Addressing a Problem When You're at Fault

Feb. 3, 2023

Mistakes happen, but there are ways to deal with them.

As we've seen on the nightly news and via social media, customers can become increasingly angry and even hostile when they don't get exactly what they're expecting.

The situation can become far worse for shop owners if they make a mistake and fail to address it head-on. This can result in a bad reputation, which can lead to a loss of business, and possibly worse. 

“The first thing to understand and accept is that mistakes will be made," says Dave Everett of Dave Everett Consulting. "People are people, and we will all make mistakes along the way."

Everett tells NOLN that shop owners and managers should have a business that encourages complaints. Not only can you learn from what was done wrong, but it is important that the customer is vocal so that any problems can be immediately addressed.

"It may sound all too politically correct, but we should see this as an opportunity," Everett says. "You should have a facility that asks for input from customers so that you can ensure you can fix those problems."

In other words, you want the customer to complain to you—not to their friends, co-workers, neighbors, or online comment sections. By resolving the problem, they're more likely to share a favorable version of the events rather than highlighting everything that went wrong. 

Understanding the Legal Ramifications 

Another consideration is that we live in a very litigious society today, and there is no shortage of lawyers who could be ready to step up should a problem be especially egregious. According to William Ferreira, an attorney who specializes in automotive fields, there are a few important considerations.

Generally speaking, if there were problems during service, and the customer files a suit, the shop has essentially been "put on notice." However, it still depends on the type of issue.

"There is a much different legal analysis when it comes to 'we didn't know' there was a problem or issue versus the shop was informed previously and did nothing to fix or correct the problem or issue," Ferreira tells NOLN.  

Past issues, including employee negligence, shouldn't turn into future problems. To ensure that a mistake doesn't happen again, there should be documented write-ups, corrective measures taken, future double-checking by a more senior technician, and even terminating a technician if necessary to address the negligence and prevent reoccurrence.

Legally speaking, however, how judges and juries generally treat mechanics, shops, technicians, and other employees, is that we all make mistakes. Yet, if this isn't an isolated incident, the problem is far more serious in the eyes of the law.

"Failure to prevent recurrence once it has previously been brought to your attention gives judges/juries implicit permission to increase damages," Ferreira says. "The thought is they were informed, they did nothing to fix it, their standard of reasonable care in response to the issue was not appropriate."

A first instance could result in a warning with an opportunity to take corrective behavior. Failure to do so will result in increased fines and or fees until the shop gets the appropriate message. Also, generally speaking, there aren't requirements to change the way business should be done, but that doesn't mean problems can, or should, be ignored.

"Unless there is a direct regulatory agency such as the Bureau of Automotive Repair in California, or OSHA-type federal issues, there essentially are no legal requirements for many states," Ferreira continues. "Generally, insurance will cover negligence with sample garageman policies, however for gross negligence, most policies omit coverage. You can guess where insurance companies will side if this has been a continuing pattern that has happened before."

Seven Steps to Resolving a Problem

The most important consideration is that you don't want to get into such legal jeopardy to begin with—and in many cases, working with a customer, even an irate one, is the better course of action.

Everett recommends that there are seven steps to resolving a problem with an upset customer when the shop makes a mistake. It begins with listening to the customer, followed by getting the facts and recording them.

"It is important that you listen to them empathically, and start with the right words, 'tell me what happened?' If you take an antagonist approach you've already lost the battle and the customer," says Everett. "Write down what they tell you and understand it will include facts and emotions."

From there it is necessary to apologize, and often times that apology can be enough to resolve the problem. If not, then the next step is to discuss the options that are needed to fix the issue.

"If it is obvious, just fix it," Everett suggests. "In many cases, the customer may even ask for less than what you are willing to do."

It is also equally important to act quickly. This means not telling an upset customer to come back tomorrow, and they don't want to hear "let me talk to the owner." Employees that don't have the authority to address a problem should immediately get the manager or owner.

Likewise, it is crucial that shops keep their promises—as Everett says, "If you said you're going to fix it, then fix it." Then follow up. Stay in touch with the customer if the issue can't be resolved immediately. If it requires the car to stay in the shop overnight or longer, call or text that customer to let them know this is a priority and that the problem is being addressed. 

"Sometimes the first three steps are enough," says Everett. "Sometimes they just want to be heard. And understand that sometimes the complaints you hear aren't your fault, but you still need to listen." 

Being Proactive

Every employee should learn to deal with customers initially, yet shops should never have a new person on the floor charged with handling customer complaints. Too much responsibility handed to new employees can be what often gets shops into such situations.

"Newer technicians are given too much responsibility too quickly. The boss, lead tech does not supervise the junior technician correctly, and mistakes happen," says Ferreira. "The second is simply overworked with too many irons in the fire." 

Though some will see turning away a customer as lost revenue, trying to take in too much work could result in cutting corners, and that is when mistakes happen. Likewise, shops shouldn't take on business they think they can do. Ferreira warns that more harm is done taking on a project you are not equipped with. Instead, prepare to take on that work in the future.   

"The risk factors when you take on something outside your specialty/capability increase the odds of mistakes," he explains. "Everyone will learn some lessons the hard way in automotive repair. Some of it simply cannot be taught or learned in books. Incremental steps in increasing your skill set should be the norm. Everyone in some way, shape, or form starts at the bottom and works their way up." 

Addressing Complaints on Social Media

With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, it has never been easier to voice your complaints about how a business mistreated you. These platforms have also made it easier for those complaints to be made public, and it could be easy for a shop to dismiss it. 

Unfortunately, ignoring the problem won't make it go away. More importantly, it is all too likely that someone is going to complain on social media about a problem than to offer praise. Yet, there can be times when doing nothing is actually the best course of action. 

"It depends on the nature of the issue, the platform being used and the shop's online reputation generally," explains social media analyst Greg Sterling, co-founder of Near Media. "If the complaint is minor and the shop has positive reviews and an otherwise strong reputation, ignoring it might be the right approach." 

Even a five-star restaurant is likely to make a bad meal, so a single negative comment online isn't a big deal. Yet, it is also important shops don't make it one. If a customer complains online, work with them, and don't get confrontational on what is a very public forum. 

"If it's a major issue, such as an allegedly racist/sexist incident or some claim of unethical behavior, it probably should be addressed," Sterling tells NOLN. "But there's also the potential to draw more attention to the complaint and make the issue worse with an inept or defensive response. If it's a serious matter, using a consultant may be helpful." 

Before any action is taken, the business should determine the complaint's legitimacy. 

"Is their version of events correct," Sterling continues. "If the complaint comes in the form of an online review, the business can respond on the review platform using review response best practices. If it's a video on TikTok, for example, there may be additional considerations, such as: how popular is the user/customer and so on. Will it be widely seen?" 

In the end, just as social media can be used to promote a business, the same platforms can be used for customers to complain. Moreover, even businesses that have no social media accounts or presence can be impacted. For those reasons, it might always be a good idea to do some vanity searches to make sure a shop's dirty laundry isn't being aired out for the world to see. 

"Businesses should be checking in and surveying their customers regularly to catch dissatisfaction before it turns into something that can damage the brand or business reputation," says Sterling. "If the business is a national franchisor or brand with multiple locations, they may need to take strong action if the complaint is real and potentially very damaging. How to proceed is dependent on all these and potentially other variables. But the delivery of great service is going to prevent most of these things from blowing up and repair shop's best 'defense' against viral social media complaints. Great service might also result in positive social media exposure from customers." 


About the Author

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is Michigan-based writer and NOLN freelance contributor who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He lives in the land of cars not far from one of Henry Ford's estates.

Courtesy of Aleisha Hendricks
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