This is a true story. For several weeks, we had a rumble, rattle or otherwise disturbing noise in the right rear of our van. One day, I did get out of the van and looked at the muffler and tailpipe. Finding no apparent problem, I continued to the shopping center.
Within minutes, there was a significant thump from the right rear undercarriage. The rumble turned to a hard dragging, scraping sound. I found the right rear shock absorber hanging down, making contact with the pavement. Immediately, all thoughts of shopping were scrapped and replaced by a controlled panic.
Fortunately, there was a freeway at hand and I turned the van onto it. With emergency lights flashing, I proceeded on the shoulder at a bold 20 mph. The distance between exits on a freeway, when the speed of travel is 20 mph, is infinity. Four miles later, I was able to exit at a dealership (Arnell Motors) where my distress could be addressed.
My problem was minor. A bolt on the shock absorber had snapped. Of course, I did not see this as a minor problem. I was stuck in Burns Harbor without recourse to a Burger King, Wendy's or similar establishment. Yet as the afternoon progressed, I began to see two important and complementary facts.
First, everyone who comes into the service department of a dealership has a problem. It might be a minor inconvenience or it may be a major concern. At minimum, time has to be spent without a vehicle.
The problem might be a new pickup truck with a leaking radiator. It might be an old truck with the famous red "check engine" light illuminated.
The owners in for service might be working people who cannot afford to be without their vehicles for even a few hours. Some elderly owners are retired and make the time spent in the waiting area part of a vacation from home and each other.
This distinctive combination of customers and their problems leads to the second feature of a service department. Each customer must be greeted with courtesy and a sincere appreciation of her/his problem and its implications for life that day. As my wise brother used to say, "The worst problem you have is the worst problem you have."
Thus, the service personnel who are responsible for intake must be more than technically competent. They have to be diplomats, garage psychoanalysts and automotive father confessors. They must never promise more than can be delivered, yet they must convey hope wrapped in whipped cream of concern.
As I waited for my van to be repaired, I listened to Gayle Moore, who answers the phone with an exceptionally cheerful greeting: "We're having a great day at Arnell Motors." I have no idea how many times I heard her say that and then pause while someone on the other end of the line spewed forth his/her complaint or demand. Not once did she flinch or cringe at the words coming into her ear.
By the time my van was ready, I understood better than before the immense pressure of a service department. You and I expect a wrong to be righted. While you and I hold "them" personally responsible for the mistakes of others (and ourselves), the service representatives are not throwing cups of hot coffee on us. They respond with a cool professional procedure that helps them maintain their sanity when we lack ours. They earn their pay by maintaining their civility.
It is a lesson we could all copy.
Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.