What shop owners need to know about legal obligations they have to their customers

By David Rogers

A few years ago, a fast lube chain I won’t name here got themselves into a big pile of trouble, not for doing something unethical, but because of a simple misunderstanding at the front counter.

This chain’s locations work with a pit system, and do not lift vehicles when they’re in for service or repair. This means that the shop is unable to check steering and suspension. In fact, if I had to guess, the techs at this chain probably aren’t even trained on how to inspect or diagnose these components.

The problem for this store started when a customer came in and asked if the shop could do an inspection when they did the oil change. “Yes, we’ll give it a full inspection,” said the counterman.

The shop did their normal full inspection which did not, of course, include suspension, steering, or other systems that would require a lift to inspect. The customer paid and left.

Shortly thereafter, the worst happened. While that customer’s wife and child were driving one day, the vehicle lost a wheel, causing a fatal crash.

The courts found the shop responsible. In their estimation, the customer had no way of knowing that the shop wouldn’t inspect the steering and suspension when doing a “full inspection.” The counterman had never been trained to make sure the customer understood what that inspection did and didn’t include, or to ask critical questions like, “are you having a problem with the vehicle?”

Every day, in every interaction we have with our customers, we are seen as the expert, not just by the customer, but by the legal system. Which makes it our legal obligation to take that role seriously and give full disclosure about everything.

This liability and responsibility stretches into corners of your shop you might never expect! If you’re operating a shop that cannot raise a car into the air, you might never consider that you could be found responsible for a vehicle’s wheel falling off. The critical distinction is that it often doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do, but what you did or did not communicate.

When we’re at the front counter, we usually think in terms of what was done: the work we performed, the items we identified during the inspection, the things we told the customer. We don’t often think of the things not said, however, which is why focusing on full disclosure and clear transparency is so critical.

Asking lots of questions helps eliminate the possibility that the customer is leaving things unsaid. But the responsibility is still on the advisor to explain precisely what your shop does and does not include in any service.

In fact, there’s no possible way to list every single possible liability that you might encounter, and therein lies the dilemma. How do you protect your shop against things both done and undone, said and unsaid?

That’s an unsolvable riddle, meaning that as owner, our job becomes doing everything we can to reduce exposure.

Case and point: digital inspections. In this digital age, it’s become incredibly easy to send a finished inspection to show what we did. So easy, in fact, that we can send it off without ever thinking about what we’re saying or how we’re saying it.

A large part of reducing exposure in this kind of communication scenario is to remember – and to build processes that ensure the team always remembers – to never assume that the customer has knowledge of things we do.

That includes reminding them of work they previously declined, of course, but also disclosing the things that may not lead to a bigger ticket, like information about recalls on their vehicle. In our shop, we pull recalls for every vehicle every time so that we can fully and truthfully advise the customer during every visit.

We don’t get paid for recall work, of course, but in the service of being the expert that the customer trusts us to be, consider this: with longer service times for oil changes and other preventive maintenance, we have fewer opportunities to catch and report problems. We cannot assume that somebody else will let them know about a critical recall before it leaves that driver stranded or worse, so we have an obligation to let them know about it whether we stand to make money from it or not.

In this way, you are like their doctor. You may not be a cancer specialist, but if you notice an odd lump and don’t advise the patient to go see an oncologist, you’re liable for that cancer going untreated. Withholding information is just as dangerous as misinformation.

What does all of this mean?

Those of us who work at the front counter of a repair shop talk to so many people. We have a never-ending string of conversations, and in each, we’re responsible for giving clear, correct, transparent, and complete communication. It’s imperative that we create policies and institute tools for our employees that ensure that our customers know what was done just as clearly as they know what was not done so that they can keep their family safe.

Doing this is just as critical as having your attorney review your warranties, guarantees, policies, and liability waivers when it comes to protecting your shop.

The good news, of course, is that clearly communicating your inspection findings, reminding your customer of previously unapproved work, and sharing recalls and TSBs with them are also the same things that successful shops do to create loyal, lifelong customers who trust and buy your recommendations.

Remember to treat every customer the way you’d want your own mother to be treated in another repair shop. Not only will it create customers for life, but the transparent communication will help protect both your customer and your shop!

Published in Motor Age