Menefee: A Lesson in Handling an Unruly Customer

Feb. 14, 2024
The toughest client can test a shop owner's patience. Could you or your team members benefit from customer service training?

A few months back, I had the dreaded customer no one wants: the one who is unreasonable and unhinged. It took me a few months before I even wanted to write about it because I was so upset over this customer and how things transpired. 

The Scratch 

The customer's vehicle was hit by a roof shingle flying off a truck that left a scratch on the quarter panel of their vehicle. The insurance paid to buff the quarter panel with the standard directions that if the scratch did not come out to submit a supplement to paint the quarter panel. Long story short, we were able to buff out the scratch, but the customer said it was still there. The supplement was then denied because the scratch was gone, and the customer refused to take vehicle. The vehicle had been at the shop for over two weeks and the customer had been to the shop a handful of times and still refused to take the vehicle, even though we had already been paid and the issue was between her and her insurance company. We could not place a mechanic’s lien on the vehicle because we had already been paid by the insurance and due to other city regulations. 

We finally convinced the customer to come to the shop again to inspect the vehicle and see if she would take it, but she again refused. At this point, I was at my wit's end because she not only refused delivery of the vehicle; she added in berating us and throwing accusations at us. I gently tossed her paperwork with the keys resting on top about three inches onto the roof of her vehicle and told her “I’m sorry; you have to take the vehicle,” and explained this was between her and her insurance company. That is when all heck broke loose.  

She started screaming that I endangered her life by gently tossing her keys and called the police on me well over six times. In the end, she went off the deep end and the police arrested her.  

This was my takeaway from the incident.  

  1. I lost my cool, and that exacerbated the situation. 
  2. I did not know my rights and how to legally handle the situation for my area.

In the Future 

I have talked about this situation with a number of other shop owners and managers, and the general consensus was we should have vetted the customer and never scheduled them in. In my office's defense, sometimes even with the best vetting you never know if the customer will turn out to be crazy. This customer was a middle school teacher who was very friendly and gave us no reason to think she would end up going off the deep end. The situation opened my eyes and showed me where I do have some weaknesses and where I need to improve on things.  

I will readily admit that I lost my cool. I have no shame in admitting I am not perfect, and this customer drove me to that point. Should I have gently tossed the keys on her roof? Absolutely not. Did it make me feel better in the moment? Absolutely. Did I exacerbate the situation and cause havoc on myself? 100%. Will I handle a situation like this in the future differently? Absolutely.  

Even though I know in the future I will manage things differently, I signed up for the Discover Leadership course by Mike Jones so that I can improve myself and my leadership skills. I hope that it will help me not lose my cool in the future.  

I also looked into how I could have handled the situation in a different manner legally. Generally, I would have put a mechanic’s lien on the vehicle, but since we had already been paid in full for the repairs that was not an option for me in my area. Our area has some very specific rules when it comes to body shops and storage fees also. I now know that what I could have done was notify them that the vehicle was complete, the invoice had been paid, and the vehicle would need to be picked up within a certain number of days. If it wasn’t picked up, it would be considered abandoned, and I could have an impound company tow it to their impound lot and off my premises. That way, the customer would be forced to deal with the impound company to get her vehicle back. Having a vehicle impounded or having to do a mechanic’s lien is never an outcome I want, but I learned from the incident that I need to be prepared because situations like this do come around every now and again.  

In all of this, I learned that I need to continue working on my team’s customer service skills, specifically when a customer is being unreasonable or out of hand. I also learned that no matter how well prepared you are, there is always a person or a situation that can best you. I don’t care how perfect a shop is or how excellent your customer service skills are. Each shop has a story about a customer situation that did not go as planned. So, give yourself some grace; you are not alone in this.