Motor Age Garage

Jan. 1, 2020
Just the facts, please — even the ones that might not seem significant.

Information Disconnect

Poorly written work orders can cause even the most competent technician a lot of headaches. Some work orders are easy to write: "Change oil and filter" or "Rotate tires" is fairly straightforward. "Service transmission" or "Tune up and replace fuel filter," on the other hand, should lead to further questions on the part of the service advisor and the technician. But what about those times when customers are streaming in so fast that information accuracy is sacrificed on the altar of hasty expediency?

There are questionnaires that customers are supposed to fill out for intermittent concerns, but they don't cotton to that very much, and the service advisor may or may not use those sheets as a guideline when he or she asks the questions.

One service writer at the Ford/Jeep dealer where I worked hammered out a repair line that said "Windshield won't separate rain from water." Who on earth knows what that means?

I drew a work order on an Econoline van with several repair lines, the first of which read this way: "Unit won't start without left turn signal on."

It was such an interesting problem that I fought it for about 30 minutes before I found that the wiring had been deliberately modified to work that way. When I asked the service advisor about it, he said he the customer had informed him of the modification — (it was supposed to be a theft deterrent) and that he had added that comment so I would know how to start the van. The Oxford Dictionary word doh! came to mind. Thanks a lot for putting it on an R.O. repair line!

A third write-up dealt with an ABS brake warning light problem, and the customer described it very well, but the information he gave wasn't passed along to the wrench man. The result was that the master cylinder was replaced because of a trouble code that pointed to the fluid level switch (which was fairly common on those Rangers), and the ABS warning light went away, but the exasperated customer had to return with the same concern to explain that the ABS light only popped on right after the parking brake was applied.

I drew the job on its second visit, and with the customer's diligent explanation of the concern, it became evident that there had been an information disconnect between what he had told the service advisor and the simple "ABS light comes on write-up." In this case, the technician never applied the park brake, so he assumed he had repaired the concern when he replaced the master cylinder.
Gathering enough pertinent information from a customer is an art that a service advisor has to develop. Some never do. And even when the customer knows enough to give a good description of the problem, communication of those thoughts on a work order can be pretty tough. But what about those times when the customer sees something else going on that they don't consider significant enough to mention for whatever reason?

The Familiar Bite

All she told me was that her Caravan was "jankin," and I recognized that as a hybrid word that lands somewhere between "jerk" and "yank."

I sent one of my more seasoned students with the owner on a test drive. The student came back and described a surge, but said it only did it a couple of times, just briefly.

The code we pulled was for an inactive or slow oxygen (O2) sensor, which on a Chrysler can happen anywhere within the O2 sensor's range — and too often it happens just above 0.5 volts. With an active feedback fuel system in closed loop trying to correct that bad reading, a Chrysler product can do all sorts of bucking and jerking (the short fuel trim graph looks like large saw teeth, with corresponding engine response), and thecode seemed to fit. I had seen this concern dozens of times when I worked at the dealer.

A second test drive with another seasoned student accompanied by the Nemisys scan tool showed a flatlining O2 sensor right at or above the 0.5 volt line, just like we figured, along with those repeated fuel trim corrections that cause the engine to buck and surge.

In extreme cases, such as on one particular 1991 Dodge pickup I saw, this syndrome can cause the vehicle to become practically undriveable without a restart, and as soon as the Power Control Module (PCM) closes the O2 feedback loop, the problem returns. The O2 sensor can do this intermittently on Chrysler vehicles over a broad model year window that spans OBD I and OBD II years.

Anyway, we verified her concern and isolated a problem that fit her description of the symptom. We had probable cause, not only based on what our scan tool was showing us in the Parameter Identification (PID) window, but also on experiences I remembered with similar platforms. In a word, we had solid data and prior experience on our side. We had gathered our data scientifically and had seen no other concerns — related or otherwise. The Caravan would need an O2 sensor (this one only has one upstream sensor, by the way). Game, set and match, right?

The price tag for that repair was $80 — give or take a few bucks, since we don't charge labor at the school. She gave the thumbs up, paid the cashier ahead of time (don't say it, guys, I know that was a bad idea) and then she hopped on the college bus for an afternoon/evening field trip to ride a riverboat with some other students in Montgomery. If all was right in the world, she'd be back at 11 p.m. to dig her keys out from under the seat and drive 20 miles back home through rural Alabama.

Service advisors, being human, like to be the customer's hero. They love calling to tell a stressed-out owner that the problem wasn't as bad or as expensive as they originally thought it would be — and they may not get a lot of chances to make those calls. Too often, they have to call the customer with more bad news, and they loathe that experience.

It doesn't make any normal person happy to be the bearer of evil tidings. With that syndrome nipping at their heels, service advisors (particularly the ones who haven't callused their hands with a wrench, had undercar dirt or snow fall down their shirt or dodged high-voltage sparks) want the technician to give them a bona-fide guarantee that the part the technician plans to install will take care of all the customer's concerns.

The simple fact is that we just can't give them that guarantee. Can anybody say "Verify the Repair?" Every service manual on the planet includes a test of that nature to determine whether there are other problems after the guilty item has been properly diagnosed and replaced.

On what we thought would be the Caravan's final test drive, the battery light started blinking and the van started surging really bad. The guys who were doing the work coasted back onto my service lot with a totally dead battery. It was 4 p.m. on a Friday. I scrambled to find the cell phone number of our college bus driver, and got her on the phone to explain the circumstances. She needn't expect to hop off the bus at nearly midnight and find her van ready to drive home.

She was a little disappointed, but very sweet about the whole thing, and we resolved to find out what the heck was going on the following Monday.

I figured the brushes were shot in the generator. On Monday, we did a teardown and found that I was right. When I called her, she told me that she didn't have the money for a $200 rebuilt replacement. We deal with a lot of students who don't have much money, so I wasn't surprised.

We took some slightly better brushes out of another old Nippondenso generator we had on the trainer parts shelf and patched hers. The patch brought her generator back to life, but for how long? The rotor slip rings looked horrible.

In these situations, I like to rewind and ask a few questions in an attempt to determine what we could have done to avoid this land mine:

  • Why didn't she mention the battery light, and/or dead battery problems if this was the same problem? She had ridden on the first test drive and verified the surge.
  • Is it possible that maybe she hadn't seen a battery light? Maybe it was a coincidental failure? Was this truly an information disconnect, or just a circumstantial land mine?
  • What do you do when you've spent most of what somebody had in their checking account on a repair that you were sure was totally legit, only to find that the customer has another, more expensive problem that rears its ugly head before the car even leaves the shop?

In the grand scheme of things, this customer was a lot better off with the car having quit on my two guys than she would have been if it had stranded her on a lonely country road somewhere at midnight. Legal issues aside, none of us wants anything like that to happen to any of our customers. Not ever.

Richard McCuistian is an ASE-certified Master Auto Technician and was a professional mechanic for more than 25 years. Richard is now an auto mechanics instructor at LBW Community College/MacArthur Campus in Opp, AL. E-mail Richard at [email protected].

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