooler. Even when not towing, the transmission shifts much smoother with the new cooler. I think the last iterations of the van were pretty good, the 3.9l engine is strong and not too bad on gas for a van. It tows well. But GM killed it to try and sell more of the SUVs - Traverse, Acadia etc.

Slayer_
Slayer_

The engine was starting to knock pretty bad as well (piston slap) and the transmission was getting very slow. I had just replaced the mounts for the rear struts as they had recently broken into the trunk. The car was a piece of junk. I shed no tears when it was sold. I did shed a few tears when I had to shell out money for a replacement car though :'(

JamesRL
JamesRL like.author.displayName 1 Like

Was known for blowing gaskets. The 3.1 which morphed into the 3.4 blew gaskets. Not that GM was the only company that had that problem, the Chrysler 4 cylinders aslo blew gaskets(Google Neon and head gasket).

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I liked the Destroyed Building that it was parked on top of as well. :^0 As Intakes on most modern vehicles are Heated by the Coolant a blown Intake Gasket will do exactly what you described above. It may even improve performance by allowing a small amount of water into the Upper Cylinder and give you the false impression that it's fine no matter what else is billowing out from under the hood. Normally driving something to destruction isn't an overly clever idea. The only time I have ever accepted the need to drive something to destruction was Jacky driving a Porsche 959 into a check point in the Dakar with the front left wheel missing the entire left hand side 18 inches shorter than it should have been and a big bit of the lower part of the engine missing. No lubricant of any description in the poor thing after hitting a big rock at high speed in the desert left them only one alternative drive to the next check point and get a lift out home of die where they where. Wasn't much of a choice in my books but then again I did like the 959 that they left in the desert. ;) Col

Slayer_
Slayer_

My Lumina recently blew up, was funny when the intake gasket went while I was driving. I came to a stop at a light and started bellowing steam out from under the hood. I just turned up the radio, but everyone was staring at me. When I finally got to work, the rad was completely empty. Amazingly it wasn't dumping into the engine, but it was spraying it a full 360 degrees around the engine, all sides, how odd is that. The entire gasket decided to blow. I added water while at work and it was like a garden sprinkler spraying out all sides of the engine. I actually managed to sell it for 350 bucks and I sold the tires and rims for 450 bucks :).

mfc133
mfc133

Some people, depending on their profession can get away with the "drive a car into the ground" approach to vehicle ownership. If you can suffer a short-term loss of transportation it saves you a lot of money on car payments. If you are a traveling consultant, you simply cannot. You really need to always be in a newer, reliable vehicle. Preferably with some kind of roadside assistance like AAA. Your clients will understand if you've been delayed by either an accident or a flat tire. But they will not want to hear why you didn't show up becuase your '98 camry with 230,000 miles finally blew its head gasket. They're going to think you're unstable/unreliable and you will most likely not be invited back.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew like.author.displayName 1 Like

I am a "drive a car into the ground" guy. But I've also almost always owned more than 1 car. Having two "drive to the ground" cars is much cheaper than owning a "new" car. I let other people suffer the depreciation. And most of my clients appreciate that the bulk of my fees aren't going to car payments.

mfc133
mfc133 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Buying a new car will hammer you on depreciation, no doubt. After owning a new car I am back to the "drive into the ground" strategy, becuase I can get away with it (not a traveling consultant). But there are other ways, such as buying a slightly used car every 2-3 years. It would be a good compromise between the new car and old car strategies. And really let's be serious here. "My car won't start" might be an acceptable excuse in the fast food career path, but we're all grown up now boys and girls. If I'm expecting a consultant, I've probably scheduled downtime around the visit. Also, I could have other consultants/engineers committed to the same schedule that are billing me whether the work gets done or not. I mean you're gonna burn bridges. Maybe not the first time it happens, but the second time you'll never get that client back.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...but on insurance as well. Insurance on a brand new car is several times that of an older car. I could probably own at least 3 used cars for what 1 new one would cost. But you are absolutely right about reliability. My reputation is built upon it. Clients will usually forgive the 1st time, but the 2nd time, they will start reconsidering you.

TomMerritt
TomMerritt like.author.displayName 1 Like

If you can't invest $250 in your business, you probably shouldn't be self-employed. As far as being "honest" with your customers goes, all they're going to think is "Is this guy stable enough to entrust with MY business?". Asking your competition for help is probably going to cost more than the rental. The image you portray to your customers will determine what level of business you're going to get from them.