Building Trust in the Service Bay Starts with Eliminating Bias
A slight change in approach is all that’s needed to equalize the automotive service experience
This is a relatively benign story about one woman’s experience with prejudice in a service bay. But please stay with me: the takeaways have the potential to reach much more broadly.
I’m in the process of buying a car from a friend, so I took it in recently for a safety inspection. The garage I chose is under a national brand not associated with an automaker. But that’s neither here nor there because, frankly, what happened next could have happened anywhere.
After completing the inspection, the mechanic walked me over to the hoist to share his findings. He had a concern with the car’s brakes. But he didn’t start the discussion by saying so. He started by explaining, in painfully basic terms, how brakes work.
“Ma’am, these are your brakes,” he said. “This is the rotor. This is where the brake pad goes, under here.”
I hope it goes without saying that this information was not new to me. If I didn’t understand how brakes work, I wouldn’t have much business being gainfully employed as an automotive writer.
But this fellow has no clue what I do for a living. All he saw that day was a woman who drove up in a seven-year-old hybrid with a kid in tow. And based on those parameters, he made assumptions about my level of knowledge.
To his credit, he quickly changed his tone after I unwittingly shot him what must have been a pretty dirty look and asked him a much more pointed question. But by then, the opportunity for him to gain my trust by approaching me as an equal was already gone.
There are a whole lot of qualifiers to apply here. For one thing, there’s no question this is extremely far from being the most egregious thing that’s ever happened to a woman in a service bay. In fact, as examples of sexism in the automotive industry go, this one is relatively benign.
I also don’t believe this gentleman was being deliberately condescending. When I posted about this incident on social media, a colleague of mine in Quebec commented that mechanics there who want to offend a woman will address her as “ma p’tite madame,” which roughly translates to “little lady.” That sort of antagonistic attitude is not what I took away from my own interaction in the slightest. I think this mechanic simply got caught in a case of unconscious bias.
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained renewed traction across the United States following the murder of George Floyd, I wrote a series of articles for another publication on how the Canadian automotive industry can address discrimination. One of the most valuable insights that arose from that research is the concept of unconscious bias: whether we mean to or not, each of us carries stereotypes and preconceptions that influence how we interact with the people around us. This can be anything from associating someone’s ambition level with his or her skin colour or one’s intelligence with tone of voice or choice of words.
In short, we all make assumptions about strangers, and it affects our interactions before they even start, often in ways that are unfair. It’s not a pretty thing to think about, but it’s an important one to come to terms with if we hope to make meaningful progress toward eliminating prejudice.
In my case, my mechanic assumed I didn’t know much about cars based on my gender. But this concept can manifest in many other ways. If a young man in a flat-billed hat shows up at a garage with a Subaru WRX STI, does that same mechanic give him an explanation of his brake problem that sails right over his head? If a customer speaks to him with a thick accent, does he unwittingly talk down to the brilliant CEO of a tech start-up?
This is why one of the most important changes that can happen in automotive service departments – and in a lot of corners of society, really – is for the person who will interact with the customer to start the discussion from as neutral a position as possible.
“So, ma’am,” that mechanic might have said to me, “how much do you know about how your brakes work?”
This way, there are no assumptions, there’s no room for condescension, and I as the customer set the scene for the discussion. An intuitive mechanic or advisor can tailor the rest of the interaction from there, and I leave feeling respected and with the groundwork laid for a longer-term client relationship based on trust.
It’s one small step in a very long journey. But it’s one this industry needs, and it’s a start.