Art Bennett's "Stressed Member"


Putting the "Cuss" in Customer Service

By Art Bennett

Illustration by Keith Hunwick

I'll be blunt: It's my unfortunate task to report that customer service at far too many motorcycle shops is rotten. Yes, rotten -- as in rank, objectionable, foul and just plain stinky. The salesmen are all too often egotistical louts, the parts people condescending and incompetent, the mechanics greasy prima donnas. Ineptitude is rampant, attitude abundant, and indifference the norm. From what I experience on a daily basis, this situation shows no sign of ever really improving. Maybe the greatest hindrance to motorcycling is not from without, but within. Perhaps the biggest obstacle our sport faces isn't from the feds, the Greens, or half-blind grave-dodgers in tank-sized cages, but from the simple fact that motorcycle shops discourage their customers so thoroughly that they simply give up on motorcycling, and actually do something with their lives.

There are few places I can think of where good service is as scarce as it is at bike shops. Government offices come to mind (especially the DMV), as do HMOs and banks. The common denominator here is that these agencies are all more or less monopolies -- you have to deal with them at some point, like it or not. They don't have to be friendly, polite, or courteous. On the contrary, they seem to relish every opportunity to torment you with their rudeness. Bike shops aren't much better. There just aren't as many of them around as there used to be, so if you ride a motorcycle, at some point you have to deal with Stonewall's Cycles or the like. And Stonewall ("Stoney") and his lackluster staff know this all too well. Thinking about buying a new dirtbike? Well, one of Stoney's predatory salesmen will make it a memorable experience, that's for sure. Somehow, the unctuous salesman manages to constantly steer the conversation towards his remarkable riding achievements -- all the while leering at your girlfriend. While you negotiate price, he deftly fingers the calculator keys as if performing a blistering guitar solo. Yikes, that much? Well, you really want the bike, so despite growing misgivings, you agree to terms. The salesman rolls it back to the service department for prep, then you're pawned off on some harried gal who writes up the sales contract while trying to answer the phones and eat her lunch, and her tuna sandwich dribbles onto your paperwork. Two hours later, you watch in horror as some asshole mechanic (maybe me) tears around the parking lot on your new bike, ripping up its fresh knobbies while performing a stunt show that all but you find enthralling. You try to get the salesman to go over the bike with you, but he's already latched onto his next prey and barely acknowledges your existence anymore (your girlfriend is another matter, however). You finally persuade a surly mechanic to help you load your already-abused new bike into your truck, and away you go in a cloud of exasperation. Then your sweetheart mentions that the salesman tried to slip her his phone number...

A few months later your bike needs, say, a clutch cable. Shouldn't take long, right? Just stop by Stoney's on your lunch hour, acquire the needed part, then look forward to the weekend getaway you have planned. Yeah, sure, pal. Arriving at the shop, you find a line of agitated customers already waiting at the parts counter, desperation filling their eyes. Seems the parts guys all decided to take lunch at the same time, leaving the newest guy to handle the counter by himself. The stereo is blasting God-awful heavy metal at a decibel level normally reserved for flushing militia nuts from their strongholds. Above the din, an intercom squawks, "PARTS! Lines one, two, three, five, and seven!" Of course, answering the phone always takes precedence, so you get to hear all about the partsguy's big race last weekend five times as he leisurely chats on the phone... Let's say you don't lose it and rap the partsdude on the forehead with a large can of chain lube. Let's say instead that after an interminable wait, you finally get to the front of the line and tell the guy what you need. Everybody knows that clutch cables wear quickly on this model, and they must've sold a million of 'em, so it's only natural that Stoney's would stock at least one clutch cable for it, right? Right? Nope. "Not in stock. Gotta order it. Gonna take a week. Gotta pay in full now," says the "No Fear"-clad pinhead. Again, you stifle the urge to throttle the partspunk, and instead resign yourself to ordering the cable and staying at home this weekend. Two weeks and a dozen phone calls later, the part comes in -- the wrong part. Seems the partsjerk insists that you said choke cable. The throbbing in your temples increases as he disappears to look for the clutch cable originally requested. "Not in stock. Gotta order... URRggg!" A maniacal satisfaction fills you as you attempt to strangle the life out of the sullen little creep with the choke cable -- it would be so... fitting. Luckily, a few customers who initially cheered you on stop you before the deed is done. At this point, ordering parts from a dealership specializing in mail order begins to make sense. Unlike Stonewall's, you usually don't wait on hold forever when dealing with a well-run parts department. Plus the parts are delivered right to your door. Local dealers abhor mail order, but the message to them should be loud and clear: shape up or fuck off.

Time for a routine tune-up on your bike? Take it to Stonewall's! There's no one in the service office when you arrive, so you wait. And wait. A sign on the wall states that the labor rate is $65 per hour -- damn, the mechanics better be supermodels at that price, fer crissakes. The service writer finally emerges, looking like he just abused a controlled substance or two. He scrawls out a barely legible repair order rife with spelling errors, mumbles something about your bike being ready in a day or two if you're lucky, then drifts off. As you leave, you hear loud yelling in the service area, culminating in: "My biggest, most favorite hammer is missing again, you MOTHER%*&#ER!" A moment later there's an enormous BANG, followed by another stream of profanities. Nobody seems the least concerned, but anxiety gnaws at you as you walk away, leaving your bike in such questionable hands... A sunny weekend comes and goes with no bike. Seems the mechanic can't get your bike running right. Funny, but it ran just fine when you brought it in, you tell them. "Yeah, that's what they all say," mutters the service writer. Finally your bike is allegedly ready to pick up. With a sense of foreboding you rush down to be reunited with your beloved machine. After a ten-minute wait, the service writer hands you a bill that nearly sends you into cardiac arrest. Your formerly pristine bike is wheeled out to you with scratches, dings and greasy fingerprints covering it. It barely starts, and when it does, smoke belches forth from it like a Kuwaiti oil fire. Your registration and bungee net are missing from under the seat, and somehow the fuel tank, which was full, is now shy three gallons.

Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating a tad just to show how bad a shop can be. Or am I? Perhaps you have a personal horror story of your own that stands to illustrate my point (not the one on my head). Sure, I know there are good shops out there: shops with a friendly and knowledgeable staff, where phone calls are answered quickly and the employees are focused on their jobs. Where the seasoned mechanics respect your property and take pride in their work. Where there's a good selection of parts and accessories, and special orders are handled expeditiously. Where prices are fair and problems, when they do occur, are handled in a professional manner. There's always a fresh pot of coffee. You get a warm, fuzzy feeling every time you go there. It's all so beautiful...

Then why are there so many not-so-good shops, ranging from the mediocre to the truly rotten? Well, in spite of the high prices they charge for bikes, parts and labor, the wages paid by most bike shops are a cruel joke. Why? High overhead is most often sited and is, indeed, a valid concern. However, my theory is that lousy management is at the root of the problem. Poor management causes chaos and low morale, which scares away customers by the score. Reduced earnings make it hard to pay good employees good wages, which makes for a transient and inexperienced staff. By the time a bike shop employee really knows what they're doing, they realize they could be making a bunch more moolah at a far better job with a much brighter future -- collecting beverage containers from garbage cans, for example. It appears to me that too many shop owners fall into one of two categories: greedy slimeballs who suck the nectar out of our sweet sport, or well-meaning enthusiasts who don't have enough business savvy to run a lemonade stand in hell. Striking a balance between passion and profit seems beyond the realm of all but a few, but the establishments that do are the ones you want to patronize.

What's a consumer to do? I'd like to recommend that you complain to the shop's owner when service is bad, but it might not do any good, because as I've pointed out, it's usually the owner's fault that the shop is so screwed up anyway. If getting parts continues to be a hassle, then try mail order. Why patronize the local shop if it sucks? Why perpetuate misery? Ask your fellow enthusiasts about good shops for buying bikes, where the good mechanics are, and who stocks parts. As much as I blanch at the thought, the Web can be a decent source for this, too. Finally, when you do find good mechanics, it's always wise to ply them with cold beer and monetary gratuities on a regular basis -- Budweiser and crisp twenties are fine with me, thanks.

Speaking of good customer service, some day I'll have to tell you about the time I graciously dumped a bucket of water over a customer's head to cool his hot temper. True story...

Copyright Twistgrip Magazine 1999

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