Getting lubed up

By on June 12, 2013

oil light

I still remember them. Tall and clear eyed, their square jaws clenched tightly as a sign of their strict discipline and inherent resolve, they dressed in perfectly pressed brown shirts and marched in straight, ordered ranks before the camera. For them there was only duty and their duty was their honor. Nothing would sway them from their purpose. As they marched they sang, and their song was a call to action. “We’re the Minit Lube Minutemen, trained to do the job and do it right.” God help us, we loved them for it.

They are gone now – so gone that not even their commercials exist anymore. Other companies purchased their shops and changed their names, but they helped start it all and, like some other things started by some resolute men in pressed brown shirts, the reality ended up being somewhat different than the idealized image that appeared on film. It was hot, sweaty and more than a little greasy. Still, I was proud to be among them, selected to be a leader and made a “Management Trainee” by the powers that be, and I was determined to lead from the front. Despite the fact that I had been hired primarily because of my sales experience, something that should have had me close to the register, working with customers and encouraging them to buy add-on services like air filters and optional fluid changes, I knew that as a leader I must earn their respect and so I too did my time in the trenches.

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Anyone who has ever taken their car to a Quick Lube has a pretty good idea of what happens. Part of that is by design, the bays are open and the waiting areas are often simple alcoves where a customer can enjoy a cup of coffee while they watch the show. The techs call out their every movement to one another, partially because safety (no one wants to be under a car when oil gets spilled) and partially because the more activity and noise the generate the more it seems like something important is going on. It gives the customer confidence in the work being done and to also allows them to feel that they are getting value for their money. And, like it is for every business that sells a service, money is what this is really all about.

JL customer service

The experience always begins outside of the shop when the customer pulls up and a customer service representative rushes out to speak to them about the kind of service they want. The truth is many customers don’t really know what they want, so this person’s job is simply to help them along but suggesting products or services here is a part of the game and often a simple phrase like, “Would you like synthetic oil?” can add real dollars to the company’s bottom line.

Once the customer signs the consent form, the car goes into the bay and over the pit where the action begins in earnest. Since most cars look a lot alike from the bottom, the customer service rep will tell the pit man the type and year of the car as well as the kind of service requested. The pit man always repeats this back in a loud voice, looks-up and stages the oil filter and begins to drain the oil. While the oil is draining, he will move back along the car, checking the various gear boxes he has access to and putting small samples of their oils on a plate that he will eventually pass to the customer service rep. If needed, he will lube the chassis and once the oil has fully drained he will change the filter, being careful to wipe the engine plate to ensure the gasket comes off with the old filter and re-install the drain plug.

JL pit

The pit man’s job It is a simple job, really, but it is also one of the most important. It is hot, dirty and more than a little dangerous working around extremely hot exhaust parts. Also, out of sight of the supervisor, the pit man is the most independently working guy in the shop, his attention to detail is critical and any mistakes he make can get really expensive really quickly. Personally, I liked this job best, but bouncing from car to car kept me busy and the truth is that my mechanical skills were not as good as my selling skills. The manager knew this and left me down there long enough to get the hang of it, but pulled me up on top where I could help make the shop money.

Up on top the hood man will begin by checking the automatic transmission fluid before the driver shuts off the engine. Then he will then move around the car, checking lights asking for signals to be switched on and off etc and finally make a big show of working under the engine. For the most part, with the exception of windshield washer fluid, only tiny amounts of any fluid are actually required if the car doesn’t have some type of real mechanical problem. The hood man will also pull the air filter and, unless it is brand new, will pass it to the customer service rep who, by this time, has also gathered the sample plate from the pit man.

JL hood man

A smart customer service rep will pull a new air filter and have samples of clean fluids with him when he approaches a customer. He will find them in the waiting room and explain what the condition of the filter and fluids are and, hopefully, up-sell the customer on an additional part or service and add even more to the company’s bottom line. My own approach here, total honesty, actually worked well. There are always several customers waiting in the room and they are all watching as you make your sales pitch. If you tell a customer that his obviously clean looking fluids look fine, you have just made a dozen friends. When you come back later and tell others that their dirty fluids are “border line” or worse, you will get their buy-in almost every time.

Back out at the car, the customer service rep will tell the service techs what additional services, if any, are required and the service will start to approach completion. The hood man will verify verbally with the pit man that the oil plug is in and that it is OK to add oil. That completed, he will verify the engine oil is in and that it is OK to start the car. While he does so, the pit man will stand by to make sure there are no leaks on the bottom side. That done, the hood man will shut off the engine and go to the front of the car where he will physically get down on his knees and watch while the pit man verifies that every drain plug is tight with a pull of his wrench. The service is completed, the hood goes down and the customer settles up.

For the most part the technicians who work at Quick Lubes are young people at the beginning of their working lives. Most are not professional mechanics, but everyone I worked with went through a fairly rigorous in-house training program and all were skilled at what they did. Each of us, of course, had varying degrees of experience and ability but for the most part the way the shop was run, with a constant communication between the techs and actual cross checks prior to the completion of a car’s service ensured that the work was done to an acceptable standard.

It was the 80s and this was the kind of thing we worked on.

It was the 80s and this was the kind of thing we worked on.

I won’t lie and say we never had a problem. Sometimes things got broken under the hood and our company paid to have them fixed. One time a drain plug on a differential wasn’t tightened sufficiently and our company replaced it and agreed to handle any problems when the customer brought it to our attention. The vast majority of our customers, however, came in, received their service without any problems and went on happily with their lives. That’s a good thing.

Looking back today I can see that the work we were doing was not terribly difficult and despite the searing pain of burned hands and wrists, the constant grit and grime under our fingernails, our oil stained uniforms and the constant smell of Dexron that wafted about us, we had an enjoyable job. Today when I roll into a Quick Lube I spend as much time watching the people as I do watching their performance and for the most part they are like I was back then, young, hardworking people who are trying to get ahead. I hope they go on to as much success in life as I have.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He writes for any car website that will have him and enjoys public speaking. According to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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