Without getting overly dramatic, taking my car to a mechanic is THE WORST THING ALWAYS FOREVER.
My apologies, to both you and my shift key.
I know. It’s not that bad. But let’s agree that taking a car to a mechanic is an extremely vulnerable and anxious situation for the average customer.
First, Three Things to Consider
For the sake of understanding, I’d like to start with three facts about me:
I bought a car within the last year.
I bought my car from Car Sense, a regional, used-car dealership that prides itself on customer experience and comprehensive warranties. I’d bought my last car from them, and I went back because it was so painless. Additionally, in the decade I’d had my last car, they added a lifetime engine guarantee on every car they sell. The guarantee has two stipulations relevant to this story: first, the car must receive a professional oil change every 4,000 miles, and second, the oil must be a Castrol-brand synthetic.
I moved to the Philadelphia suburbs a month after I bought the car.
I lived in Philadelphia for seven years. Over that time, I tried a few car shops and mechanics, and I eventually developed a rapport with one mechanic in particular. That mechanic kept my last car running over the last four years of my ownership. If you’ve ever had an honest and trustworthy mechanic, you likely understand my pain in moving 30 miles away from his shop.
I had to travel last weekend.
A drive out of state was going to push me over my 4,000 miles, so I needed to get an oil change. Pronto.
This story is about that oil change.
How I Can Wait Like a Champ
I started the hunt for a repair shop through Yelp and Google. Faced with the fear of not knowing, I find it’s important to put great stock in the opinions of people I’ve never met. Eventually I pinpointed the shop with the best reviews, and I called first thing in the morning.
“Yeah, we can fit you in. Just call after lunch,” said the voice on the line. “We’ll be through the morning work then. I’ll be able to give you a better estimate so you don’t have to wait around too long.”
Success, I thought, hanging up the phone. A shop conscious of my schedule. Back to work till after lunch.
“Yeah, we’ll fit you in,” said the voice after lunch. “Call at three. We’ll definitely have time.”
Okay, I thought, I’ll keep trusting. I like trust. I also like optimism. Even if it’s founded on the online reviews of total strangers.
“No, we’re too busy today. We can’t fit you in today,” said the voice at three.
How I Can Hold a Grudge, and Panic
In three phone calls, that shop forever lost my business. If they loved me, they’d set me free, right? I can handle No. That’s the other side of the Yes coin.
Maybe next time, I’d think.
But the way it panned out, I’m thinking, Never again.
I made some phone calls to local, independent shops, all of which were booked for the afternoon. I felt an overwhelming rush of pressure: I didn’t want to work from home another day; I didn’t want to break my lifetime engine guarantee on my third oil change; and I didn’t want to fail.
I even called big chains. Here’s 10 minutes in three bullets:
The STS only uses Pennzoil.
The Jiffy Lube doesn’t work on my car, because the oil filter’s “difficult.”
The Tires Plus only uses Kendall oils.
Then, in a fit of anxious energy, I decided to drive my car to the nearest Pep Boys. I figured they’d have Castrol oil in their auto-parts section. And my physical presence would put additional pressure on them to work on the car as soon as possible.
How I Can Bond Under Duress
Did you know some Pep Boys’ locations have no auto-parts storefronts? That Pep Boys operates what are basically branded repair shops?
I didn’t know that either.
Not until I walked into one, with a manager behind the counter who looked like Detective Tom Armelli from The First 48:
Detective Armelli informed me that he didn’t carry Castrol products. However, he’d be happy to use Castrol if I provided it.
15 minutes later, I was standing at the counter with 5 quarts of GTX. Detective Armelli took the oil and my keys, and I victory danced my way into the waiting room.
I settled in, quick-drew my phone, and let the Internet wash over me.
Detective Armelli walked into the waiting room carrying my 5 quarts of GTX.
“You bought a synthetic blend,” he said. “It’ll satisfy your warranty, but it’ll cause a mess of other problems. I’m sorry. I won’t put this in your car. You’ll regret it forever.”
It’s okay, I thought.
Another 15 minutes later, I was standing at the counter with 5 quarts of full-synthetic Castrol. 30 minutes after that, I was swiping my credit card and signing my name.
I told Detective Armelli Mike that I’d be back for the next oil change, with Castrol in tow.
“Thank you,” Mike replied. “I appreciate that.”
What I Learned About Customer Experience
A few days and some emotional distance later, I have three takeaways from my experience:
1. A customer’s experience is often emotionally driven.
Looking back, I can see many moments when I could have made different choices to effect different outcomes. I could have set an appointment days prior. I could have started calling other shops earlier. And so on.
But that hindsight does little to change my actual experience. Over the course of several hours, my emotions started with optimism, devolved into anxious frustration, and then resurfaced in satisfaction. Each time I spoke to a new person, I was carrying baggage from every conversation beforehand.
From the business side of the counter, this is an important consideration: you can’t know the customer’s experience before they show up at your doorstep. However, you can collect data to reimagine their journey, and you can do your best to be empathetic when they knock on your door.
2. Your customer experience extends beyond what you can control.
It’s safe to say that this oil change impacted the way I feel about Car Sense and Castrol. What I initially considered a reasonable stipulation – get my oil changed with Castrol – became less reasonable as the day wore on.
Let me rephrase that notion: my interaction with several independent repair shops hurt my opinion of my car dealership. I have no idea whether Car Sense’s warranty was designed to be easy or difficult. But I’m currently of the opinion that the warranty has a mail-in-rebate level of convenience. I imagine my ability to stick to the warranty won’t be driven by diligence as much as stubbornness and spite.
Remember: you can’t control every customer’s experience, because their experience often extends beyond your reach. This makes it even more important to provide quality experiences and build trust when the customer gives you the opportunity.
3. Every touchpoint is another opportunity to prove your value.
Do you know why I’ll go back to see Mike at Pep Boys? Because he saved me from a day of frustration, and then he saved my car from my ineptitude. In a matter of minutes, he said no, stood his ground, and apologized because he knew that I’d have to do more work.
I can respect that.
And now I know where to get my oil changed.
Every person takes his or her own journey through the business landscape. We make terrible decisions, abandon past tastes, and form drastic opinions – suddenly and forever. But there’s something to be said about stability. About crossing off one item from your list of unknowns.
Improving your customer experience is a similar journey. It’s paving a road through a jungle, so customers can find their way to your doorstep. It’s creating a comfortable place for them to stay. And it’s patching them up and sending them on their way.