DIY

What can support pros learn from their auto mechanics?

An examination of how good mechanics attend to their customers can provide some guidelines for how the help desk can provide a high level of service. Six tips for support pros.

An examination of how good auto mechanics attend to their customers can provide some guidelines for how the help desk can provide a high level of service. Six tips for support pros.

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When I was recently arranging a routine service appointment for my automobile, I was struck by the fact that, for once, the shoe was on the other foot. I'm used to being the expert who has to explain a complicated technical issue to a nontechnical customer. When it comes to repairing cars, I know just enough to make myself sound stupid. Suddenly, I find myself in the position where I have to have things explained to me, often more than once.

I have a great mechanic, so when I work with him, I'm seeing customer service done really well. My visit to the garage got me thinking about some of the practices of good auto service professionals, and I realized that the techniques that produce a positive car repair experience could serve as a guide for creating a positive support experience for my users. Here's the list I jotted down while waiting for my car to come down off the lift.

  • Triage effectively. My mechanic, Jim, is great about making sure that emergency situations are given special attention. Engine threw a cylinder on the highway? He'll immediately send a wrecker to pick you up. Just need your oil changed? If there are more pressing tasks, Jim will gracefully let you know he's too busy and will ask you to drop off your car in a day or two. The takeaway here is that most customers don't mind waiting for nonemergency service, as long as they're given a firm date when they can expect attention.
  • Provide an estimate. When I work with Jim, his estimates usually have two parts: the cost and the timeframe in which the work will be done. Cost may not always be a factor when the help desk is serving a user, but there are other things to take into account. It may be necessary to order replacement parts, for instance. Providing your customers with estimates of what the work will entail and when it will be completed will manage their expectations and lower their stress level.
  • Offer alternate arrangements. In the auto-service industry, this takes the form of the courtesy car. Consider keeping a couple of serviceable machines on hand as cold spares that you can loan to users whose regular workstations may need significant repair. With a "courtesy computer," at least the client can continue his or her work.
  • Update the customer. Mechanics revise their estimates; sometimes it's necessary because the work required is more extensive. This can happen when a machine is on the repair bench, too. If the situation has changed -- for the worse or for the better -- make sure that the customer is informed.
  • Explain things clearly. Think of it this way: your customers won't appreciate your work if they don't understand your description of it. Avoid jargon as much as possible. Put the situation in terms that are easily understood, and contextualize things for the users. If they have an understanding of how you've helped, they'll feel better about the experience.
  • Suggest future maintenance. Lots of car trouble can be avoided if the owner takes care of the vehicle. The same holds true for computers. If there's a way that the user can avoid the inconvenience of future problems, share that knowledge with them.

I recommend my mechanic to anyone I overhear complaining about the last time their car had to be serviced. There may be a guy out there with more qualifications than Jim, but his work is solid, and his customer service is second-to-none. When I'm in a situation where I'm out of my depth, I appreciate working with a professional who is concerned about the quality of my experience. Your users will, too.

21 comments
reisen55
reisen55

Earlier this year I visited my local Meinicke shop and found their computer horribly infected by a virus that attached itself to the winlogon process and was eating processor time alive. I took this computer home, got it semi-better and returned it. I did not know enough about the business software to rebuild it totally. Four months later - the Meinicke shop is closed. Gone. And my first thought was: .... gee, was it something I did?

bblackmoor
bblackmoor

The one thing no one seems to get, and one thing which causes many of the headaches for IT professionals, is that a skilled professional should be responsible for her tools. When you take your car to a garage, do you demand that they use a specific brand of wrench? When an electrician comes to your house, do you demand they have a specific brand of voltmeter? Do you search their toolbox, and chastise them if they have a MP3 player or a DVD in there? Of course you don't. The current way security is managed in every organization I have seen in the past 15 years is based on the flawed premise that the professional whom we trust to administer and manage multimillion dollar projects can't be trusted to select and maintain her own workstation. This is ridiculous. IT professionals should not have their software selection restricted (or worse, chosen for them). IT professionals should not have their Internet access filtered or obstructed (for many IT professionals, Internet access is the #1 tool in their toolbox). "Does she get the job done safely, legally, on time, and under budget?" That is the question that should be asked of any IT professional. That question has a yes or no answer, and it has nothing to do with web filtering or "nailing down" her workstation so she can't install "unapproved" software. Hold IT professionals accountable, by all means, but do not pre-emptively cripple their ability to do their jobs. You hired them to be experts: let the expert choose and care for her tools, like any other skilled expert does.

RayJeff
RayJeff

One situation comes to mine. A job I worked on where I did application development work along with my support duties in a small college computer lab. All of the schools labs computers were upgraded during the summer. Ok, the workstation I used was a several years older than the workstations that were upgraded; smaller hard drive, slower processor, etc. SO, With all of the development work I was doing, I wanted to order a workstation that was more suited for development work and the support role, and convert the old workstation into a server for the applications that were used in that specific lab. Ok, presented the case to my supervisor. Did all of the research and everything. Had a workstation found and even though about price and it was reasonable. My supervisor signed off on it and sent the request paperwork up the line. Ok, one month, no response...month and a half, no response. So, my supervisor and I did some checking; Don't you know it was stopped by the college's MIS director. So, the director comes to my supervisor and I questioning why I needed a new workstation and exactly why. Ok, the director knew the work I was doing. it's so funny because every other person who managed a computer lab all got new workstations except for me. I mean, if I was doing all of this development work, along with the support work, but not have a workstation that's adequate? I'm an IT professional. Not a 1-2 year newbie in the field. But, I suppose because of my age...

reisen55
reisen55

Watch the usage of "her" a bit though, because this applies to "him" as well. IT Professionals need room to work in and should have wide access. My rants on this board tend to interpret Outsourcing as the worst sin of mankind and that impacts this argument too. Outsourced rules void this entire line of thought - EVERYBODY is equal across the board, no exceptions made at all. I keep my own house pretty darn good and have seen professional networks in hospitals be totally beyond help, in fact - putting peoples LIVES AT RISK. That bad. There the IT professionals have stumbled badly. But when the expert's opinion does not matter a tinker's damn, then why bother with an expert at all. I love it when my customers begin to inquire if THEY CAN GET IT AT A BETTER PRICE RETAIL or some such thing. Gee, I do not question a dental procedure or an eye exam but they will sure as hell bug me about my job!!!!! Why have me around at all. DO IT YOURSELF and you'll learn real fast. (Outsourcing is equally bad, you get a ton of untrained experts doing everything bad). My 2 cents.

jasondlnd
jasondlnd

These are excellent tips, as the computer repair industry is a lot like the auto repair industry. More often not, the two are compared with one another. There is one comment I would like to make. Some people simply are unable to speak tech. No matter how clearly you describe what is going wrong, some people just are unable to pick up on it. For these individuals, the easiest explanation is to simply state that the problem has been fixed, with a short description of what was done. If they want to know the why of what happened, offer a simple explanation, one that is easy to grasp.

dave
dave

I have nothing but sympathy for (most) auto mechanics as I have been doing pretty much most of my own auto repair for the past 30+ years and understand what they have to do. Think computers are hard to work on? Try working on a I\M problem on some of the newer vehicles.

pdickey043
pdickey043

These are good tips. However, I think they need to be pointed out to Educators as much as us. That way, when the support reps come in from school, they've already got this ingrained into their methods. They can train us, as much as we'll train them.... Patrick.

Good Old Dog
Good Old Dog

Listen .. Listen .. Listen .. THAT rule is number ONE! Having enjoyed 40+ years in the Automotive Service business I have picked up computer building/upgrading/servicing in my retirement. If you do not Listen carefully to the customer and hear the symptoms from him or her to get a head start to the problem, how are you going to successfully perform a diagnosis and repair. This approach is essential to maintain good customer relations, repair the problem quickly and for a fair price to both parties and generate repeat business. It is tool number one in the Automotive Service World and should be in our bits and bytes world as well.

Thack
Thack

There can be some bad lessons, too. Like charging an obscene amount because they know you simply can't live without your car. Like the way they diagnose a fault by swapping things until the fault goes away, and THEN CHARGING THE CUSTOMER FOR ALL OF IT. Some mechanics are outstanding - Jim sounds like one. But others are utterly useless, and the problem is you often don't know which your mechanic is until the get the vehicle back and the bill. The issue here? Too much variability in the profession, with no meaningful professional standards. And frankly our profession is a bit too much like that for comfort. SteveT

reisen55
reisen55

I visited a Meinicke dealership last year and discovered a horrible little virus on their computer - began to chide them on bad practice the same way auto mechanics can chide ME for ignoring the car. Small world. The key is to be customer proactive, not reactive.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

I know the average mechanic can't provide "loaners" but a lot of users would really appreaciate such a gesture in the event of major service and extended outages. Providing the broken parts after service is an assurance to the user that you indedd replace parts as being charged for. In addition, most parts are not easily disposed of and the offer must be made to take care of that too. What would a user do with a bad CV joint, likewise a bad hard drive or toasted video card? To many users, discriptions of service provided and parts replaced and their functions would be "greek" to most but must be broken down into language that each user will understand. This has to be a case by case basis as each user has their own level of knowledge and a generic explaination would not fit all users.

mike
mike

One of the posters mentioned "listen listen listen" How true. As well being a independent repair tech and having a rather large customer base, that is the key for me to make the decisions on what needs to be done. I also find it quite helpful to quiz the client on what has recently happened. Some find it annoying, looking at me like I'm the bad cop. But it sure helps to narrow down where the problem came from. As for having a replacement system for extended down time, I suppose in certain situations that's great. I tend to my clinets same day or next and even on a full reinstall and reload-data recovery etc, I get it done in a day or two max. So not practical, for my client base. As for who gets service and when I always priortize the most urgent first no matter what. I have had many clients say thank you when I explaining that I have a enrgency job going now and I'll get yours up next. They appreciate that, and know that when the time comes for a Emgergency response, they will get the same treatment. It's tough out there as an independent.

ozi Eagle
ozi Eagle

Hi The return of parts can be a trick too. Some time ago my 6 year old VCR stopped. I diagnosed the PSU as dead. Opened it took one look and decided that I couldn't be bothered trying to find the fault. Reassembled and took it to the local repair shop. I got it back a week later with a bill for $98 and a fist full of electronic components, not unhappy with this. 6 months later the same problem. This time I was smart took the PSU apart and thought I'll just look for the parts that had previously been replaced. You can tell this by the way the solder looks. Original machine solder is neat, hand solder has more actual solder on the joint. Anyway the ONLY component that had been replaced was a 1uF 400V capacitor, replacing this fixed the problem. (It was a switching supply and wouldn't start.) I would have been OK with the bill and only replacing this capacitor, but what really peed me off was the handful of bits I had returned to me, which had nothing to do with my repair. It was obviously a ploy to make me think the repair involved more than it did. I never went there again. Herb

williamjones
williamjones

My most recent blog post was inspired by a visit to my auto mechanic. You can read the original article here. Seeing how well my mechanic handled his customers got me thinking about how I can make sure that my clients are well served. How about you? Have you encountered another field that reminded you of IT? From what other professionals might we be able to crib some skills that would make us better at our jobs?

RayJeff
RayJeff

The medical profession is the number one professional that only other trade that comes to mind. Even though the medical profession isn't necessarily a trade, for this topic, it perfect.

fred.wagner
fred.wagner

When I was in the Air Force working in a Flight Test organization, I got married to a young lady working in the computer center that supported the flight test operations. I ran into her occasionally at work, not often. Then I got assigned to a new base, and got her one to the same place. Until she got her security clearance updated, she worked in the same office I did. One of my tasks there was to write a database program (this was on Tektronix workstation, before PCs), and she was assigned to gather the paper files and enter the info in the database I was writing. My spouse was my customer. If she had a bad day at the office, it would be MY FAULT. I learned to be very sensitive to the customer, see their viewpoint, respond rapidly,and whenever possible make things work they way they would expect them to. These skills have served me well, and we're still married 28 years later. Guiding principle - if the customer was your spouse, how would you treat them ?

robo_dev
robo_dev

Most cars have microprocessor control everything from the dome light to the transmission. There are in-car networks that consist of single-wire networks and some cars such as GM, use a very sophisticated Controller Area Network (CAN). CANs have a serial data bus network with speeds up to 1MBs. If you think the network is not important, consider this: - drive-by-wire (many modern cars) - brake-by-wire (many mercedes, lexus) SO both the the throttle pedal is connected to a sensor, as is the brake pedal. http://www.aa1car.com/library/can_systems.htm BMW iDrive is Windows CE, there are backdoors and hacks for the Mercedes COMMAND system. So when will a virus infect a car?

brianmilke
brianmilke

When the hackers find something valuable in hacking into your in-dash GPS and taking control of the computer in your car. If movies have been doing it for the last 20 years, you know that the real thing is not far off. As cars get more advanced, the ease in which their onboard computers can be compromised is becoming greater. Already we are seeing "special" cars that transmit vital information about a car to the manufacturer. Reversing that, and sending something into the car will be that easy.

pdickey043
pdickey043

I recently heard about how GM and other companies are offering the ability to disable a car in the event of theft or high-speed pursuit. So, if that's possible, then pretty soon hackers will figure out how to do it too. Patrick.

purpletech
purpletech

I am afraid that there have been viruses as long as there have been wheeled transportation

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

You'd think those tips would be more obvious but it's always worth seeing them stamped out in text. I just added it to my PDF library to resurface in my commuter reading.