How To Handle Customer Anxiety Over Intermittent Problems

April 6, 2010

By Mitch Schneider. Intermittent automotive service problems are one of the few things capable of terrifying and paralyzing folks on both sides of the service counter. Everyone is terrified of something. It’s a fact of life. Probe deep enough, look hard enough and you will find a phobia that is if not paralyzing, then, at the least, debilitating. If that fear isn’t enough to inhibit your ability to act, I’ll bet it is significant enough to ensure that at least some of your actions fall out of the realm of what most of us might consider “normal” — whatever normal means.

Intermittent automotive service problems would certainly make the list of things that paralyze or terrify. In fact, it would be safe to say that intermittent automotive service problems are one of the few things capable of terrifying and paralyzing folks on both sides of the service counter. I know they make my stomach turn, especially when that intermittent problem belongs to a “regular” customer.

This particular customer is part of a family of customers: brother, sister, niece, et al, who are the kind of loyal and lifetime clients we all live for. I really do believe they appreciate us almost as much as we appreciate them.

They are more interested in quality and service than they are in price. They are more interested in value than in “quick” fixes or partial repairs. They are all different, naturally. But, they are all similar in the respect that each of them has almost always been normal, reasonable, rational, considerate and caring in all their dealings with us.

Almost always…

There are exceptions to just about every rule and the last couple of days proved to be no exception. You see, the biggest problem with intermittent failures is that while the actual failure itself may not be consistent, the pressure and frustration in the bay and at the service counter is anything but unpredictable. In fact, there are few things more reliable.

This vehicle: a 1993 3/4-ton Suburban, big block, appeared at the shop a few weeks ago with its owner (the sister) and a fairly strange complaint.

Customer Concern: When the vehicle is cold or at normal operating temperature, it runs great. However, on a 100-plus degree day the vehicle will occasionally stall at idle. Verify symptom, if possible, determine cause of concern, estimate cost of repair and advise.

We were off to a great start, all we needed for the vehicle to symptomize was a few days of triple-digit temperature.

There was only one problem…two, actually. First, it didn’t look like it was going to be that hot until next summer and the customer was terrified of the vehicle stalling and dying in traffic, on the freeway, while stopped at traffic light, making a left turn, at night, in the morning, or in the wrong neighborhood, right now.

And, second, when the vehicle wasn’t in danger of stalling, dying and leaving our customer stranded, it ran like a new truck.

We checked the data moving back and forth, to and from the computer with no real results other than the possible exception of idle air control (IAC) motor counts that were slightly elevated. Not a lot, but possibly enough to cause a problem.

We removed the IAC motor to check for coke and carbon, but there was none present. Certainly, not enough of either to cause a problem. So, we checked and adjusted the base throttle position hard stop to spec and rechecked the IAC counts at idle; they dropped right into spec. Great!

We started and ran the Suburban to operating temperature, shut it down and let it sit for 15 minutes, restarted it and ran it up to operating temperature again. Both the idle speed and the IAC counts were good and the vehicle refused to quit.

What do you tell your customer? “Hi, I’ve got some good news and some bad news…”

“Give me the good news first.”

“The good news is: We couldn’t find anything serious enough wrong with your vehicle to cause the kind of failure you are experiencing.”

“Great! If that’s the good news, what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is: We couldn’t find anything serious enough wrong with your vehicle to cause the kind of failure you are experiencing.”

“Where do we go from here?”

Under the circumstances, there was only one ­option: give the Suburban back, let the customer continue to drive it, see if the problem continued while trying to determine if there was anything “remarkable” to ­report beyond triple-digit ambient temperatures.

We shared all of this with our customer, but all she wanted to know was if the vehicle was still going to quit without warning again. Our only answer was: “We’re hoping it will be OK.”

Her response: “But, are you sure?”

Since there is still a lot more of this column left, you’ve probably already figured out that there is more to our story than a simple throttle stop adjustment. The vehicle was returned 11 days later with a continued complaint of a stall and die at idle, but only under extreme temperature conditions. And, not before we were called to task for our failure to isolate and identify what should have been “a simple, yet obvious problem.” More distressing was the assertion that we didn’t seem to understand or care.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t handle that kind of criticism well. Not in person…Not on the telephone…Not ever. I generally manage to maintain my composure, but not without an internal struggle of almost epic proportion.

I have a wife who I care about a great deal.

To say that she is “automotive technology illiterate,” or at the very least “automotive technology impaired,” would be a gross understatement. One of my greatest fears is that she will get stuck someplace because I know that beyond calling me, she would be lost.

I have a daughter who, despite the fact she has spent more time in a shop like yours or mine than a lot of people who have made this a career, understands less about cars and trucks than my wife does.

I have a son who loves cars, driving, and speed and performance. But, it would be safe to say that in his case, the genome responsible for understanding anything mechanical skipped a generation!

To suggest that I don’t understand or appreciate the level of anxiety that automotive problems can generate: especially intermittent automotive problems, is inaccurate if not just plain insensitive.

I “get it”! Everyone here “gets it”! Everyone I know who takes this industry seriously “gets it”! That’s why we all work as hard as we do to ensure the vehicles that leave the shop are repaired right the first time!

I know how good we are at what we do. I know the lengths we will go to in order to duplicate the conditions under which a vehicle might fail. To have someone tell us that we failed to find a “simple, yet obvious problem” when the weather would not cooperate or the vehicle failed to fail, was maddening.

We did what anyone who has been doing this for a lifetime would do. We went back to the beginning and started over.

The first thing we found was a series of erratic IAC motor counts that were all over the board and never consistent with where they were supposed to be. The signal was good, the resulting movement of the idle air control motor was not. We called for authorization.

“Will this ‘fix’ the Suburban?”

“I can’t be sure it will eliminate the stall and die. But, I am sure it will help eliminate an erratic idle problem that could contribute to the stall and die condition and should ensure much better idle quality.”

“But, are you sure?”

Despite the fact we could not guarantee total success, we received authorization to replace the IAC motor, and that we did. The result was stable IAC motor operation and a rock-steady idle.

We forced the vehicle to operate at higher than normal temperatures and began to cycle the Suburban through a series of operational tests. It finally began to symptomize and ultimately died for us. The problem was now repeatable.

We verified the computer was adding both fuel and air. In essence, it was doing whatever it could to keep the vehicle from stalling. But, the engine continued to lose rpm, eventually stalling and dying with symptoms very consistent with the torque converter clutch locking up. We weren’t that lucky; it wasn’t going to be a “simple, yet obvious” transmission problem.

We continued to look at the vehicle, adding equipment as we moved from testing one system to another. Ultimately, we were able to verify a loss of signal from the ignition module to the PCM, which we identified as the ultimate cause of the intermittent stall and die.

We removed the distributor cap and rotor and then the distributor, and this is what we found (see Photo 1). Not only was the module failing intermittently, the pickup was in pieces and the bushing was worn enough to allow the shaft to wobble wildly. When all was said and done, the fact that the vehicle would stall and die intermittently under any condition wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising was the fact that it ran at all!

We called our client and explained what we had uncovered, forwarding the digital images you see here. We told her we were confident we had isolated the problem and that a replacement distributor would put an end to the anxiety associated with never knowing how, when or where the vehicle would fail.

I tried to assure her that this particular problem needn’t remain a problem any longer.

“But, are you sure?”

“As sure as anyone confronted with the same information can be,” was all I could reply.

We called her brother, the patriarch of the family, and explained to him what we had uncovered, also forwarding him the digital images. We received authorization to replace the distributor and to continue testing, if required.

Thankfully, further inspection and testing was not required. The vehicle ran even better than it had ­before — before it started to stall and die without warning — and that was pretty damned good!

We delivered the vehicle and off they went. Two days later the phone rang. It was the Suburban’s owner calling to let us know that the vehicle had never run better. It was smoother, had more power and seemed to be getting better mileage. That sounded like the perfect trifecta in our world. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself…

“But, are you sure?”

She laughed and replied, “You bet I am!”