Article > Mitch’s World

'The Only Thing That Matters is the Perception of the Customer'

By Mitch Schneider

Customers, those incredibly complicated, frustrating, inscrutable and often times maddening individuals who make all of our lives possible, are not all that easy to figure out.
Mitch Schneider
In most of the customer relationship management work I do or have done, there is always a point at which I find myself espousing what has become my own personal CRM mantra:

“Perception is reality… Feelings are facts… The only thing that matters is the perception of the customer.”
When you are in a service business like mine, you either know that intuitively, experience an epiphany somewhere along the way and accept it or die a long, slow, agonizingly painful death.

Customers, those incredibly complicated, frustrating, inscrutable and often times maddening individuals who make all of our lives possible, are not all that easy to figure out. Unless of course, you get out from behind your desk, put yourself in their shoes and cross over to their side of the service encounter in order to experience just what it’s like to do business with you and your company from their perspective. Or, you ask them.

We’ve been asking our clients that for years: “What’s it like to do business with us, with our company? How hard do we make it do business with us? How hard do we make it to tell your friends we’re terrific?” And, of course: “How can we make this experience better, easier, more satisfying?”

We’ve asked our customers another question as well, a question I believed to be critical in fact until just recently. That question was: “If you could start from scratch and re-invent automotive service, what would it look and feel like?”
I used the term “believed” above because everything I know and have learned about human nature over the years suggests the majority of us are incapable of doing anything that even remotely comes close to that.

Most people think about the relationships they share solely in terms of the relationships they know. In other words, we define automotive service relationships in the context of all the other automotive service relationships we’ve ever experienced, or have witnessed others experience. And they have pretty much done or continue to do the same thing.
Consequently, we keep doing the same things we’ve always done just about the same way we’ve always done them because that’s all we know, all we’ve ever known, all we want to know.

We “tweak” things from time. We introduce a new “wrinkle” here or there, an enhancement or a reward. But for the most part, we’re doing things the same way our fathers and their fathers did with little or no exception.

What if you were able to go to a different time or a different place and create a system by which personal transportation vehicles – whatever they might be and however they were powered – could be serviced, maintained and repaired, completely from scratch?

Knowing what you know now about the system we have today with its obvious shortcomings, inefficiencies and waste, would you come up with something that looked the same?

What if you resisted the urge to “fine tune” or modify, and instead decided to analyze the wants, needs and expectations of your clients and then design a delivery system guaranteed to not only meet those wants, needs and expectations but one that would exceed what we now have in every possible way.

Don’t get too excited too quickly. It isn’t all that easy. If it was we’d be enjoying the benefits of that system right now. As I mentioned earlier, I ask my clients what they would change about what we do and the way we do things all the time. I ask them what automotive service would look and feel like if they could wave a “magic wrench” and create the perfect system and they can’t answer.

They can’t do it because even the most intelligent and articulate among us can only communicate what they know and all they can really know is what they have personally experienced. The question that is begging to be asked is what do we need to change in order to change what they know? What do we need to change in order to create a totally new and different experience?

Is there anyone asking these questions in your company? Is there anyone questioning the way you interact or relate to your customers? Anyone struggling to find a new way, a better way to define who we are and how we interact?

If there isn’t, there should be! Unless, of course, you are willing to allow someone else to redefine these relationships for you and then find yourself a prisoner of someone else’s new and more effective paradigm. And of course, lose some valuable customers in the process.

Mitch Schneider co-owns and operates Schneider’s Automotive Service in Simi Valley, CA. Readers can contact him at
  Previous Comments
avatar   Rick   star   4/23/2010   2:04 PM

Sorry Mitch, but you are wrong. "Perception" is subjective, and "Reality" is objective. Those two concepts only meet within the confines of the rational mind, which tends to be a rare thing these days. In automotive repair and/or parts sales, the majority of our business stems from dealing with empirical FACTS and the addressing of those facts. If we concern ourselves with feelings and perceptions and less so with objective facts, we are subverting reality and doing a disservice to our customers. The moreso as we counterman are not qualified to be therapists.

avatar   Dusty   star   4/23/2010   1:39 PM

*sniff*(pulling up on his belt) "it's a Vortec"

avatar   rick   star   4/6/2010   3:39 PM

(shrug) yall have calibers for my chevy geo? right side driver

avatar   evan   star   3/24/2010   3:30 PM

my favorite was the guy buying spark plugs for his wifes car. when he said he only need four. she then ask why do i need four for a six cylinder car. talk about one guy who walked out the door with his tail between his legs and one very happy woman.

avatar   Tad   star   3/8/2010   6:25 PM

Just today...

"How much do you charge for an oil change?" "This is O'reilly Auto Parts. We sell parts, we're not a service station." "Oh, so you guys don't have oil change specials?" "we do...but they're for the supplies to do an oil change. We don't work on cars here." "Oh...well, can you guys do a cooling system flush on my car?" " This is an auto PARTS store. We sell parts. We do not service vehicles." "Oh. Well, can you guys get me a radiator for my '69 Beetle?" (at this point I'm not really sure if the customer is serious or not) "" "Oh. Well, can you tell me who can?" "Nobody. It doesn't have a radiator:-|" "Oh, it doesn't? Well then, what's the fluid I keep finding under my car every morning?" "...I don't know. What color is it?" "Brown." "Oil?" "....*click*"

I mean, what do you do with that?

avatar   Vinny   star   3/5/2010   5:13 PM

"Can you test my deer whistles?" Sure let me grab my testing equipment, and would you like me to test that dog whistle of yours while I'm at it.

avatar   ROB HURT   star   3/3/2010   4:29 PM


avatar   Tom   star   3/2/2010   4:24 PM

Hey Tiny all I want is to be able to charge a Doctor or Lawyer whatever I feel fit. Visited the Doc the other day. 30 minutes later $700. I'm thinking brake job on Doc's car. I mean this is serious stuff. You need brakes right. Ranks up there with heart surgery. You screw up a brake job someone could die! So I'm thinking 3-4 thousand sounds good for my work and special skills in this field. Am I right or not.

avatar   tiny   star   3/2/2010   3:16 PM

1985 neon century.

ford 300.

will that 196 v6 water pump fit my 95 v8?



fu-rel pump.

188 oldsmobile cutlas ultimate custom deluxe legacy edition.

my radiator is leaking on the driver's side. can you tell me how much that side of the radiator costs? do you have it in stock?

Seriously, I've been told all of this. Most of them, more than once.

As a profession, we invest so much in making our customers feel like they can walk in, have a great shopping experience, and leave with a smile. What about us? Why is it that we MUST cater to people in a business where the right part is so important, and we get blamed for all the mistakes, but we are constantly bombarded with misinformation, rude behavior, and downright idiocy? I think we should be allowed to have one day a month that is used for simply calling out the stupids so that we don't go postal.

avatar   Greg   star   3/2/2010   2:16 PM

Let us not forget the legendary "350 ROCKET" or the "350 4 bolt main" Which seems to have come in every car GM has ever made

avatar   Don   star   3/1/2010   2:12 PM

I had a customer come in and ask for a part for his car. I asked the year,make,and model. He did not know. I said is the car here so I can help you identify it he said NO, its at home broke, but Im a Mechanicand I will fix it. How do you argue with that? It takes all kinds in this world.

avatar   Dave Elliott   star   3/1/2010   2:11 PM

Is a termostack the same as a stermoscat for a 351 winchester? or maybe its a stermostaff for a duece and a quarter. I'm just sayin........

avatar   will   star   2/27/2010   1:48 PM

What about "buerk" lesaba, misterbeshee dinamite, or buick cutlass?how bout termostacks and brake rotary? Or..."What's a dual over-head cam?Do I really need that?"I also don't understand why people come in and buy the cheapest parts for their "work" truck.Wouoldn't you want the best stuff on a truck that your livelyhood relied on?

avatar   howardg   star   2/26/2010   9:22 AM

I worked for a manager at Advance Auto; Tom was a dullard that came from Food LIon and walked in the door as a manager at Advance. He was installing a battery one day on told the customer the he was helping that "me and my dad put an engine in our 71 chevy F-150". The customer then politely asked me to finish the battery install to " keep this idiot from screwing up my vehicle". Tom had a bad habit of calling people that worked for him stupid. One day Tom called me stupid in front of a customer and the customer called the 1800 complaint number the dm; a sears reject; came down and had a meeting with us and merely stated that it was a miscommunication.

avatar   Chris   star   2/11/2010   2:24 PM

I think people should have to pass a mandatory test and be issued a license before they are allowed to breed. This would eliminate most of the problems of the world.

avatar   Gabe   star   2/9/2010   5:50 PM

I had someone tell me once they had a 99 chevy taurus

avatar   Paul   star   2/8/2010   6:17 PM

A co-worker had a customer call and say "I was in earlier today, could you tell me what kind of car I have?" I do like "What kind of car do you have?" "It's the blue one over there."

avatar   Gabe   star   2/5/2010   4:36 PM

He lives near my Mom not me. Seriously, here in Minnesota we have evergreen trees, of course. There is a species of evergreen that goes from green to almost blue green. He seriously thought someone was painting his trees blue. The neighbor was working under the car, when a branch landed next to him on the ground. Then he heard, "See! See! They are painted blue!" I heard all these stories from the neighbor around X-mas it was hilarious!

avatar   cleverlongshanks   star   2/5/2010   3:39 PM

Bottom line, underpaid, overworked. and crap parts. Thats they way it has been and will continue to go. Unless gabe is still alive playing with His "neighbor" and the oomp a loompas. Come on gabe, come clean.

avatar   Bones   star   2/5/2010   3:32 PM

Enough of this serious nonsense, let's hear some more insane customer stories...

avatar   Chris   star   2/5/2010   1:51 PM

A high turnover of employees can be a death knell for a store, especially on the commercial side of the business. Customers that grow to depend on certain countermen will be left out in the rain when those countermen get fed up and leave or are transferred away. On the other hand, having a low turnover rate gives management a chance to really weed out the rifraff from the good people. In the short term, this might mean more LP issues, but in the long term, profits in commercial will show an increase on average.

avatar   RAY   star   2/2/2010   7:14 PM

It takes managers at the top level to understand the connection between having customers and employees to service them to keep them in business. Not only in car parts but every other business. An example of this was a discussion our manager related to us after he attended a recent sales meeting. Those in attendence were criticized for not having a high enough turnover of employees. The reasoning was that employees should never be trusted and over time become comfortable in their jobs and would steal. It this king of mentality that has created the economic climate we are in today. Its not going to change until there is some accountabilty at the top.

avatar   Chris   star   2/2/2010   4:57 PM

(continued) This brings me to my next point: pay. If you were a certified mechanic, would you want to work at a parts counter for ~$10/hour? And that's on the upper end of starting pay, mind you. It has often been said that you can't make a career out of auto parts like you could thirty years ago, and I would have to agree that this is largely true. Hiring 18-year-olds fresh out of high school with no automotive experience seems great on the payroll side of things, but when the returns and irate customers start to roll in, the profits start to dwindle. Far better to lose the pimply-faced teens and hire people with the knowledge, or pay to properly train the teens. Payroll will be up, yes, but profits will be up even more. It's yet another expression of "You get what you pay for."

avatar   Chris   star   2/2/2010   4:56 PM

The way I see it, we will never have Mitch's dream system, because let's face it, it's physically impossible to have everything the customer needs right now, all of the time. Even keeping very good inventory in a store is guesswork at best. You run your demographics and get a general idea of what kind of vehicles are in the area, what kind of incomes if you're lucky. Let's say that's 75-80% of your customers. The remaining are not from around the area, or don't fit the demographic. Some are willing to wait for you to get the part, most aren't. In fact, some can get downright snotty. It's just part of the fact that nothing's perfect in the world. Also, training. You have to have training. Only a fool hires a counterman whose last job was flipping burgers. Unless he/she's EXTREMELY intelligent, you will not likely be able to train them up to the standards of dealing with the more hard to find parts and tough customers. That in mind, you need to look for people with more parts experience. This br

avatar   dave elliott   star   2/1/2010   2:44 PM

was the canola oil for a Pontiac Parmesan? Or have you ever been asked for parts for a Pontiac GOOOLE or GOOOSE (goolie or goosie) cause they are taking the 6 in 6000 for a G? The things people call their cars are really strange. I especially like the old Ford 351 Winchester. Maybe I could get you a stermoscat for it!

avatar   Gabe   star   1/31/2010   3:54 PM

I personally have never had someone say that to me about a 710 cap. But I know people who have. I think if it ever happened to me. My mind would be in utter shock that someone could be so stupid! It's one thing to not know about a car. It is another to not understand the alphabet even upside down. I had someone come in asking for canola oil!

avatar   PERRRY M.    star   1/28/2010   2:44 PM


avatar   Chris   star   1/23/2010   4:23 PM

During the brief period when I worked for the parts-house-whose-name-shall-not-be-mentioned, an older gentleman brought in an alternator, not installed, and asked for his money back. I asked him if he simply hadn't needed it, and he said that the shop that we sent him to tried to take his soul out and put it into the shop owner's file cabinet. I thought for a second, and replied, "Don't worry, their soul machine's on the fritz, and the one they ordered from us hasn't gotten in yet." He got very angry and said "It's a voodoo curse, you moron!" and stomped out. We never saw him again.

avatar   Gabe   star   1/17/2010   3:22 PM

Nope not relays. Loss motion assemblies are our most sold Honda part. No seriously on the Honda's it is usually CV shafts,timing belts, valve cover gaskets (because of the spark plug tube seals) Suprisingly I have never sold a main relay for a Honda. But I wasn't just talking about Hondas. I was just saying there are alot of things you should do on your car. 98% of retail customers don't or just don't know better. But I think tap water is the least of their worries. I also can't remember any shop I worked at where we had jugs of distilled water in stock. Usually all shops I worked at used just plain water. From the not so good shops to the really good shops. But you can keep argueing the point if you'd like. I just don't see it ever being a big problem.

avatar   Ed   star   1/17/2010   1:58 PM

And the heater core in your Honda is made out of what material? How about the water pump and it's impeller? All different metals. Sure radiators are not the number one seller in your store, but main relays for Hondas are, I bet!

avatar   Gabe   star   1/15/2010   4:06 PM

Coz? Aluminum radiators rust right!? The leaks I have seen are more caused by the stupid radiators that have the plastic side tanks crimped on. Right where the tanks crimp on. Or plastic filler necks cracked. And you can follow your manual that fine. But I don't need dealer fluids. I don't need a 30,000 mile check up that costs $500 for a filter,blades, and an inspection. The point is by the time tap water causes a problem in 90's and up cars the car will already be a turd. If it was a well made car to begin with. Besides I don't see radiators as my number one seller in my parts store. Rarely ever do we sell a radiator even in sub zero Minnesota. If we do it was because the car got in an accident, or because those cheap crimped on side tanks are leaking.

avatar   Ed   star   1/14/2010   12:02 PM

Gabe, "not anal enough" to not use what your owner's manual says, factory service manual says, one TSB posted by Honda says, and every automotive establishment in the world says? Sure those radiators were leaking, but why do radiators leak? If it was poor construction, they would of burst immediately. Maybe it had something to do with tap water being present and creating rust which attacked the welds and seams of the core. or tap water present in a large enough concentration that it froze and swelled the tanks off their gaskets, or coolant electrolysis. Much like fuel pumps, the number one killer of radiators is owner's neglect.

avatar   Chris   star   1/12/2010   4:07 PM

That's a dangerous attitude to have there. I've popped open a few radiators that were maintained as you suggest and drained (not brown), but BLACK gunk out of them. And no, it was not motor oil. And the customer wondered beforehand why their car had overheated.

avatar   Gabe   star   1/12/2010   3:07 PM

A year later? I have never used distilled water in batteries or radiators. Never had a problem. I figure by the time scale builds up to the point it causes a problem my car will most likely be a turd, and I will have a different one. I guess I am just not anal enough to use distilled water. Most radiators I have seen when I worked in shops. Where not replaced because of build up. It was usually leaking.

avatar   Will   star   1/12/2010   11:36 AM

Good point Ed. Instead of buying what's been done for them; with distilled water, they want to mess it up. Then they complain later about the build up. I just recommend a radiator repair shop versus Prestone Super Flush!

avatar   Ed   star   1/12/2010   11:01 AM

Concerning antifreeze, my favorite "perception" will always be, "I ain't paying for water," so instead of grabbing two things of 50/50 for $10, they buy 1 gallon for non-diluted antifreeze at $13. Then they go home, pour it in, fill up the rest with tap water out of their garden hose and wonder why a year later they have rust and scale in their cooling system.

avatar   Chris   star   1/11/2010   3:59 PM

(some kinda glitch there) Anyway, this continued back and forth a couple of times, and the guy finally gets pissed and says he'll call the corporate office if I don't give him the expensive stuff for the cheap price. I finally got mad and said "Good, they'll probably give me a raise."

avatar   Chris   star   1/11/2010   3:57 PM

I had this one guy who I swear must have came from a "special" place. We have a sale on the house brand 50/50 antifreeze for $5, and he grabs two gallons of $12.99 Prestone and brings it to the counter. I give him the price, $20-something, and he says "Can't I have the special?" I told him it was for the house brand, and he replies, "but I don't want the house brand, can't I have this on special?"

avatar   Gabe    star   1/11/2010   3:48 PM

Right on Will!! Your car is second biggest purchase you will make in your life.(first being your house of course) Everyone should have to take a basic autotomotive course. Then again I think all kids should go to boot camp! Even if they don't opt to be in the military. The one I hate is women who come in to get something. They don't know any info about their car. Their excuse?....I am a woman I am not suppose to know that! Or when they use the diagnostic scanner. It is so cake. Plug in under dash, turn key to on, hit read! Same excuse used not to do it themselves. In a world of equal rights, and empowered women. I hate that excuse! I will empower you some more and tell you how to do it!

avatar   Will   star   1/11/2010   10:02 AM

Gabe they're everywhere. You have to admit, there would be no flavor in the world if they weren't. "my husband said...". "The book says...". I trust my eyes more than a book. Ziggy, I agree completely. The ones that REALLY aggravate me are the "techs" that want you to put in a battery because they're off work. The older males that don't know how to install wiper blades. That was basics 101 when I grew up. I think every driver; male or female, should have to take a basic automotive course before you can test for a license.

avatar   Gabe   star   1/9/2010   2:22 PM

Don't get me wrong. I treat the customer just fine. I have been in auto shops (not parts stores) since I was 16, I am now 33. With a 4 year period in there at which time I was in an anti-terrorist unit in the Marine Corps. Two years ago I came to an auto parts store. Most of experience in shops, and in the Marines just makes me want to choke people! I don't though of course. I just pause take a minute for a proper response. If there is one thing that upsets me more than anythign though. Prime example, Lady comes in the other day says she needs a 194 bulb for her taillight, and the manual says so too. Turns out she really needed a 3157, and we explain to her the 194 is one of those small rear sidemarker lights. So when my coworker says this, and goes to get the bulb. I hear her moaning, and saying I dont know? Then she sees it, and sees it is not as small. Then she really starts questioning because her manual says so! SO he goes out and looks at the car, and which light is burnt out. It is the 3157 and sho

avatar   Will   star   1/4/2010   10:56 AM

Dave Thomas( founder of Wendy's) had a great point that tranposes to almost every job on the planet. The one person who can walk in and FIRE and entire company is the customer. All he has to do is spend money elsewhere. When he does this, he will have told all his friends and colleages to not to buy from so-and-so. It happens in the parts business because of attitudes(perceived) and presentation(store & self). If a walk-in feels you are rude or impatient, they will not return. I wouldn't even if they were the only parts place around or open. Leave your attitude in the car when you get to work. Be patient and friendly, even to the ones that come in mad.

avatar   firewalker   star   1/3/2010   10:33 AM

i agree with both will and clay.we must treat our customers with the respect and honesty that we demand from others who serve us and when you do this then you have made a customer for life no matter which retailer you work for.remember without customers where would you be.they are really who we work for.

avatar   Will   star   1/2/2010   1:25 PM

Clay, you're an installer at 25? I started at age 25 in parts. Spent 5 with Napa, 2 at a Dodge dealer, and 3 here at O'Reilly Auto as the Installer. Great job with multiple challenges everyday. Patience and knowledge put us in the Installer spot. Gabe, focus on patience and step up to make the big bucks as the Go-to Guy at your store! It's better dealing with the shop techs that know what they need. You just have to say "No problem, what's your PO #"?

avatar   Will   star   12/30/2009   7:41 AM

Gabe be patient. Most people have NO clue about their cars short of GAS CAP LOCATION and RADIO FUNCTIONS. It's up to us to explain that 5.7 liters equals 350 cubic inches. 9006 bulbs are low beams and the world is round and the sky is blue(sometimes). After 10 years or more, you learn to coax the answer out of those annoying customers that drive us all mad. We; as parts people, have one of the most secure jobs in the country. Be patient with everyone, even the ones that make you want to punch them in the head. He may be back to order that expensive rack & pinion unit tomorrow. It's to easy to do the right thing, don't get mad at the "Automotive Challenged".

avatar   Gabe   star   12/27/2009   4:24 PM

I have a hard time finding patience with some people. I try treating everyone with respect. If you ask a question listen for the answer otherwords I don't have time for you. As in: a customer mad at me because his exhaust pipe I sold him was for a 5.7L not a 350. Or you gave me the wrong bulb you gave me a 9006 not a 9005 for my low beam.

avatar   clay   star   12/23/2009   4:19 PM


avatar   parts guy   star   12/20/2009   3:33 PM

Buzz may be right about looking up parts for all of your new vehicles. you can train a monkey to use a keyboard but when you get someone that needs a part for a 69 f700 you cant find that in electronic parts lookup. it also helps to know something about the mechanical aspect of the business. someone that dosent know the difference between a ported vacuum switch and a idle stop solenoid dosent belong in the parts business

avatar   Tim   star   12/18/2009   9:22 AM

Ed the PHD comment was said in jest but the facts are still the same without using proper equipment you have a higher chance of giving the wrong part to the customer. Also todays customer is a lot less forgiving then in years past.

avatar   Ed   star   12/16/2009   10:39 AM

Tim, even with that, you still do not need a PHD to diagnose today's vehicles. I never finished out my degree in automotive technology, due to my career but you just use simple logic to break down these systems into their individual parts, identify the function of each and draw together a theory if it may be any single component of that system.

avatar   WILL   star   12/16/2009   10:04 AM


avatar   Tim   star   12/15/2009   2:16 PM

The only problem Ed with what they did 50 years ago is first there were only 5 systems on the car instead of the 500 they now have so it didn't take a PHD to diagnose the problem. Also if you were wrong in what you thought the problem they didn't try to sue you or expect you to give them the right parts for free.

avatar   Chris   star   12/11/2009   3:50 PM

You're absolutely right, Mitch. I've asked my regulars on numerous occasions what they thought we could do to make the store a better place for them, and not once could they articulate an answer. We don't know what the next system is like simply because it hasn't been invented yet. :)

avatar   kim   star   12/10/2009   12:53 PM

All customers want the same thing. To know that you HEAR their concerns, CARE about their concerns, and can HELP them. And that you show respect while you accomplish this. It's not that complicated.

avatar   Ed   star   12/10/2009   12:17 PM

The answer is simple and universal, rewind it 50 years, back to the day when you could walk into an auto parts store, describe your problem, have someone walk out to your car or truck with you, give you their opinion/diagnosis and then EXPLAIN how they came to that conclusion in layman's terms. A smiling face, an honest opinion, knowledgable and patient. Not to say this doesn't exist today, but we are nearing extinction and due to this, customers' perceptions have changed.

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