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The Cowboy Way

Professionalism, yes professionalism, that is what this automotive trade could use, a little professionalism. How can we be professional when we behave like cowboys?

In my first career path I took the engineering route. Five years of university and out into the cruel world. In my last year of university there was a mandatory course called professional practice. Professional practice introduced me to the engineering “Code of Ethics”. Part of this “Code of Ethics” is putting the correct value to the services you provide. Though shalt not undercut your brother/sister engineer. Nobody really said what the correct value was and where you could find it or how you could calculate it. I never worked long enough as an engineer to find out even how an engineer charged for services.

From the age of sixteen I have fixed cars. I confess I have even been the dreaded back yard mechanic. It made me some money. It probably saved some other people a lot more money than I knew at the time. It was an education for me. I always wanted to be a mechanic. The lack of engineering jobs in 1985-86 meant it was time for me to get my trade. Apprenticeship done with and I bought my first business. 18 years and I am still at it. Is it a good business? I don’t really know. I do spend a great deal of time working on it. That I know. My wife tells me all the time.

I have discovered that, as an industry, automotive repair has no code of ethics. Trade school did not have a course in professional practice. I suspect the automotive repair business practice evolved like the wild west. A lot of auto repair businesses are started or bought by mechanics.

Mechanics are like cowboys. Shoot first and ask questions later. “I can fix that for you. That other guy doesn’t know what he is talking about. You need a new _______. I have seen that problem a hundred times before. That guy is ripping you off. I can do that for way less.” Not a smidgen of professional courtesy.

The auto repair industry is big business and thus represents big dollars. A lot of big chain retailers have gotten into the auto repair business. They did not help our status as professionals. Their entrance into the business brought the retail business model. Their strength was in selling parts not in selling and valuing labor or diagnostic skills. Their employees sold parts and as such their mechanics installed those parts.

These retailers started the loss leader marketing scheme. Cheap oil changes, free brake inspections, free code reading, brakes $XX. Get the customer in the door and then make them pay. They made the customer assume automotive maintenance and repair was no different than buying apples. The independent auto repair shop went along with this business model thinking. They had to compete.

Along comes the 80s, and 90s. Electronics starts to invade the automobile. There is a huge change in technology. Auto repair suddenly becomes much more complex. Vehicles become more reliable. There are less parts to sell. More labor is required for each part replacement. Diagnostic time increases. The old business model for an auto repair shop has to change.

The 20th century arrives. Mechanics now require constant training. Having the tools and information for proper diagnosis and repair of vehicles is a very expensive proposition. The auto mechanic must be a different breed. Computer network expertise is a new requirement.

Open any newspaper though and what do you see? Lube oil and filter with 40 point inspection $XX, Free Brake Inspection, Brakes $XX, Free computerized diagnostic scans.

For whatever reason mechanics or the people that employ them do not place near enough value on their knowledge. I do not really understand it but I am as guilty as the next guy for giving away my knowledge. Some issues all seem so simple. With the proper scan tool and a smoke machine I can diagnosis an EVAP system fault in 10 minutes. Should that cost the customer $XXX. I have done plenty of those. Would I even consider paying that kind of money for a simple diagnosis.

The skill, information and diagnostic tools required to perform this diagnosis required a significant commitment. The diagnostic tools were purchased and the information and skill were learned. Yes the procedure is now easy for the mechanic but not even possible for the layman. A professional does not give away this learned skill unless it is done for charity. It has a value and it must be presented to the world that way. From that a professional image develops.

The next decade I believe will be the prime opportunity for mechanics to become professional. Our numbers are dwindling as very few enter our profession. When you place an ad for a qualified technician applications are few and far between. We are sitting in the driver’s seat so to speak.

The skill level required for many of the most basic tasks is at an all time high. Special tools come into play for many previously simple operations. Battery replacement can now require a scan tool. Oil changes require service reminder resets. Electrical repairs require an understanding of computer networks and as well require bidirectional control of that network using a scan tool.

If you or the operation you work for plans on staying in business in the near future it is time to start presenting yourself as professionals. That means providing a professional service. The repair centres that have no tools and no trained techs will having nothing left to do. 21st century vehicles require much less service and repair. When they need maintenance and repair they require special skills and tools.

Remember that a professional is not a cowboy. A professional has and maintains a “code of ethics”. The cowboy approach often only results in a gunshot to the foot.

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