Pain in the Ass
When embarking on a sting, one wants company. It can be rather frightening to go it alone, and so I hope you don't mind the royal we, for I now become it. We just feel more comfortable that way. If it makes you feel any better, you may imagine us as we actually are, a solitary reporter, armed as necessary with a Houston Press expense account.
Our target was a questionable auto repair outfit, which meant that we needed first an unquestionable mechanic. Such a fellow is hard to find, but in what would seem the most unlikely of places, we think we found him. Ray Moon runs Beechnut Auto Repair out of a strip center on Beechnut, surrounded by small churches and blow-away businesses. He wears shorts and a blue shirt with "Ray" stenciled over the chest. He has a paunch and thick, dirty hands. In seven years the Better Business Bureau has never received a complaint about Ray's place, and in terms of customer satisfaction, Beechnut Auto Repair is ranked by the American Automobile Association as one of the area's top shops. Inside, a softball trophy sits atop the water cooler. The walls are covered with various certifications and placards, generally testifying that "Quality only happens when you care enough to do your best."
"We're nothing but a bunch of clichés, man," said Ray.
Working toward a better name for his industry and, he freely admits, more exposure for his business, Ray sometimes offers his services to the media. He knew just how to proceed. What we need, he said, is a good car. He likes Ford, so make it a Ford with low mileage, in general good repair.
This was quickly requisitioned. Our car was a Grand Marquis, silver and fat, just four years old. "Perfect!" said Ray, and popping the hood, he checked the car over from top to bottom. The coolant was dirty and low. He divined a problem with the mass air flow sensor. Otherwise, the Marquis appeared healthy enough, and having established this, Ray fished through a cardboard box until he found an old spark plug wire, with a hole burned through. He took the good wire off and put the bad one on. The car, in idle, suddenly felt like a panting dog. Ray explained that it was "a very easy problem, very common and straightforward," one that he had seen at least a hundred times.
The spark plug wire would serve as the basic skills test. The mass air flow problem was trickier. It would go for extra credit.
Our friendly mechanic waved as we departed. At first we felt absurd in our car, kind of old and stodgy, a bit like our grandfather. And then, at a filling station, as we watched the car gulp down $24.96, an African-American gentleman looked our way and said of our ride, "Ooh, that thing looks comfortable!"
We looked again. Yes, it was rather posh, wasn't it? The Grand Marquis was us, and we were the Grand Marquis. We climbed aboard again, realizing we just may have special talent for the role of sucker.
"We're the good guys in a bad news business," Todd Hayes insisted.
It was he who started this whole thing. The reputation of auto repair was such that Hayes thought he could make a bundle simply by repairing cars efficiently and honestly. In 1986 he began hiring what he thought were good guys and began setting up shop in high-income areas. The stores opened early and closed very late, and in most cases offered same-day service. Then Hayes began hiring restaurant people to run the stores, because who would know more about good service?
For 11 years Hayes balanced virtue and profit as only a Baptist businessman can. Things went more or less according to plan, and when Hayes sold out to his partners in 1997, he became a millionaire.
He left at the helm a crew of restaurant people. With national ambitions, they decided they needed a national name. Mobile Car Care was rechristened "America's Service Station," and as one of the partners later confessed, they were all happily unaware the acronym made them an ASS.
ASS seems to have traveled a long time on Hayes's momentum, despite an apparent shortage of marketing savvy. Within a community, only the Better Business Bureau and AAA track the customer approval of an auto repair shop; membership in either organization has thus become a stamp of credibility that customers look for. But as ASS partner Phillip Tringali told it, ASS couldn't see the value of either membership and so declined to join.
The logic goes that ASS had its own procedure for gathering customer feedback. Every customer would receive a questionnaire and a phone call. A special ASS hot line and e-mail address would accept complaints, and all complaints would be resolved within 48 hours.
With this process, the managers of ASS felt they could monitor their own customer approval rating. What did they need the Better Business Bureau for? The ASS slogan was "Service you swear by. Not at." The shuttles carried the words "When we take you for a ride, it's to work."
ASS continued to prosper, expanding into Dallas, Austin and Atlanta. There are 33 branches now, 17 in Houston. And all of this is interesting because, as the company grew, so did a file at the Better Business Bureau. No other auto repair business in town currently has more complaints. As one customer wrote, "It is this kind of repair shop that gives auto mechanics their bad name!"
When we called ASS headquarters to inquire, the CEO, a former TGI Friday's man, passed the message to the CFO, a Hooters man, who passed it to the new regional manager, none other than Todd Hayes, back from retirement. Hayes made it clear right away that he was still a company man. Pointing to his bracelet, he said the question written there -- "WWJD?" (What would Jesus do?) -- is the question that guides all decisions at ASS Inc. He was a man of great integrity, he said (a subordinate vigorously agreed), and ASS was a great Christian company, and how 93 customer complaints reached the BBB, he could not precisely explain. But he had a theory: It could be a Better Business Bureau conspiracy to discredit ASS for not becoming a BBB member. ("This is where the investigation should begin, right here.") Then again, the BBB may have collected the complaints, but it certainly did not write them. So Hayes pointed out that the complaints were but the smallest fraction of total ASS customers. This was certainly true, but consider the Firestone file: With 47 full-service centers in Houston, Firestone has just six complaints.
Hayes was soon spewing saliva, emphasizing the good will of ASS and declaring, "We treat every customer like she's our mother." If this is true, the complaints would suggest they are none too kind to their mothers.
"I am a 78-year-old woman and feel like I was taken advantage of," reads one.
"I knew they were getting to me," reads another, "but I'm handicapped and had no one or no way to defend myself."
There were many complaints about the prices. Most seemed to find ASS's rates about double those elsewhere. Bryan Mackora griped that he was charged essentially three times the street value for an evaporator core. Mary Gordon also found the prices excessive and was told when she inquired that they were due to "the level of service we provide."
"Can you believe this?" Gordon wrote.
The service was the subject of many complaints. Nona Pierce spent $1,147 to have ASS repair her air-conditioning. Then she spent $500 more, and it still didn't work. Kathy Dunn complained that after an estimate of $1,500, she received a $2,800 bill. The suspension still was not repaired, and now the brake lights weren't working. "Is this a regular thing that you do?"
On all repairs, ASS offers a 12-month, 12,000-mile prorated warranty. "That's huge," the text reads, but the warranty is actually below the industry standard and means, in effect, that no repair is ever fully guaranteed. Bill Green learned the value of his "nationwide warranty" after his rebuilt engine broke down 600 miles out of Houston. ASS told him that if he was out of state, he was on his own. Green swallowed the $2,300 he had paid ASS and took the bus home.
Angry customers often found it difficult to get ASS's attention. Calls and e-mails to the company would go unanswered. Kim Juengling didn't receive a response until she stopped payment on her check. The response was the repossession of her vehicle. In the end, she, like so many others, wrote the Better Business Bureau.
When ASS began answering the BBB complaints last fall, its responses seemed to leave something to be desired. "We at America's Service Station have an undying commitment to excellent customer service," wrote Phillip Tringali, but in his replies, Tringali makes it clear ASS doesn't operate on the theory that the customer is always right. Tringali notes frequently when customers were "rude" or "belligerent." Rarely does he acknowledge the frustration that ASS staff led customers to feel. In the case of Kim Bradford, he sided, as usual, with his staff.
Bradford's van was running well until she went to ASS for an oil change. The ASS technician forgot to refill the oil, and the engine was soon ruined. ASS responded by replacing the engine with another of similar mileage, but dissimilar mechanical problems. When Bradford demanded an engine as trouble-free as the one she lost, the manager refused, claiming the problems were the result of mileage. It did not matter that Bradford had not driven these miles. Tringali agreed, and that was that.
And then there is Eric Botts, who took his car to the ASS on Holcombe for a simple state inspection and was surprised to hear he had a power steering leak. When he asked the service representative to show him the leak, the employee could not do it but insisted nonetheless that the leak must be fixed, for about $160, before the car could pass inspection. Botts went elsewhere. He got his inspection without a hitch, and after confirming there was no leak at all, he complained to the BBB of "questionable business practices."
Tringali, in his response, quickly took the moral high ground. "If Mr. Botts had the vehicle inspected at another station with an existing leak, that is fine," sniffed Tringali, "but we will not take part in such practices."
Months later Todd Hayes managed to discover the general manager of that store selling $1,600 in unnecessary repairs. Hayes promptly fired the manager and returned the money. Whether other victims received reparations, or whether Eric Botts received an apology, Hayes did not say.
The complaints in the BBB file languished unanswered, Hayes explained, because the BBB did not notify ASS the complaints were there. This, pronounced the BBB's Dan Parsons, is "the lamest excuse I have ever heard," and he presented paperwork showing that ASS had been notified repeatedly.
Giving Hayes the benefit of the doubt, we decided to research the company ourselves. In the Grand Marquis, we traveled from one ASS to another undetected, because ASS, as modern as it appears, does not have a central computer database for vehicle information.
In every ASS, we found clean men in clean, well-lit offices, the walls adorned by few signs of professional qualification. "An oasis," according to ASS literature, "in a land of dark, dingy and intimidating repair shops."
We wandered in, typically, complaining that the "check engine" light had come on, and our Grand Marquis was running kind of rough. When the question came, what did we mean by that, we explained, she's just not purring, you know, and how much would it cost to make her right? The good people of ASS would smile then and ask us to sign a piece of paper.
"Never never never -- 16 nevers," Ray had said. "Never leave your car at a repair shop without a signed work order." Thus, we signed these papers, even after Ray pointed out the papers were blank. "This is how you get taken to the cleaners," he said.
Beyond appearance, every ASS seemed to operate according to its own standards. What you get seems to depend on where you go. The store on Dairy Ashford was the only ASS to diagnose the problem without computer testing. Over the telephone, the manager gave an estimate of $386, and when we arrived to retrieve the car, the clerk said a mechanic was already working on it.
"Well, I can have him put it back together if you want."
He sputtered. He offered the 90-days-same-as-cash financing plan. He told us we would damage our car driving this way, which, according to Ray, was not true in the case of the Marquis. We held fast. Relenting, he looked upon us finally as a doctor would the parents who won't give their baby the medicine she so desperately needs.
As Mobile Car Care, the ASS on Mason Farm Road was the single branch that ever belonged to the Better Business Bureau. When the membership was terminated, the bureau sent a certified letter requesting the return of its plaque. To this day, the plaque remains displayed on the wall.
We told general manager Craig Baldwin about our misbehaving Grand Marquis. He shook his head and said, "That fine car?" And sometime later we received an estimate of $897.87 to fix the problem. What the problem was, however, was not exactly clear. The estimate called justly for replacing the spark plugs and the spark plug wires. But for $292.57, it also called for a new PCV valve, a new air filter, a new fuel filter and a throttle body service.
The air and fuel filters on the car were already new, said Ray. The other repairs were unnecessary.
"Either they're being dishonest and not diagnosing the problem," Ray said, "or they're incompetent. I'll let you be the judge of that."
Craig Baldwin charged $85 for a computer diagnosis and returned our car with a smile.
The ASS on Greenbriar also recommended plugs and wires, and a throttle body service and new fuel filter, too. All of this for $673.96. We were charged the $85 diagnosis fee there, too, and it wasn't until we left that we realized they had done us the kindness of installing a new battery. The battery was neither unwrapped nor bolted down, and the staff, when we inquired, couldn't adequately explain how it got there. The old battery was fine, but we remain grateful for the new one.
"It's just scary to see the range of prices for this repair," said Ray. And the service continued to vary. The Holcombe store, after its recent overhaul, efficiently located the problem in the plugs and wires, and offered an estimate of $524 to fix it. Then we went to Webster, to the ASS on Highway 3, where prices seem to fluctuate from day to day.
A clerk named Lynn Gegnieux had a mechanic take a look. New plugs and wires were called for, the fuel filter and air filter, and also, quite rightly, a coolant flush. This would cost about $500, which wasn't bad by ASS standards.
But when we came the next day to get the car, we found the general manager, Von Chryer, had sought a second opinion from a different mechanic. Von presented an estimate of $1,014.92. "I updated it," he explained. In the update, the price of eight spark plugs jumped from $28 to $112. It had also been decided that, at $300 a set, the car needed new coils.
Robert, the mechanic, gravely nodded. He even explained the test he had run to determine it.
"Ooh, isn't that interesting," said Ray Moon. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with the coils in this car."
The chain began at the Kuykendahl store, and it was there we decided finally to get the repair. Remembering what Byron, the ASS mechanic in Katy, had said -- "if you don't use Motorcraft, you're going to be dead on the side of the road in 30 days" -- we specifically requested Motorcraft parts.
Of course, said Andy Winters, and the transaction was soon complete.
For what it's worth, if you are handy, you could buy Motorcraft plugs and wires from a Ford dealer and do this job yourself for about $165. Or, if you went the Pep Boys route, you could do it for about $80.
ASS Inc. charged $371.31. When Ray opened the hood, he found 99-cent spark plugs and the gray wires of Pep Boys' generic.
"They sold you cheap junk," said Ray.
None of the six ASS shops we visited found the mass air flow problem. Ray's take on the whole thing was that people make a mistake when they choose a mechanic by the size of his Yellow Pages ad and the luxury of his facility.
Back at ASS headquarters, when we laid the results out before Todd Hayes, it was hard to tell whether his hue were a tropical tan or the purple of apoplexy. "That would be a disappointment," he said, if we were promised Motorcraft parts and didn't receive them. "That would be a disappointment," he said again, if ASS technicians were replacing new air filters. "That is unfortunate," he said of Von Chryer and the coils.
"But here's the thing," said Hayes, snapping his fingers. "He's gone. If it's an issue of integrity, you're terminated. Period."
Hayes confessed finally that ASS did indeed have a few problems and that he was brought back in December to rectify them. He would not specify what these problems were but he said they resulted from the fast growth of the company. In any case, since January, he said he had fired 45 managers in Houston alone.
Perhaps because of the file at the Better Business Bureau, the company has also decided to change its slogan. "Service you swear by. Not at." has been pitched out in favor of the indisputable "America's Service Station, where service is our middle name."
Complaints, meanwhile, continue to pour in the BBB. There have been 33 so far this year, six in May alone. ASS is working hard to answer those complaints, and Hayes promised that the concerns we identified would be addressed as well. He made the point that he didn't have to talk with the Press.
"I plead with you to treat us as kindly as you can," Hayes said. "We're doing the best job we can do, and I guarantee we're better than anyone in the industry."
E-mail Randall Patterson at randall. email@example.com.
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