Monday, May 7, 2012

Trust & word of mouth

Here's an anecdote about the importance of trust and word of mouth.

Over the last 10 weeks I've had some mobility issues.  I woke up one day and my foot basically no longer worked.  I've had this problem before - it's basically a sprained ankle I get from kicking while I sleep (if this is TMI, feel free to skip the blog post :).  Second, the 2000 Saturn LS I drive (6-cylinder with an excellent second gear) started making terrible knocking sounds and so I parked it and began looking into getting it serviced.  During the process of fixing the Saturn I borrowed my Dad's OptiBike - a really excellent electric bike with a range of ~20 miles per charge.

I never took proper care of my foot which is why it took so long to get better - never went to see the doctor and never stopped wearing sandals.  My bad, but let's move on.

Saturn has no dealerships.  This may not seem like a big deal at first since Chevrolet has taken over servicing Saturns, but what it really means is that there really is no place to go for expert Saturn repairmen - i.e. no place where they say "Yeah, it's normally an extremely rare problem except it happens in this car every 80,000 miles".  Took it to Dave's Auto Repair, which has good reviews and was generally responsive on the phone.  They suspected the timing belt but couldn't be sure - $1500 to replace the timing belt but they could not guarantee it would work afterwards.  No charge for the diagnostic - it was not obvious they had moved the car at all but had probably just listened with the hood open.

About this time the Optibike failed in a cascade of events that led to a twisted chain and front gear that was constantly skipping.  There was no crash, the chain just kept falling off the gear worse and worse until it didn't catch much at all.  This repair took two weeks because Cognition Cyclery changed the chain, saying it should work, and refused to test ride the bike until after I tested it and it continually skipped riding 10 feet in front of the bike shop, leading to special ordering the front gear (which they had said did not need replacing despite my voiced suspicion) - which did not arrive with all of the other parts that had been special ordered because where they had ordered it from did not have it in stock... so it took 12 days to arrive (this part they thought did not need replacing..).  That's not a big deal for a regular bike but taking an expensive bike off the road for two weeks because you didn't check if a part was in stock is not so cool (I checked up on it every 2 days or so, which did not end up helping..).

Around this time we took the car to Mechanica Auto Repair.  They were very responsive and were quite confident (maybe 90%) that the timing belt was the problem, arguing that the engine would have much worse sounds/problems if the timing belt was not the problem, meaning some part of the crank attachment etc. was the problem (the traditional source of a "knocking" sound).  I was less sure than they were that the problem was the timing belt because Dave's auto had been less sure, and the quoted price of... wait for it... $1800... was too much to take the risk.  No charge for the diagnostic.

Next we had a mechanic from Craig's List come listen to it.  He was quite sure it WAS NOT the timing belt and was very hesitant to start the work.  He would have charged as little as $300-$500 (a "Craig's List Special" as it were) but did not want to do the work because of his lack of confidence in the timing belt being the problem - and his lack of confidence of getting paid if the car did not work in the end.  There were some language issues but my wife speaks Spanish so it was no problem.  No charge for the diagnostic - a good experience in general though he seemed to be less experienced than he claimed (no surprise there I guess).

Finally, the bike gets repaired, ending a two week stint in which I had no wheels or feet of my own to speak of (well, the foot was good enough for walks at that point, but that is less dramatic :).  Bike skips just a little bit, every couple minutes or so, and only in certain gears.  Certainly rideable but my Dad, like a soup Nazi, is a perfectionist and wants me to take it back to a different bike shop.  Hard to argue with experience, which, with the Optibike, he has a lot of (I think only two serious accidents </blue commedy>, but I wear a full face masking helmet, so I'll be ok right?).

Lastly, I get advice from a local friend after asking him if he knows of a cost-effective repair shop.  He points me to Mountain View Radiator.  Great experience here, they put the car up on the lift and were certain the sound was coming from under the timing belt cover.  Quoted ~$900, including water pump.  They were 100% confident it was the timing belt, and because their price was the best from a real shop I rolled the dice and OK'd the work.  Picked up the car the next day and it drives perfectly.  Hooray!

The final problem was not in fact the timing belt, which indeed would not normally make a knocking sound, but one of the idler/tensioners for the timing belt, which everyone knows should always be replaced with the timing belt, but are often not replaced by dealerships in order to result in a sooner future repair that will result in more money to the dealership.  I can't say for sure that they were not replaced, but it seems quite likely the original Saturn dealership that replaced the timing belt the first time did not appropriately replace the idler/tensioners along with the timing belt.

All is well that ends well.  Having moved quite a few time in the last 10 years I can easily say one of the most important things is to find a mechanic you trust and that charges fairly.  We found this in White River Junction  when we moved to Dartmouth by calling the local auto parts shop and getting refered to White River Automotive.  You won't find Cory running that shop anymore because the prices were a bit too low and he went out of business (a nice guy running a business can often end up that way.. too bad).  Along with a very forgiving inspection service place (New Hampshire's Live Free Or Die ends with the automotive repair's successful lobby for legally required car inspections I guess), which passed my Jeep with its very rusted underside (I can't name them publicly, they don't deserve any blowback).  A similar story to the one above could have been written for that Jeep which was quoted $2500 by Midas to fix an exhaust leak, which Cory fixed for $60 using a welder.  Ironically, Cory now works for Midas after his auto repair shop went out of business.

Car repair can be merciless for customers and even business owners.  Maybe in a future post I will figure out the proper metaphor for a computer hardware company - but trust and word of mouth are really universally important and perhaps further simplification is unnecessary.

Peace, out!

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