Our first customer complaint. Did I screw up?

Aug 4, 2020
I recently quoted a job for a 2004 Honda CR-V. The compressor clutch and bearing was literally grinding itself to a pulp, reeked of metal to metal/burnt clutch smell, and was literally throwing sparks. Worst one I've ever seen. I called all of my part connections and got the best prices. I gave him an initial quote of $1,000 to replace the compressor, condenser, and flush the system, but I said it may increase if we find other issues along the way. The customer said no problem, we just need the car operational (it had been sitting in this condition for a few months). So we got the parts and began. Our labor charge is $80/hour. Long story short, the entire system was contaminated, and it was the worst possible case scenario. We replaced the compressor with a remanufactured one (per the customer's request, which upon opening the box included a message that stated "due to a core shortage, this remanufactured compressor is actually a NEW unit"). We replaced the condenser, expansion valve (which we found out the hard way had to be removed via the dash), the evaporator core since it was already out to access the expansion valve, flushed the remainder of the lines, replaced literally every o-ring, recharged with PAG 46 and R134a, replaced the cabin filter since it was the original at 140K (no explanation needed, it was disgusting), and did a full synthetic oil change for $20. Basically the whole front end had to come off to get to everything, and the entire passenger side of the dash came out for the evaporator core and expansion valve.

I called the customer every step of the way with progress reports and any hiccups. I always call before incurring any charges. I did have to call to add an hour of labor for the dash, and gave them choice to flush or replace the evaporator core. They chose replace. I also called to ask what they wanted to do about their engine oil (since I am a member here after all). It was dark and over a quart low. I gave the option to leave it, top it off, or change it. They chose to change it. Those were the only issues.

Once everything was put back together, everything was great. You could hang meat in that car. But then we realized the condenser fan was spinning, alone. No radiator fan. We swapped relays, checked fuses, did everything we could to avoid replacement. Nope. When you gently tap the fan motor with a wrench it begins to spin on it's own. Once they both cycle off, the radiator fan never comes back on without being tapped again. Obvious motor issue. This vehicle has separate radiator and condenser fans, so it only needs the single fan and I could get it for $100, cheaper if the customer waited for one to ship. I called the customer stating we did run into one last issue with the fan. They immediately got irate. "We can't do it!" This was supposed to be a $500 job and now it's over $1,300!" I tried to calm the situation and explained that "this is potentially an issue that contributed to the original system's failure, and this is not something you can go without. If cost is an issue, I'll gladly do it free of charge to help you out and prevent issues later on. I just need a little extra time to acquire the part and install it. I won't charge labor for it either. I just don't want you upset down the road when the new system you just installed breaks over a $100 part." They insisted we do it free, and asked when to expect the vehicle. I told them later in the day after my partner, the mechanic, gets off from his day job (for clarity, we do this on the side and make that clear to every customer before we do any work. I'm the parts guy and accountant, he's the wrenches. I also turn wrenches on the simple stuff, but he does the real work).

Our total for the ticket including all parts and labor would have been $1,160.00, which is only $60 over the original quote before adding the approved oil change and evaporator core. Those increased it $100 to $1160. The fan would have made it $1320.00, but I'm eating that, so $1160 it is.

Call me naïve, but I never imagined a customer being upset at a quality job, with a warranty we stand behind, for peanuts. Especially when there was no deadline to meet, I always hold myself to the ultimate standards of professionalism and etiquette (yes ma'am, yes sir), and never add any surprise charges (they get a call if I have to add $2.50 for a can of brake cleaner).

Part of me wants to hold firm at the $1160, part of me wants to try to make peace with the customer and reduce the parts to our cost (I can't reduce his labor charge, that's not fair to him. Besides, the labor total was only $500).

I understand the customer's point of view, it's a big expense and I called them three times with add-ons. But my point of view is they were all necessary items, gave them choice of how to navigate the issue, and they approved everything until the fan. Ultimately, I was so bothered by the situation that I reached out for three quotes from other local shops. The cheapest came back at $2100, and that was missing some items that we did. Another shop that itemized everything identically to us quoted $3,574.77. I don't feel we've done them wrong, but I'm curious to hear your opinions in both sets of shoes.
Don't take it personal. They're just mad about spending $1100 on an 04 commuter car that they won't get back. You're the scapegoat for their anger. Be firm yet polite with them like you've been. If they come back for a different repair then quote on the high side. I've read about worse customer stories on here.
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I would let him/her cool off. Ultimately it might not even be your call that he's/she's upset about.

You already said you'd eat the motor, so you have to stick to your word on that, but he/she approved the 1160 and should stick to his/her word on that.

Just something I learned along the way, depending on the person sometimes too many choices aren't good, they hear what they want and some won't ask questions, but they think you're trying to confuse them. Keep it simple... If they ask what options are then go there.

FWIW, seems like you tried to do them a really good deal and provide quality work with complete transparency, so if they don't see the value in that, it is on them, not you.
It's not your fault. Occasionally there are unforseen scenarios in our line of work and your conduct is what will hopefully have them return for other repairs. IME, not losing them as customers over this is key.
You did the right thing you called the customer each time and made the price clear. And let them know that there might be other stuff you would add on later which their was and you let them know. At least they weren’t one of the customers who stands over you when you work like we have some of at my shop. Now if you had not approved the work with them first I could understand their point. Before I was old enough to work on cars we had a few shops do that which both times my dad talked his way into getting the whole thing free.
Sometimes no matter what you do it doesn't work out . Use it as a learning experience as to look when quoting the cost of next job. I used to repair forklifts andcompanies with old forklifts with the continental flat head engines would want a rebuild .I would tell them buy a new forklift because all these list of things will happen after you get the rebuilt engine with in 1 a year and 99.99% of the time time the things did happen. Then they would hate, us buy a new forklift and give their repair to our competitors and never thank me for being honest to them . Reputation is hard to get and easy to lose.
Look there will always be Karens or Chads that think everything is owed to them. Some folks say the customers is always right, to a point and with in reason. There will always be unsatisfied custermers in any business, you try to make it right but sometimes the customer is a self entitled SOB, thats the type of customer you dont want, you arent in business to lose money. Dont lose any sleep over it for every bad customer there are 10 decent folks that understand.
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First off, hats off to your amazing work and attention to detail. Sound like you guys run a tight ship.

I wouldn't worry about the customer, sometimes it just goes that way. They'll spend and spend and spend until that last $100 turns them into a rabid racoon fighting you over a scrap of garbage. It is what it is. As far as I'm concerned, You've already gone above and beyond with them.

I especially respect that you call the customer every step of the way. I had a perfect example of this last week: a customer's daughter had her '00 Honda Accord towed in as a no-start. The story I got is that she was running errands, the car (at some point) lost heat between stops, and then refused to start when she came out from the store. Upon cranking, it was immediately apparent that there was a timing issue.

My service writer was extremely detailed in his explanation of the situation to the customer: We know the timing jumped, and there's a very good likelihood of engine damage. To continue, we need approval to replace the timing belt kit and water pump, which you'll be charged for regardless, and only then will we know the if the motor is any good.

The customer approved the repair, approx. $1,300. When I got the timing covers off I found the idler pulley bearing had exploded and the water pump was almost impossible to turn. Every smooth pulley had bluing indicating significant overheating of components. I stopped my work, and AGAIN my service writer called the customer, letting him know we were even less confident than before that the engine would be ok. He elected to continue. I finished installing the new timing components, slapped the crank sprocket guide and balancer on it temporarily, and fired it up. Instant hard misfire, possibly 2 cylinders. It was toast.

Now, we didn't get read the riot act in this situation, but the point is the same. All you can do is inform the customer to the best of your ability throughout the process. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Tomorrow is a new day in this business.
Charge them the 1160 and use this as a teaching moment. When you look at an issue that can cause damage to areas beyond the obvious part, you need to quote the worst case and tell them you will do what you can to keep costs down. I have never had a customer get mad at me when the repair came in under budget but go over by 5% and they think you are trying to rip them off. Just be honest and never quote low to get the job or with your fingers crossed that everything goes perfect.