Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Shopping for service when money is tight

Now that money is tight, people have started price-shopping for everything. Even car service. I’m all in favor of spending my money wisely, but choosing car service on the basis of the lowest price quote may not lead to the outcome you want.

If you want a new GE oven, price shopping makes sense. GE sells the same oven to all their dealers, so you can indeed choose on the basis of availability and price. You can even do that with cars. A brand-new Camry is a Camry, no matter what Toyota dealer it comes from.

So you may be fine choosing your new car on price, distance to the dealer, or attitude. But when your car needs service, the picture gets a lot more complicated. A recent Consumer Reports article pointed out the huge variation in price quotes for a 60,000 mile service. Their reporter called around and got very different prices from a mix of dealers and independent garages.

The implication is that you can save money by making a few phone calls. But what exactly are you getting? I’ve done similar studies and I’ve taken the time to actually ask what I’d receive for my money. One garage changed the transmission fluid, another changed spark plugs. One dealer said the axle fluid is “permanent” while the dealer across town dealer changed it. The result – no two 60,000 mile services are the same.

That discovery renders the different price quotes totally meaningless. So what’s a motorist to do? I looked in the owner’s manual for the answers. To my surprise, not one of the quotes I received exactly matched the manufacturer’s checklist, though several were close.

So who do you believe? Conventional wisdom says the manufacturer knows best, but I don’t know if that’s really true. After all, if your car lasts forever, where will that leave them? That’s why I take ideas like “permanent transmission fluid” with a grain of salt. Long experience as a service manager tells me you change the fluid, or you change the transmission. Sure, the transmission may last through several fluid changed, but what would you rather do? I’ll take three $200 services over one $3,000 transmission any day. Wouldn't you?

Of course you would - if you knew. That's where a relationship with a trustworthy advisor comes in. How to find such a person?

I’d keep that goal in mind when I listen to service providers explain what they’d do to a car at 60,000 miles. Can they explain things clearly and sensibly? You can learn a lot about someone's understanding of a topic by asking them to explain it to you. And competence is vital in this industry, and many others. I can’t tell you have many times I’ve heard comments like, "That dealer really ripped me off!” I hear those words, but I know many of the people involved, and they are not dishonest. They are, however, often inept.

Incompetence is the biggest problem facing the auto repair industry today. There is no licensing board like there is in medicine, plumbing, or the electrical trades. Anyone can buy a toolbox and call themselves a technician. You bring your car into their shop and they say, “You don’t need that, but you do need this.” How do you decide?

I suggest you ask the technician or service advisor to explain his reasons for doing something. Do they make sense? Does the service person give you a good feeling? If not, keep shopping. A good rapport with an auto service professional is more important than ever in today’s uncertain economic climate.

I’ll be back soon with more advice and thoughts.

5 comments:

sheila lee your haircolor expert said...

I think the same for hair and hair color services!!! Color correction can be $200 an hour or more.

piglet said...

i'm glad you are doing this blog. i have two cars that i took to be serviced, one cannot even be started b/c it caught on fire due to it not being able to turn off. the guys came to my house to look it over and of course it wasn't anything they did. $500, gone.

second car, took two times to dealership a combined total of about $1500, the engine light came back on about two days after the 2nd trip. i haven't called them back, and it's been months now. i am considering calling the corporate office and telling them my story. the car is basically new with fewer miles than the norm.

FZ1_Boone said...

I hear ya man. I've got a buddy who is a certified Porsche Technician. He basically acts as my personal mechanic for things I can't handle. For me though, it's not because of price shopping. It's because I need a mechanic I can trust with no question. I took the wife's Taurus to a local shop, because it was the middle of winter, and I didn't feel like messing with it. They told me it needed complete rear brake system, all of the way across. They, of course, would be more than happy to do it, to the tune of $800. I declined their service, dusted off my toolbox, and found that the pins in the calipers were corroded in place. $7.50 later, the rear brakes are working fine. Needless to say, I'll never take the wife's car back to that mechanic.

So, that's the issue for me. Trust. If I get the vibe that the shop is trying to make a quick buck, I'll walk out the door. It's gotten to the point where I live that I don't trust any mechanic around, so I do all of my own work.

Kanani said...

This came along at the right time.
I have a 10 year old Volvo with 179,000 miles on it. I've kept up with the repairs regularly and it runs like a champ. I love this car.
But my mechanic ...hmmm...... he's charging $95/ hour, can't get the car out in the same day (I have to rent a car) and the last repair for some kind of oil uptake valve ran $1100. Either I have to sell the car or get a new mechanic.
He's making me crazy.

John Elder Robison said...

Kanani, I am going to run a story on choosing mechanics and what to expect shortly