When I was a kid back in the ‘80s there was a TV commercial for a brand of work wear in which a know-all corporate executive is bringing his clients down to the dock to take them to his yacht that was moored in the middle of the harbor. The friendly ferryman tells the exec that, due to the size of the dinghy he’ll be using to get them there, it seems as though it will require two trips to get the job done.
This is met with an angry reply of, “Don’t backchat me, I know boats!” and as if to make his point, the know-all immediately steps off the dock and goes straight through the waiting dinghy below and into the water, vindicating the cautious professional and making himself look the fool in front of his clients. Ouch.
I bought my first decent performance car, a 1995 Nissan Skyline R33, back in 2002. Although it was mostly stock except for the usual bolt-on parts, it went like a rocket compared to my previous car and I loved it. It made about 320hp (roughly four times as much as the car it replaced), and unlike today where you’ll spot a dozen of them on a five-minute drive around my neighborhood, back then it was still fairly unusual to see one of them on the road.
It was also rare to find a workshop owner who had seen one. This proved to be a real problem, and a learning experience too, when it came to choosing a performance shop to work on and maintain my car. I must have visited five or six shops and asked them each the same question before I found one with the guts to answer it honestly. The question was simple:
“Have you ever worked on one of these before?”
Now in the very early 2000s in my hometown of some 250,000 people there were, to the best of my knowledge, a total of three cars of this type. In fact before I even met the two other guys who owned one, we used to wave whenever we saw each other. A sort of mutual acknowledgment that we were driving something almost nobody recognized. It was a shared love for the type of car as well as a mutual understanding of the difficulties associated with owning it.
There were a huge number of workshops I could have chosen to ask my simple question to, so to narrow the list down somewhat I focused only on the shops who specialized in and had runs on the board when it came to performance work. I picked a couple and went for a drive to see them, sound them out, and ask them my innocuous little question.
The responses were all variations on a theme. “Yeah, I’ve worked on plenty of them before, no problem,” and “Built a bunch of them in my time,” and other similar responses along those lines. The problem I had with these answers should be obvious. They hadn’t worked on plenty of them and likely had never seen one before. These shop owners, all performance car mechanics with years of experience in their field were just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear.
It wasn’t until I met the fella who ran what would become the only workshop I’d trust to work on my car, that I got something that sounded like the truth. I asked him if he’d worked on my type of car before and he replied, “No, never. But common sense says it shouldn’t be too different to other cars with a similar engine and driveline that I have worked on. I’ll have a look at it and if there’s anything unusual or tricky I’ll let you know.”
He hadn’t fed me a line or tried to convince me that he’d built a hundred of them or that he knew them back to front. Instead, his practical, common sense answer gave me all the confidence I needed to entrust my car to him and his workshop. He was the cautious professional serving up truth in the face of so many know-alls hoping to bullshit their way into the job, and it was the beginning of a great relationship.
Just a couple of years later his workshop had become the place to take your Nissan Skyline, and then more broadly your late-model import car, if you wanted someone who actually knew what they were doing to work on it. The shop’s reputation was second to none and the quality of work was top-notch. It was nothing to see four or five imports in there at once on any given day.
The moral of the story is simple. Any short-term gains to be made by feeding a potential customer a line to get a one-off job are easily outweighed by just being honest. By giving it to me straight my mechanic was effectively playing the long game and in so doing earned my business as well as that of dozens if not hundreds of other performance car owners.
When you give a customer the confidence to spend money with you and back it up with the quality of work they expect, you’re enabling them to advocate for you and your business and that can only end well for everyone. Reputations are earned. But more importantly, whether they’re good or bad, they’re almost always deserved.