THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Caution flag: I brake for big repair bills

Unhappy customers. Sometimes, they emerge because businesses fail to provide adequate service or attention. Sometimes, they result from unreasonable customer expectations.

As I have often written, untangling one type of situation from the other after the fact is often a difficult, if not impossible, task. In fact, that's why I get paid the big bucks.

Annette Brock says she brought her 1991 blue Honda Accord into Team Tires one day last month (which I since determined was February 7) because the brakes were squeaking. She says she received a call at the fast food restaurant where she works that afternoon from Team Tires telling her that her car needed a lot of work. Brock says she doesn't know anything about cars, and so just told them to go ahead.

Her bill came to $941– a tidy sum.

And her brakes still squeaked.

Brock's landlord, Sam LeBeau, brought her situation to our attention because he thought that Team Tires might have taken advantage of Brock. He says that when he brought his car into Team Tire for an inspection a few years ago, they tried to get him to agree to a tire alignment, which he did not do because it was not an inspection requirement. But the experience stuck with him.

Then, Hook reporter Lisa Provence told me that when she brought her car to Team Tires last summer for a free tire rotation (to which she was entitled because she had bought tires there) and an oil change, they told her the fluids in her car needed changing– for $200. Provence refused, not wanting to spend the money.

But when she brought her car to her regular mechanic several months after that, she asked him to check the fluids. He said they were fine.

Given these anecdotes, I expected the worst when I visited Team Tires last week. In my mind's eye, I saw a dirty, greasy repair shop populated by threatening mechanics in dirty, greasy clothes offering defensive, greasy explanations for these repair charges.

Instead, I encountered a bright, clean public area where I spoke amiably with two Team Tires employees, Scott Marshall and Phillip Hippert, who were familiar with Brock's situation. Far from being defensive in responding to me, they answered every question I asked, and not once did I feel threatened.

I hate it when that happens. At least Hippert has some grease on his shirt.

According to Marshall, Brock brought her car in not complaining about squeaking brakes, but complaining that the brake pedal was falling to the floor.

If so, then Team Tire's replacement of the master cylinder on her Honda (about $220 of her bill, including parts and labor) seems reasonable.

Further, Marshall says, Brock asked Team Tires to run a general check-up on her vehicle, during the course of which he says Team Tires found, among other things, an oil leak in the engine and a shot water pump, explaining the remainder of her bill.

Marshall told me that Brock did not just approve the work over the phone, but rather came and picked up her car the afternoon of February 7 and brought it back the next morning to have all the work done. So she had time to consider whether to do the work.

Finally, both Marshall and Hippert say they see Brock regularly at the fast food place where she works, and her complaints are news to them.

"What does she hope to get out of this," Marshall asked me, noting the unfairness in the fact that the mere accusation of wrongdoing can reflect badly on Team Tires.

If Brock hopes to get anything out of this, she didn't tell me. She says she just feels like Team Tires "got over on me" by performing work she didn't need and failing to perform the work that she did need.

Given the different stories put forth by Brock and by Team Tires, it is unclear exactly what transpired here, but it appears that both customer and business may have fallen short of reasonable expectations in several areas.

Unfortunately, in the style of the cliffhanger serials of old, you'll have to wait until next week to find out where.

Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.