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.