Sarah Elkins

5 years ago · 2 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

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Never Underestimate Your Customer

A VW Bug Adventure

My accelerator pedal dropped to the floor when the light turned green and I tried to move forward. Reaching down while horns were honking behind me, I tried to pull the pedal back up to rest on the accelerator pin*. The pin had disappeared. A woman behind me ran up to my window and asked if she could gently push my car with her car into the driveway to the right of the light, where there happened to be a garage with a mechanic on site. I nodded yes, please!

*On old VW bugs, the gas pedal used to just sit on top of a pin that stuck out from the side of the floor.

When my car was safely parked, the woman pulled up next to me to see if she could help. I got out of the car, dressed in a white tuxedo shirt, black mini skirt and pumps, ready for a cocktail shift at a fancy restaurant in town. The woman offered to take me to work after I spoke with the mechanic, so she was there, watching while I spoke with the mechanic. The mechanic came out to take a look -- I saw his stomach first, then his beard as he came out of the garage. He was every stereotype you can imagine; large, filthy, and with suspenders holding up his pants below his belly. He took one look at me and I could feel the target he thought he could see on my face. The car was still running and I had opened the trunk - it was a '74 Super Beetle. The mechanic squatted down next to the car and looked at the engine.

I told him: "The throttle cable snapped." He stared at me. Then he stared at the engine some more. I said "the throttle cable snapped and I need to get to work. I'm going to be late for work."

He stared at me. He stared at the engine. Then he pulled on the throttle to rev the engine. He said "let's just take a look here."

I admit it. I lost my temper. I was frustrated, hot, and late for work. I used my hip to push him out of the way (I didn't want to touch him with anything that wasn't black already), reached toward the throttle, and started to pull the accelerator cable from that end. On a VW bug, the throttle cable snakes through the undercarriage of the car, then pops up into the driver's side floor, where it connects with a pin. The pedal sits on top of the pin. Yes, the pin that disappeared under the gas pedal. I pulled the cable; I pulled until the sheared end popped out, about 12 inches of it hanging from my fingers.

I slapped the end of the cable on the mechanic's chest:

"The (snap.) Throttle (snap.) Cable (snap.) Snapped (snap.) I need you to get a new cable from Scott at Foreign Auto Parts downtown, put the car up on the lift, and snake it back into the pin. It should take about 20 minutes and the cable should cost about $15. I'll pay you $50 to do this. It's all I can afford. I'll pick it up tomorrow morning around 10. Ok?"

He nodded, silent. I got into the car with the woman who rescued me. I was shaking with anger and frustration. I couldn't afford this. Rent was due in a few days. I was near tears when the woman turned to look at me, put her hand on my arm, and started laughing, a big, deep belly laugh. She was laughing so hard she had tears in her eyes.

"I've never seen anything like that before in my life. That was absolutely the best! Did you see the look on his face? He was in total shock. He completely underestimated you."

She was laughing so hard that I couldn't stay angry. I started to laugh with her. As I got out of her car to go to work, I told her how much I appreciated her help. It was everything in me not to burst into tears of gratitude. She reached out and put $20 in my hand. When I told her I couldn't take the money after all she'd already done, she laughed again and said $20 was the least she could pay for that experience.

Although the mechanic apologized to me when I went to pick up my car the next morning, I never set foot in that garage again, and never recommended it to anyone.

Have you ever underestimated a customer, only to be embarrassed afterward? Have you been underestimated? How did you handle it?

*This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

About me:

A skilled teacher and entertaining speaker, I offer storytelling keynotes, trainings and workshops and one-to-one coaching. I teach people how to find their stories, organize them, and share them across platforms. Learning to tell your story is the key to your success. Learning to understand your audience and make your story effective is the key to storytelling. I love people, which is why I'm devoted to helping people find better ways to connect and improve their lives by improving their storytelling skills. 

I believe in being human in all our faults and beauty in every environment. If you think you can separate your personal and professional brands, you're delusional. I share my thoughts on this via Twitter sometimes, @sarahelkins

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Comments
Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

3 years ago #13

#24
That is so true, Ignacio, thank you for your comment. Every interaction with a customer is an opportunity for more goodwill. And yes, your best customer is also your best salesperson!

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

4 years ago #12

#22
Funny you would mention that, Brian. A year after that experience, I started working for a local car mechanic. He let me use his lift and tools, and I replaced the entire peddle assembly with the kind of roller skate wheel you describe. It looked cool, was a great experience for me, and worked WAY better.

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

4 years ago #11

#20
That's huge, Wayne Yoshida. How recently did that happen? I wonder if things have changed in that area, since so many wealthy young people don't dress up like wealthy people did a couple of decades ago? Your story needs to be shared with all high-end car dealerships. That's right, Wayne, don't mess with me -- I'm little but I have a big temper! Thanks for the comment!

Wayne Yoshida

Wayne Yoshida

4 years ago #10

Yikes. Don't mess with Sarah Elkins! I have a similar story, but it was a car-buying story, not a car-fixing story. I went into a BMW dealership. It was a hot Saturday summer, so I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. I was all ready to buy a car. Bracing for the typical car salesman grab the customer and put him in a new car experience, I had a complete checklist of exactly what I wanted. (325i, 2.5L engine, etc). I knew what to pay, actually, I wanted that car and would have paid what they asked for. A salesmans' dream customer . . . No one asked me if I needed any help or wanted to know what I was looking for. So after about 20 minutes of looking at their stock, I left. So I ended up buying a Mazda RX-7 instead that same day. Never bought and no longer desire that brand. Too bad.

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #9

#16
, that's perfect, Ken. Our boys call it "slug-bug" and if it's yellow, it's a double-punch for "nanner". I loved that little car; it seemed like everyone knew my car in Fort Collins. I would park it and when I came back many times there would be a note on the windshield. A couple of times I had a flower there waiting for me from one of my friends. Thanks for the comment.

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #8

#14
Thanks for the comment, Jim. I love that you defer to your wife in certain situations. It definitely throws people like the mechanic I described for a loop. I had to educate our local Subaru dealership in that when we moved here and I've seen big improvements in the attitude since I called out my salesman on his assumption! And yes, beBee seems promising. Time will tell...

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #7

#3
Thanks, Franci. I laugh every time I read this story and even more when I share it with people in person! When I first wrote it, I sent it to my mother for review. She said she was reading it out loud at lunch with some friends and all of them were laughing so hard they were crying. I don't know if there is anything better to hear than that!

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #6

#4
Julie, she was a wonderful person. I only wish I had a way to contact her after all these years. What an impact one stranger can have on our lives! This story probably wouldn't be nearly as funny without her role in it. A '64 yellow convertible? That must have been way too much fun -- and I'll bet you got into a lot of trouble with that car. With every young woman I have a relationship, I tell them that story and encourage them not only to know a little something about their vehicles, I remind them how important it is to stand up for themselves in a situation like that. We are all ambassadors and the more of us who know something and stand up, the less likely it is others will be taken advantage of.

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #5

#5
Oh dear, Pamela. We would have some great stories to swap as well, I think. I dumped a glass of iced tea on a customer in a very fancy restaurant, staining her very expensive coat. She was not laughing and that did not end well. I love that the table was so understanding. People, generally, are good. Sometimes we have to be reminded and called out on our bad behavior. I truly believe that when people are faced with the reality of their bad behavior they are generally uncomfortable and embarrassed by it. There are few people in this world who truly don't care about being liked by others. I have a tendency to overestimate people until they prove otherwise. I have underestimated our boys on occasion; I'm not sure how any parent can see their children for where they are in development in any given situation when we live with them every day.

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #4

#6
Aaron Skogen - I SO wish I still had that little bug. The stories we could swap over those vehicles would take hours, a good amount of beer, and probably some breaks for breathing after laughing so hard. A few years after that story I wrecked the gold bug but the engine was still good. My boyfriend at that time found a baby-aspirin orange body and we swapped out that engine for mine in an afternoon with beer & pizza. I drove the orange bug for a few years. I miss those little cars and would love to pick one up after our boys leave the house -- they're far too big to cart them around in a bug. You know I'm always up for a road trip, let me know where & when! Maybe this summer we can find a way to get us all together somewhere.

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #3

#7
Great comment, Zack Thorn, though a tad cynical, right? I was just reading a reminder that there are more good people than bad in our lives and to look for the good every day. I find that to be absolutely true. I have definitely known and experienced people who get paid far too much for what they do, and others on the opposite end of that spectrum. The reasons I knew so much about my car are that my father wouldn't let me drive without knowing the basics, I didn't have any money to have other people fix it, and I worked in a small garage as the office manager prior to being a cocktail server/bartender. The owner of that little garage in Fort Collins, Colorado, was not only incredibly capable and honest, he was a great teacher.

Sarah Elkins

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #2

#7
Great comment, Zack Thorn, though a tad cynical, right? I was just reading a reminder that there are more good people than bad in our lives and to look for the good every day. I find that to be absolutely true. I have definitely known and experienced people who get paid far too much for what they do, and others on the opposite end of that spectrum. The reasons I knew so much about my car are that my father wouldn't let me drive without knowing the basics, I didn't have any money to have other people fix it, and I worked in a small garage as the office manager prior to being a cocktail server/bartender. The owner of that little garage in Fort Collins, Colorado, was not only incredibly capable and honest, he was a great teacher.

Qamar Ali Khan

Qamar Ali Khan

5 years ago #1

Superb post Sarah! Spot on experience and judgment! Thanks for sharing. Congratulations on your first post here and welcome aboard!

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