Two Stories of Customer Service at Cal's Auto Center

About two years ago my beloved Mazda Tribute was fading fast, going the way of the dodo. Caput! Gone-zo! Nothing I could do. The transmission was clunky at best, and the engine ran super rough. It sounded like the automobile version of strep throat.

It was time for a new car.

Throughout the death throes of my daily driver I had been researching which car I should purchase next. I settled on a 2012 Chevrolet Equinox. It had ample space, a smooth ride, and good gas mileage. It has served me well over the past couple years, with one exception: It started leaking at least two fluids about 3 months ago.

My friend Kyle recommended I take it into Cal’s Auto Center in Culver City. Cal’s is a small shop that looks like a converted gas station, and is owned and operated by a man conveniently named Cal.

Kyle took his car to Cal’s for the first time for a tune-up, for no particular reason. His car was getting older and he thought it was time for a tune-up. Kyle told this to Cal, who responded with skepticism. “Is it running poorly?” No. “Does it have any problems?” No. “Well then you don’t need a tune-up. The car is probably fine.” A little confused and relieved, Kyle said “okay” and drove home.

cal's auto center.PNG

Cal could have easily taken advantage of my friend. Kyle isn’t a huge car guy. He has a general appreciation for automobiles, but not much more than anyone else. Cal could have taken a look at the car and suggested any number of changes that sounded like a tune-up and Kyle would have likely agreed to the work. Instead, Cal declined to take advantage of him and simply said there was no need to work on his car.

I don’t know if Cal is aware of this, but he had just earned a new, regular customer. After leaving Cal’s Auto Center, Kyle immediately began to appreciate Cal’s blunt response. He probably felt a little silly for bringing his car there in the first place, but he got over it quickly.

Kyle has brought his car to Cal’s for auto service ever since. He even recommended Cal’s to me, and probably many other people.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. My experience did not go so well.

I called Cal’s and brought them my Equinox on a Tuesday morning. After waiting all day for their call, I called them late Tuesday and they said it would take more time to diagnose the problem. Apparently it was hard to tell where the leaks were coming from. Fine.

They called me Wednesday with the verdict: The water pump and the valve cover gasket needed to be replaced. It will cost $900. Ouch.

I said okay, git ‘er done.

They began work on Wednesday… I think… and I did not hear from them until I called on Thursday. No status, no updates, nothing. This would not have been surprising if they had said “the work will take two days”. They didn’t. They said it would probably be done the next day, and that they would call me when it was ready.

Thankfully they were almost done, I was able to pick up the car late Thursday. But as I left the place I heard a new noise in my car. I immediately brought it back and mentioned the noise to the woman at the front desk. She asked the technician to investigate, who, upon hearing the noise, shrugged and in poor English, said, “I done know. I did dey work. I did no drive it after.” How can you not inspect your work, especially after working on a 3,500lb vehicle? Take it for a test drive, hombre! He told me to bring it back the next day when Cal was back in the shop.

I don’t know if Cal is aware of this, but he had just lost a customer.

Thankfully the car was safe to drive, but I could not bring it back the next day. I ended up bringing it back the following week.

To their credit, Cal and his team spent two days replacing the water pump two more times. That was and still is the source of the noise. Cal even drove it home one night because he wanted to do a full test drive and see if the noise continued. When the sound persisted, they ended up calling General Motors and were told that the sound would eventually go away, maybe after 500 miles.

The sound is still there, and I’m getting close to 500 miles. Oh yeah, and the air coming into the cabin now smells like burnt oil.

Dear Cal’s, here’s a couple tips for the next time you have a new customer:

  1. Keep them updated. They want to know how things are going. Make sure you give them feedback and let them know when the work will be completed.

  2. Check your work, man! And make sure every employee checks their work. I don’t care whether you’re fixing a product or designing a style guide, check your work before giving it to the customer.

Next time I think I’ll just go to the Chevy dealership.

EDIT 3/22/2019:

It’s well over 500 miles and the noise from the water pump is still present. I can live with the noise but I cannot live with the smell coming into the cabin. I decided to talk with Cal and give them the opportunity to look at it. They investigated the issue and couldn’t find anything except for some extra fluids around the engine. Perhaps the fluids were burning off and getting into the air. They cleaned everything and the air is cleaner now.

And there’s one important thing: They didn’t charge me anything. That’s a big plus. Thank you, Cal!