The year was nineteen-eighty-something. I was twenty-something and living in Atlanta, taking my car in for its annual emissions test. I’d always been good at taking tests, and so had my cars—but, this time, my car flunked. I was given 30 days to resolve the problem and come back for a re-test.
A business that didn’t practice aloha
I took my car to the auto shop that my parents and I had been going to for years (let’s call it Reliable Joe’s One-Stop Pit Stop), dropped it off, and awaited the phone call that would reveal the extent of the financial damages. Joe always had struck me as an honest guy, explaining my cars’ woes in a way that made sense to me—at the time, an artsy intellectual who knew and cared little about transmissions, carburetors, spark plugs, or timing belts.
Even during the 1980s, though, every trip to the repair shop seemed to cost at least $183. But Joe hadn’t been there when I’d dropped off my car. Instead, there had been a hulking, middle-aged guy with greasy hair and shifty eyes. My dad, who had been there recently with his own car, told me the shop was under new management.
At last, the call came: “Mr. Mattys, the reason your car didn’t pass the emissions test is that the catalytic converter, exhaust manifold, and intake conversion unit are on their last legs and need to be replaced. Also, we couldn’t help noticing that you need new fan belts, windshield wipers, power-steering fluid, spark plugs, and a battery.” (Okay, this is memory speaking, so it isn’t 100% accurate, but the list was very long.)
I gulped. “How much is this going to cost?”
“With parts and labor… about eleven-hundred dollars, give or take. We can have it ready by five o’clock tomorrow.”
Eleven-hundred dollars?! That was a fortune to me, a college student with a part-time job. But wait… “You said I need new windshield wipers?”
“Yeah, the rubber’s deteriorated. They’re gonna start leaving streaks on your windshield.”
“But I put new ones on two weeks ago.”
Long pause. “Hold on a sec’.” Longer pause. “My mistake, Mr. Mattys. That was for the car in the next bay. Sorry about that.”
I smelled a rat. “Don’t do a thing to my car. I’m going to come and pick it up now.”
A business that did practice aloha
I called my dad, we picked up my car, and we dropped it off at a shop across the street (let’s call it The Don’t-Panic Mechanic). I told them only that my car hadn’t passed the emissions test, not what the guy at Joe’s had said. Some time later, I received a call: “Mr. Mattys? Your car needs a new air filter. It’ll be $35 with installation.” They replaced the filter, and my car passed the emissions test.
Needless to say, I transferred my business from Reliable Joe’s One-Stop Pit Stop to The Don’t-Panic Mechanic, and I told everyone I knew to avoid Joe’s. What strikes me now is how over-the-top Joe’s attempted ripoff was. If I’d been told it would cost $183, I would have accepted it. But $1,100? Adjust that for 2017 dollars, and you’ll understand how extravagantly greedy it was.
Why don’t all businesses practice aloha?
I have no idea what became of Reliable Joe’s. For all I know, the hulking, shifty-eyed guy continued bilking customers who were more naive than I was, and retired to a condo in Florida. But in 2017, thanks to social media, it’s harder to get away with operating an unethical business.
I’ll take that one step further: it’s harder to operate a business in which you don’t provide outstanding customer service. Since the financial crash of 2008, I’ve noticed that the level of customer service has improved dramatically. When I go into a grocery store, a clothing store, my bank, or wherever, I’m impressed by how cheerful the employees are, and how much they try to engage me: “And how is your day going, sir? Have any big plans for the weekend?”
With rare exceptions, it doesn’t strike me as false. I think businesses know that customers have a lot of choices now, and that people who have a bad experience are far more likely to post about it on social media than are people who have a good experience, so they hire employees who are friendly and have a positive attitude.
On Koa Leaf, we’ll be profiling small-business owners we’ve met who have a passion for what they do and who go out of their way to “delight the customer,” as the saying goes. In many cases, these entrepreneurs have become friends of ours, and we enthusiastically recommend them to others who might benefit from their services. We’ll ask them to share their secrets about living and working aloha, including advice they have for those of you who want to start a business based on your passion, but aren’t sure where to begin. We promise to remain reliable, unlike Joe’s.
Featured image at top: Self-explanatory