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Sunday, September 07, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: AN EASY FIX AND A DIFFICULT BILL

I recently received a letter from an 84-year-old widow in Bountiful, Utah, about a dispute she was having with her car dealer.

After her car's "check engine" light came on, she called her dealer's service department to seek help. On the gas cap is printed the warning: "A loose cap may turn on check-engine light." Instead of advising her to check her gas cap, however, the service-department representative told her to bring in her car.

The service department tightened her gas cap ... and charged her $52.39 for the procedure.

My reader, who has purchased multiple cars from the dealer in years past, thought that this was quite a bit to charge for tightening her gas cap, so she wrote to the service manager.

"Is your service department so in need of business," she asked, "that you do not help out loyal customers with a problem such as mine?"

A month passed with no answer. She wrote to the owner of the dealership, enclosing copies of her earlier letter and of the bill, and asked him if he deemed her letter worthy of a reply.

Another month passed, without any response from the service manager or from the owner, so she wrote to me.

I called the owner and told him about the situation. He said that he hadn't been aware of the matter -- which, given the size of his operation and the relatively small amount in question, is likely true -- but he took my reader's contact information. I e-mailed her to let her know that I had spoken with the owner.

She e-mailed back to let me know that the general manager of the dealership had called her. He had known nothing of her situation until the owner alerted him, he said, and, because he did not want unhappy customers, he was returning her $52.39.

"Of course they missed the whole point," she writes, "and that is that they did not reply to a customer's inquiry. Only when they got a call from a guy with The New York Times did they decide to get in touch with the old lady."

She's right, of course. Even if the dealership had retained the charge, explaining that it reflected the time it took a mechanic to check out her car, the right thing would have been to respond to her letter. Even better would have been to suggest in the first place that she try tightening her gas cap.

It's good ethics, basic civility and good business to treat customers fairly and responsively.

As the summer drew to a close and I was about to make a final pruning of the hedge around my house with the power clippers, I couldn't get them to work. I called my favorite hardware store -- Curry Hardware in Quincy, Mass. -- and asked if I could bring in the 2-year-old set of clippers for repair. The young woman on the phone asked the brand and then suggested that I loosen the bolts on the blades before bringing them in. It worked.

Curry didn't get my money, but it has earned my loyalty.

My reader, however, may think twice before buying her next car from the same dealership, even though she's done business there for years.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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