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Tell Us What’s Wrong In Your Own Words

This is an imaginary scenario in which a customer is dropping his car off for service at a mechanics shop. It’s meant to illustrate why describing a symptom in layman’s terms is the best way describe the problem your car is having to a mechanic.


Customer says, “It feels like my carburetor is going bad” And the customer is right in a way. He once had a car with a bad carburetor and the way his car is now behaving is exactly like his old car with the bad carburetor behaved: when he drives up a hill, the car lacks power.

However, carburetors (and many other car parts) can fail in a number of ways. A carburetor could cause the car to stop running at idle, or run rough when cold, or idle too fast when cold, or stall on a rapid acceleration, and the list goes on.

So the Service Writer might say, “OK, but how does it feel when you are driving it”.

To which the customer might reply, “just like a bad carburetor” — a little louder this time, since the service writer did not seem to hear him the first time.

The Service Writer responds, “Yeah, but what does the car do?”

The customer then frustratedly replies, “it acts like a car with a bad carburetor”.

The Service Writer then notices the crowd of other customers waiting to be signed in and gives up, signing the car in as “Customer states car feels like it has a bad carburetor”.

The repair order is assigned to a mechanic, who asks the service writer, “so what’s a bad carb feel like?” The Service Writer says, “I’m not sure. Drive it and see if it acts odd in any way”.

Here are a few scenarios.

Scenario one

The mechanic drives it around for a while, both around town and on the freeway, but not to the hills where the problem might act up. He does a scope check, checks for computer codes, and pokes around under the hood but does not find any problems. The customer is charged $75 for the time spent and still has a broken car.

Scenario two

The mechanic notices a problem, but not the “correct” problem and fixes it. The customer pays $300 for the diagnosis and repair, takes the car, and has a lack of power on the first hill he encounters. He brings the car back and explains he had a problem on the hill. The Service Writer says, “Oh, but we fixed a rough idle problem, not a lack of power problem”. The customer admits he noticed the smoother idle, but could have lived with the rough idle given the choice. He can’t live with the lack of power though. A small hole in the distributor rotor is found to be the cause of the low power up hills. It’s diagnosed and fixed for an additional $40, but no one is very happy.

Scenario three

The mechanic refuses to give up on trying to find the problem despite the vague description and through hours of exhaustive testing, finds the bad rotor. But because it took so long to find, it costs $160 instead of $40.

In conclusion

I believe that explaining car problems in jargon is born of the best intentions — the customer’s desire to save the mechanic time by pointing him in the right direction. And some customers are truly very knowledgeable about auto repair and do have valuable technical insight. So if you have technical information, the quickest way to convey it to us is similarly: “My car does this when I do this and conditions are such, and I think it’s caused by this for this reason.