Hello shoppers...

When it comes to automotive mechanics, and the automotive repair shops where they work, we trust them all about as much as a BP spokesperson.

Blame it on the 60 Minutes hidden camera exposé, or Great Grandpa Merle complaining to his grave about the corner gas station owner who sold him a tractor tire in 1918 that only lasted 43 years, or internet auto repair complaint sites, or our own experience, in which we remember the rare bad but quickly seem to forget the consistent good.

Yet that's the good ole car-nundrum. We gotta have a ride that rides, otherwise, we'll have to (gulp) take (gasp) public transportation.

(cue scary organ chord)

There are over 200 repair shops listed in the Des Moines phone book, under "automotive repair." That includes big chain multiple locations, mom and pop single shop outfits, and your motorhead boyfriend, who couldn't resurrect a half-dozen of his and his buddy's rust bucket beaters that reside in his driveway, so he wrote, "Tom's Auto Repair" in white paint on one of the car doors, and "went into" the "car repair" business.

Of all those choices, the question becomes, where do we go when our vehicle breaks down?

The answer to that question is based in large part on a) who is most conveniently located to us, b) where do our family and friends go, C) who is cheapest, and d) good marketing.

The REAL question, the question that has the greatest impact on company profitability and longevity, is: who will we go back to?

Trust your friendly Unsecret Shopper on this one - the answer is almost entirely based upon two words: customer service. That includes the five pillars of customer service that I train on. First, does the staff smile at us when we come in? Do they greet us properly, sans closed-ended question? Do they engage us - act like they care about our problem and how they can solve it? Do they learn our name, and use it throughout the conversation? Do they thank us when we leave? Do they get our personal information, to follow up with us?

Also, do they offer bathrooms that don't look like a Port-A-John on day 2 of Lazerfest?

Thus, today's Secret Shopper review is a festival of car fix-ins, as we put our foot on the gas and race around town, to visit 15, count 'em, 15, Des Moines area auto repair shops. I secret shopped 14 on a Tuesday, and picked up the last one the next morning. Each store is graded separately, based upon an overall, which includes everything from how they answered the phone, to how clean were the batrooms, to how they handed my problem.  

What's my problem? My 2007 Prius is making a weird squeaking noise when I drive over bumps.

No, it's not really, thanks for asking. But the purpose of this particular issue is to give repair shop staff a simple problem they'd be likely to address quickly. Whoever is working at the counter should, after I've described the squeak sound, ask if they or a mechanic can come with me, as a passenger, so they can hear the squeak I'm squeaking about, during a test - drive.

I spoke to three trusted, experienced, highly skilled auto repair techs, who all insisted that this is one of the most routine problems that customers bring into repair shops, and that most should, should, deal with it right away, or within minutes, in the way I've described.

Full disclosure - one of my clients is Westside Auto Pros, which happens to be an auto repair shop. Full disclosure II, one of the tech advisors who advised me for this project, works for WSAP. Full disclosure III, he really needs to quit hogging all the Reese's mini peanut butter cups I put in a basket on the counter for customers, or I'm going back to hard candies.

It's also right as a rightsie - tightsie lug nut that my secret shopping will focus mainly on chain repair shops, with a visit to two in the chain, along with a trip to a couple mom and pop locations.


Because the chain locations is where most of our auto repair business goes. Actually most of it goes to wherever we bought the car, but I'm excluding dealers. Why?

Man you ask a lot of questions.

What I tried to do is compare the auto repair business version of "big box" vs. "big box" locations. Perhaps we'll do just locally owned single location Mom and Pop's in a later review, and dealer locations in another.

Yet make no mistake, regardless of big chain or small outfit, auto repair shops are all governed by the same basic customer service rules that rule every other business category - smile, greet, engage, thank and follow-up.

Speaking of follow-up, as this went to press, none of the stores where I scheduled appointments, had called me, either as a reminder call that I had the appointment coming up, or to ask me why I hadn't shown up, and/or to call to reschedule. Considering that I've missed every scheduled appointment, at the time I'm writing these words, it seems like it's a golden but wasted opportunity to reach out to a customer.

Another intereesting side-note is that, of the over 15 business cards I collected, only those from three companies -Aamco, Freedom Tire/Goodyear and Tuffy's - have someone's email address on them. With the power of social networking generally working against the overall car repair industry - let's face it, the internet is just one big fat digital place to dump people's misery - you'd think every business card would not only have a basic email address, so customers could feel like they have a way to connect to a human being, but also the other social networking portals: Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Blog, etc.

But hey - I'm just some bloggin bozo. What do I know?

I do know that now is the time to take advantage of this opportunity to show the highly scientific Secret Shopper scoring system, indicated by the highly unscientific, "number of masks."

  Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.   

   Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.   

   Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.   

   Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.   

   Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.

There's an irritating squeaky wheel problem on my ride. So ride along, and let's see who in town has the customer service grease to fix it.

Car X, 4001 NE 14th

Time: 8:05am

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Car X Services (indecipherable) Ron (indecipherable)?"

Store greeting: "What can I help you with?"

Advisor: Scott Johnson, manager

Did the advisor smile? Yes, very friendly

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor say thank you? No

Has the shop followed up? n/a (didn't get contact info)

Bathroom condition: n/a


Ron answered the phone like somebody who was about to be shot out of a cannon but decided to answer the call, anyway. His delivery was lighting fast, to the point where I caught 8 words, if you count "X" as a word, out of what I'm guessing were somewhere between 11-15.

That first shot across the consumer's bow, isn't good.

The first contact we have with a store sets the tone. It is especially important when it's over the phone, since we have no body language to go on, just the voice. The person answering the phone for any business should sound poised, articulate and happy to take the call. If any of those three are missing, it's putting the consumer in a place business owners don't want them - perturbed.

Want to know how much being able to understand someone, affects our state of mind? Ridley Scott, the brilliant film director, took the soundtrack to his ground-breaking sci-fi flick Alien, and intentionally garbled and muddied it. Why? By doing so, he created a higher degree of tension for the audience. If you saw the film, you know it worked.  

Tension is good in tense movie scenes where an alien just exploded out of some poor bloke's chest, bad when our engine just exploded and we're looking for a car repair expert to chill us out.

The in-person greeting was great, from Scott, the store manager, who said he could have the car looked at in 45 minutes. I declined - to see if Scott would take the car by the horn and offer to do it immediately. After all, if they can do it in 45 minutes, why not right now? Unrealistic expectation for a busy service shop? Sure! Realistic expectation for a customer? Sure, squared! He didn't take the bait and instead let me walk out. That's especially disappointing because Scott's the manager, and store managers, more than any other employee, have a personal, professional and financial stake in taking care of the people who come through their doors.

Freedom Tire/Goodyear, 1566 East Euclid

Time: 8:25am

Phone greeting: "Good morning, thank you for calling Freedom Tire, this is Jason, how can I help you?" (very friendly)

Store greeting: "How can I help you?"

Advisor: Jason Mills, sales associate

Did the advisor smile? No, but friendly

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? Yes

Did the advisor thank me? No

Has the shop followed up? n/a

Bathroom condition: dirty sink and toilet, which low lighting didn't hide


When Jason said they'd have someone test the car right away, it was perfect, exactly what you'd want as a consumer.

What didn't fly was not asking me if it was okay if the mechanic took the car out, without me in it. That should have been asked, not assumed, and never done in the first place - bad assumption #1.

Our cars, for most of us, are not just modes of transportation but extensions of our personality.  To prove this, we personalize them - with personalized plates, personal fuzzy dice and New Orleans beads and "fresh chopped wood" scent hanging from the rearview mirror, mix CD's and iPods playing our personal song favorites, personal socks and candy wrappers and empty fast food sacks and $1.84 in change and that cool pants hanger we thought we lost and general refuse that we lose, misplace and purposefully toss in the back. Is anything more ours (than our actual person) than our cars?

Basically it's just plain rude and assumptive to take our cars out, without us in them, plus it's scary for us as the car's owner, whether you own a '71 Impala with the back fender duct-taped to the trunk to hold it on, or a $1,289,594.63 Hybrid, which can still be confusing for me to drive, and I've owned the gas-sipper for four years.

What Jason should have done was to have a tech ride with me, while I drove. Then I could have pointed out to the mechanic, who has never set grease monkey foot in my ride and has no idea if he's hearing what I'm hearing, what I'm hearing. Otherwise, it's like having someone ask you how their potato salad tastes, by watching them eat it.  

Then, it was time for bad assumption #2.

After I'd waited 10 minutes and still no sign of the dude or my car, I glanced into the garage and saw the dude, with my car, up on a hoist - just the car, the dude was on the ground.

They didn't ask me if they could do it. They didn't ask me if I had time for them to do it. They just did it.

This wouldn't be the first repair shop to pull...sorry, do this.

The questions we have as a consumer are obvious at this point. A) why didn't they ask me? B) do they expect me to pay for whatever they're doing with my car, up on the lift? C) is the reason they didn't ask, because they want to try to secretly get the car up on the lift and officially "inspect" it for the problem, then stick me with some sort of fee for doing so, even if I choose not to have the problem resolved here?

Lots of questions, but only one answer that mattered.

"Get the car off the hoist now," I gently suggested.

Dave, the mechanic who test drove the car, was extremely nice, explaining to me that he'd heard nothing, then stating the obvious. "Maybe you're hearing something I'm not."

Maybe if I'd driven and you'd ri...never mind.

One other thing - this was the only showroom which was quiet, deadly silent, with no TV on. Quiet retail is for Target Mortuary  And Library. Otherwise, make sure the TV gets turned on before the OPEN sign.

Midas, 2201 East Euclid

Time: 9:00am

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Midas, this is Dustin."

Store greeting: "What can I help you with?"

Advisor: Dustin Hogueison, owner/manager

Did the advisor smile? No, but friendly

Did the advisor use my name? Yes, at end

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? Yes

Did the advisor thank me? Yes

Has the shop followed up? n/a

Bathroom condition: very dirty - hair and dirt on sink and toilet


After I explained the problem to Dustin, he said, "We'll take it out for a short test drive and see what we can find," At that point, I knew it was Deja-Goodyear, all over again.

They would rely on their years of experience in taking 3 minute rides in cars whose specific audio quirks were completely foreign to them, relying on their general "listening for noises" expertise instead of the owner's inadequate "I've been hearing the same noise every day for months and know it in my sleep, to the point where I could literally map out a picture of its sound wave with a pencil, including its pitch, tone, frequency and amplitude" ability.   

I let it go, hoping that they'd at least ask me before putting the car up on a lift.

They didn't. I only found out because I again poked my head into the garage. There she was, six feet up.

It didn't stay airborne long.

Auto repair shops have a bad rep, not always deserved. There are many reputable service locations around Des Moines, who do good work. But it does not increase a customer's desire to trust, when a shop does things that create mistrust.

To add insult to embarrassment, I had to back my Prius out of the garage stall, instead of the mechanic doing it for me, who had put it there to begin with, without asking me - not his fault, he's just doing what "the man" told him to do, but still...

Before I left, Dustin, who was a nice enough young man but needs to smile, and while he's at it, take his pack of Marlboro's out of his dangling front pocket and move them to a less conspicuous spot, said, "We didn't hear a noise."

I must have been imagining it.

Tires Plus, 3701 E 14th

Time: 9:35am

Phone greeting: (rapid-fire, monotone) "It's a great day at Tires Plus, this is E.J."

Store greeting: "Good morning."

Advisor: E.J.

Did the advisor smile? No

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? No

Has the shop followed up? No

Bathroom condition: dirty mirror, sink, toilet and floor - had not been cleaned that morning


E.J. had a friendly demeanor but didn't smile, didn't have a name tag and didn't identify himself by name or use mine, after I'd given it to him when he checked me in. He told me they didn't have time to test drive my car right then, but would schedule a TVI (Total Vehicle Inspection). This sounded like a bit much (read: expensive) for a squeaky front end, but I told him to schedule it, having no idea if a TVI is free, reasonably priced or something for which I'd need financing. He didn't tell me and I didn't ask. He should have, so I didn't have to.

Most of us are stupid when it comes to our cars. If we knew all the questions to ask, we'd probably already have a pretty good idea what the answers were and so wouldn't bring them into repair shops designed to answer our questions, not create more of them.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I noticed a mechanic, leaning on an outside wall by a stall opening, taking a smoke break.

Average likely time to light and smoke a cigarette, according to responses at Yahoo Answers: 3-7 minutes

Average likely time to test drive a Prius to listen for squeaking sound: 3-7 minutes

Average likelihood of returning: 3-7%

Firestone, 131 E Euclid


Time: 10:30am

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Firestone Complete Auto Care, this is Trevor, how can I help you?"

Store greeting: "How can I help you?

Advisor: Richard (I have no idea what his last name is, as he didn't have a business card and instead gave me a print-out of my scheduled service, with his first name only, at the top of it.)

Did the advisor smile? No, but very friendly

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? No

Has the shop followed up? No

Bathroom condition: looked relatively clean at first glance in the dim light, but a wet paper towel showed nasty dirt, especially on and around toilet


Richard had a wonderfully calm, caring vibe. He really seemed to want to know what was wrong with my car and asked very specific questions about what was causing the noise, was it front or back, intermittent or constant.

He said they didn't have time right then to look at it so we scheduled an appointment for that afternoon.

Richard - put a smile on your wonderfully compassionate face, use my name when you engage me, have someone ride with me on a test drive right then and there if you can so you're not letting someone who has never been to your shop, walk out the door without giving them the full star treatment, plus don't forget to thank me for coming in, and last, have somebody run a mop around the base of that toidy. I'm sharing this with you because you have something that most people in your position, don't - a tremendous sense of compassion and caring, empathy and desire to problem-solve. Add some of the other things, and you'll be a total auto service stud. :)

Aamco, 2603 Douglas

Time: 10:50am

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Aamco, how may I help you?"

Store greeting: "How can I help you?"

Advisor: Mason McCoy

Did the advisor smile? No, but friendly

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? No

Has the shop followed up? n/a

Bathroom condition: n/a


Mason was friendly enough, as I entered the Aamco and described my car issue. He asked me what kind of car I drove.

To quote a line from the fine film, 3:11 To Yuma, that's when trouble came a visitin - and she wasn't in no hurry to leave.

"I drive a Prius."

Mason responded like I'd just rode up on an elephant with a busted tusk and asked him if he had any spares.

"Ohhhhhhh - it takes a special bracelet and special gloves to work on that kind of car," he said with wide eyes.


"It's probably just a suspension issue - maybe a strut or something," I offered, not mentioning that I also had a 20-year-old pachyderm parked in my driveway that needed some dental work.

"No," Mason repeated, "that car needs special gloves, a special bracelet, special equipment, and we don't have it."

I felt strangely special, in an un-special way.

Moving on...

Midas, 5618 Douglas


Time: 11:09am

Phone greeting: "Thanks for calling Midas, this is Brad, how can I help you?"

Store greeting: (on the phone) "Hi, how are you? I'll be right with you." (smiling, very pleasantly)

Advisor: Brad Murray, manager/owner

Did the advisor smile? Yes, and often - extremely friendly

Did the advisor use my name? Yes, repeatedly

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? Yes, frequently

Has the shop followed up? n/a

Bathroom condition: clean, with just some light dirt in sink from a recent use


Brad was a flat-out customer service rock star.

He smiled and greeted me as I entered, while he was on the phone, something I teach to all my clients' employees After he was finished, Brad came around from behind the counter, shook my hand and said, through another huge smile, "Hi! My name is Brad! Welcome to Midas!" Again, it was a textbook greeting, which included his incredibly engaging smile, warm handshake, introducing himself by name and welcoming me to the store.

You don't get that at some high-end restaurants in Des Moines, let alone auto repair shops.

I explained my squeaky car problem to Brad, who said he couldn't look at the car then but could schedule it for later that day.

That part kinda bummed me out, because I really wanted him to make the offer to take it out right then. But because Brad had done such a fantastic job with everything else, I decided to let the Secret Shopper outta the shopping bag, letting him in on the fact that I was secret shopping his store, along with many others.

Then he really started smiling.

Brad told me he'd just taken over that location on Monday, moving from the Midas store in Clive to here because this location was underperforming. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Brad will get them overperforming, in short order. In fact, let me do what I almost never do and encourage you to stop into this Midas location on Douglas, if for no other reason than to take a picture of what great customer service is supposed to look like.

After expressing my disappointment to him about not being offered a test drive right away, Brad said that he would have, if he'd had time.

My suspicion is that, after reading this review, he'll find a bit more, next time. :) Awesome job, Brad!

Car X, 3632 Merle Hay Road


Time: 11:30am

Phone greeting:

1st time calling - three rings, then a fax machine sound

2nd time calling (2 minutes later) - one ring, then an automated message: "Thank you for calling Car X. If you're calling during business hours, we're on another line..."

3rd time calling (one minute later) - three rings, then a fax machine sound

4th time calling (three minutes later) - two rings, then,"Thank you for calling Car X Auto Center, this is Ron, can I help you?"

Store greeting: "How can I help you?"

Advisor: Josh Wolfe, manager

Did the advisor smile? No

Did the advisor use my name? He used three of them - "Sir," "Jon," and "buddie."

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? No

Has the shop followed up? No

Bathroom condition: base of toilet was filthy, sink was dirty and top of the cloth towel roller/dispenser was coated with dust


Our first closed ended question, comes courtesy of my fourth call attempt. I made the initial calls into the shop while sitting in my car, sitting in their parking lot, so I could hear the cell phone ring in my ear just slightly after what must be one of the loudest and most irritating "riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing" sounds echoed throughout the garage. If I'm a mechanic working there, I answer the phone on the first ring, by smashing it with my wrench.

Inside, while I talked to Josh, the phone rang again. It was probably still me.

"Go ahead and get it," I encouraged him.

"I'm trying to get a fax to come through," he said. Mystery solved, Scooby Doo - unless you're a customer trying to get someone to answer the phone, in which case you're probably going to move onto the next name in the auto repair phone book, instead of calling back four times in nine minutes.

Josh did something else that was curious - he called me "sir" initially, which made me feel 1,239 years old, then "Jon" which made me feel great, then "Buddie" when I asked him where the bathroom was at, which made me feel like using a nearby tree.

As for the bathroom, it had cleanliness issues, namely, that it wasn't. Also, it has an old-school real cloth towel roller, which is on some sort of spring. You pull down on the wet, gross part of the towel that someone who just gutted a pig and who has bubonic plague has just dried their hands on, to release an "unused" section of towel that you then coat with your own just washed hand gunk, for the next poor slob to use. I've always secretly believed (secret no more) it was just the same 10 feet of towel, washed, rinsed and dried by 8 squirrels, who, in return for cheap digs (inside the towel holder) work in groups of two, taking six-hour shifts.

It's the 21st Century, and most of the squirrels who still do this sort of specialized work have retired - probably time to install a paper towel dispenser.

Tires Plus, at 3130 Merle Hay Road

Time: 11:50am

Phone greeting: "It's a great day at Tires Plus, where you can buy three and get one free. This is Evan, how can I help you?" (very pleasant)

Store greeting: "Yes sir..."

Advisor: Evan Wilson, sales associate

Did the advisor smile? No, and had an unfriendly attitude

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? No

Has the shop followed up? n/a

Bathroom condition: n/a


This is the proof that the attitude of one employee, especially in a high-profile position with customers, can have a dramatic impact on sales and customer loyalty.

Evan had the most wonderfully pleasant tone on the phone, especially considering how many words he had to say when he answered it.

In person, however, he was less than pleasant. In fact, Evan's vibe was of someone who simply didn't want to be there.

We'll start with his in-store greeting, "Yes, sir..." That's how someone greets a drill sergeant, not a customer. There was also his almost flippant delivery, like, "whatever." At one point, Evan was typing in my information when his hand slammed down on the counter, as if I was putting him out.

When Evan was ready to schedule me to have my car checked, he said, "I can do it now - it'll be 45 minutes." We had differing definitions of what "now" means. When I told him I'd need to schedule another time, he said, "When do you want to do it?" not pleasantly, but like he didn't care whether it was later that day, or January 89th, 3072.

At that point I'd had enough fun.

Where's your manager's card," I said, glancing through the plastic counter rack until I spotted one that said Rick Soboczak, Store Manager in large bold letters below the Tires Plus logo. I grabbed a card off the top, then asked, "What's your name," not knowing Evan's at this point.

Instead of making one up, he, to his credit, replied,"Evan."

"Where's your card," I said to myself, looking for and finding one with Evan's name on it, then stepping towards the door.

Evan played his own card. "I can do it at 9 tomorrow, if you like," he helpfully offered.

Too late, kid.

Hickman Auto Service, 5728 Hickman Road

Time: 12:20pm

Phone greeting: "Hickman Auto."

Store greeting: "Hello."

Advisor: Jim (no last name given, he's the owner)

Did the advisor smile? No

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? No

Has the shop followed up? n/a

Bathroom condition: n/a


Jim the owner used words sparingly - two words for the phone greeting, one word for the in-store greeting, "yes" when I asked him if he was the owner, and weird, awkward silences in-between. He's a very nice man, but a man of few words, at least in regards to our initial exchange of pleasantry.

When I told him I was driving a Prius, it was like somebody turned his word spigot on.

"Oh we don't get into those Hybrids because sometimes they have sensors on 'em that we don't know anything about and we just don't work on those."

Wow. I shoulda told him that sooner, just for better conversation.

I told him that was no problem, thanked him and shook his hand. Jim said nothing, apparently having used up his word quota through the weekend.

Aamco, 7501 Hickman Road


Time: 12:40pm

Phone greeting: "Thanks for calling (indecipherable) this is Max, (indecipherable) you?"

Store greeting: "What can I help you with?"

Advisor: Nathan Millhouse, President and Owner

Did the advisor smile? Yes

Did the advisor use my name? Yes, throughout conversation

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? Yes

Has the shop followed up? n/a

Bathroom condition: sink was clean but didn't look it because of rust stains, toilet base was dirty and bathroom smelled


The rapid-fire phone greeting from Max was a bit off-putting, but Nathan the owner made up for it with a very engaging greeting and conversation. He smiled occasionally, used my name frequently, and when we got to the part about being too busy and needing to schedule me in to take the car for a test drive, Nathan said something uber - cool.

"We don't charge to look at your vehicle, we just ask that you be patient with us."

That's the sort of reassurance that I was looking for from the previous shops who were scheduling me to bring the car in. Perhaps they didn't offer it because they did charge, or maybe they didn't, and assumed I knew that. Either way, Nathan stepped forward and completely blew up one of the biggest fears we have about having our vehicles looked at by mechanics.

Nathan, who has run the shop for two years, still should have offered to test - drive my vehicle right then. But that's easier to forgive, with his great explanation of store policy, no charge to check out the vehicle. It also almost makes up for the dirty bathroom, which really needed a twice - over.

Firestone, 1650 22nd Street

Time: 1:10pm

Phone greeting: "Thank you very much for calling Firestone Complete Auto Care. This is Matt, how can I help you?"

Store greeting: "Hi there. Can I help you?"

Advisor: Matthew Dejongh, Manager of Tire Sales

Did the advisor smile? Yes, very friendly

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? No

Has the shop followed up? No

Bathroom condition: disgusting deep black grime around light switch and along door, smeared when touched with wet paper towel; dirt on top of lid on waste basket, wet paper towel came up black when moved (with my shoe) around base of toilet


Matt was very business - like, great at entering my data, less so about smiling, engaging, using my name and thanking me, none of which he did. Just a word to the wise, to Matt and anyone else on the front retail lines - if you act like a machine, you'll eventually be replaced like one. If you engage on a deeply compassionate, endearing, happy, nurturing human level, no machine (or human) is likely to ever take your job away.

This bathroom was the worst of the 17. Sickening. I improved it 25%, just by sticking a wet paper towel on the grime. My advice is to not allow the public in there until it's professionally cleaned.

Freedom Tire/Goodyear, 10065 Hickman Road


Time: 1:40pm

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Freedom Tire And Auto, this is Monica, how can I help you?"

Store greeting: None initially, then three minutes later, "Can I help you?"

Advisor: Jonna

Did the advisor smile? No

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? No

Did the advisor thank me? No

Has the shop followed up? No

Bathroom condition: base of toilet was grossest of all the toilets surveyed, filthy, plus thick dust on top of towel dispenser


It was refreshing to see the first woman working at a counter that day, less refreshing when Jonna and Monica, and then just Jonna, ignored me for three minutes, while I stood at the counter.

Jonna finally looked up from her computer and said, "Can I help you?" Yes - get to me faster, and try an open-ended question.

It also didn't help that Joann wrote down my appointment in a schedule book, instead of checking me in on the computer, which she'd been so engrossed in earlier. Maybe that's how they do it at that location, but it was the first shop that day that did it by hand vs. 'puter. There was also no smile from Jonna and no thank you, although she was pleasant.

The bathroom was not.

The toilet base was indescribably filthy. Thick dust sat atop the towel dispenser, and balled up like thick dust does, when I ran a wet paper towel across it.

Big O Tires, 3880 NW Urbandale Drive

Time: 2:08pm

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Big O Tires, ask about our red, white and blue sale. This is Aaron."

Store greeting: "Hi."

Advisor: Matt (don't know last name)

Did the advisor smile? No, but was friendly

Did the advisor use my name? Yes, three versions: "Mr. Wright," Jon," and "Buddie"

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? Yes

Did the advisor thank me? Yes

Has the shop followed up? n/a

Bathroom condition: clean, smelled good and had very cool 3-lamp track light


Their bathroom, rocked, best of the day. The service was good, too, as Matt got a mechanic to test-drive my car "right now," which turned out to be 15 minutes later, but okay.

Just a quick note here about employees being careful about comments they make about customers.

Ryan, who is the store manager, was working up at the counter, along with Matt and Aaron. The phone rang, someone got it, then handed it to Ryan and told him it was so and so, about his such and such car.

"He just called," Ryan said, perturbed. "He just called here."

"Didn't he just leave," someone asked.

"Yes," Ryan said, slightly exasperated, then took the call, turning on his "pleasant" button.

Granted, Ryan wasn't exactly smashing the phone and screaming obscenities. But for those working on the front retail lines, and especially for the store manager, the fundamental rule applies - never let 'em see you sweat, Ryan, even a little.

While I've got your attention, Ryan, here's another tip. Always invite me to drive my own car while a mechanic rides along, if I'm complaining about a weird sound. Make it your policy, because it's a good one. Another tip - don't put my car up on a hoist without asking my permission, which, predictably, is what the mechanic did after test - driving it, as Matt had me follow him back into the garage, where Ole' Prissy was "wheels up" for the third time that day.

While they still should have asked my permission before they did it, Matt, along with the mechanic, were just as friendly and helpful as could be, explaining in detail, as they pushed up on the bumper, allowing it to bounce up and down, that they couldn't hear anything.

I withheld the urge to say, "Well, normally I'm not underneath the car when I'm driving."

They have a very friendly, fun-loving staff at Big O Tire. They just need to tweak some of their procedures, plus give me more than a "hi" on the greeting, Matt, and don't let any customer see your negative reaction to another customer, Ryan.

Awesome bathroom! :)

Tuffy's, 2135 West Grand Avenue

Time: Wednesday, 8:30am

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Tuffy's Auto Center, this is Jason, how can I help you?"

Store greeting: "How can I help you?"

Advisor: Jason Huntley, store manager

Did the advisor smile? Yes, very friendly

Did the advisor use my name? No

Did the advisor offer to take car for test drive? Yes

Did the advisor thank me? Yes

Has the shop followed up? n/a

Bathroom condition: toilet needed cleaning, especially underneath lid; sink had light dirt from that morning


I had run out of time on Tuesday, with one more store to visit, a 2nd Tuffy's on SW Grand. After a Tuesday full of "We'll take your car out and test - drive it" or "Let's schedule you for tomorrow," I had given up hope that any auto repair shop would actually invite me to drive my own car, while an expert rode along, and listened for its elusive squeak.

My faith in the entire auto repair industry was revived on Wednesday morning, with Jason Huntley.

Jason was friendly at the counter, listened to my issue, and told me he could get to it later in the day.

"Can you look at it now?" I said with little hope.

Jason walked towards the door to the garage, opened it, popped his head in and yelled, "I'm going on a test - drive."

Hmm - does that mean I get to come along too?????

"Let's go," Jason said.


I almost bounced to the car. I felt like a dog that gets invited along on a Sunday drive, to stick his head out the window and his tongue outta his mouth, slobbering into the wind.

I kept my window and tongue rolled up as I drove, with Jason beside me, listening intently for weird sounds.

I didn't hear squat, I was too giddy.  Heletmedriveheletmedriveheletmedriveheletmedriveheletmedrive. But as we returned to Tuffy's, I did chill out long enough to hear Jason describe what he'd heard.

"I can hear the P-diddy raceinator confabing with your Krakatoa misenmast, flumagating your hydraulic etch-a-sketch." (I'm paraphrasing.)

In other words, he'd actually heard a squeak.

Because of fear of hearing what a new hydraulic etch-a-sketch would cost, I decided to distract him, by throwing confetti, blowing a party horn and letting Jason know that he was on Secret Shopping Candid Camera, and that he was the ONLY guy out of those at 15 total repair shops shopped, who'd actually done it right, by coming with me as an expert listener/passenger.

It's safe to say he was somewhat surprised, pleasantly so and rightfully so. Tremendous job, Jason! Whatever they're paying you, it's not enough, and you can tell your boss I said that. But don't worry about their immediate laughter - that's reflexive. What they'll know, after reading this, is that I'm right. :)

Again, awesome job, Jason!!

There are two customer service heros who emerged from this Secret Shopper review of 15 Des Moines area auto repair shops.

There's the wonderfully engaging, smiling, kind Brad Murray, manager/owner of Midas at 5618 Douglas. Brad could teach a class in customer service. In fact, I might ask him to come speak at one of mine.

There's also the incredibly thoughtful, forward-thinking Jason Huntley, store manager of Tuffy Auto Service, at 2135 West Grand Avenue. Jason set an extremely high standard from which every manager at every auto shop I shopped, can learn. He simply did the right thing - not because it was easy or convenient, but because it was in the customer's best interest.

For the rest of the auto repair shops I visited during my review, there are some good things upon which to build - mostly open-ended questions, friendly engagement from polite staff, good questions, designed to help better understand the problem.

There is also much room for improvement, including the basic pillars of customer service - smile more, use the customer's name, don't forget to thank them, and most important, create policies which favor the convenience of the customer over managers and staff. Oh yes, and much much much cleaner bathrooms! :)

Consumers - even as they depend on the expertise of managers, mechanics and staff at auto repair shops to keep their vehicles, and them, on the road - also struggle to trust that these same experts will be fair, transparent and honest.

Repairing that sense of broken consumer trust is not an easy fix, but also not impossible to restore. It starts with an entire auto repair shop's staff, learning the basics of customer service - smile, greet, engage, thank and follow-up. It means implementing oversight, checks and balances and daily diligence by managers and staff, holding everyone accountable, to a higher standard.

Most important, it means understanding not just how, but why to engage customers from the customer's perspective - in other words, having empathy. That requires that employees make a commitment to ride along with customers, as passengers on their journey.

Along for the ride, you may be surprised by what you hear.

Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT. Email Jonnie at jonniewright@thebuyosphere.com.

Open The Buyosphere Toolbox to get FREE exclusive access to proven tools that will help you generate higher shop sales and profits - delivered weekly, right to your inbox!