Friday, April 3, 2009

Trust in the auto service environment

Yesterday one of the blog commenters said,


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.


At first glance, it might seem that the local shop lost the customer’s trust because they exaggerated what was wrong with the car. I think the problem developed earlier, though. For some reason, the customer doubted the shop enough to do their own inspection, which revealed something different from what the shop said.

What prompted the inspection, if not a lack of confidence or trust?


And what could a shop do about it? Here’s my take on this particular situation, which starts with a simple explanation of how brakes work.


At each corner of the car, you have a brake assembly. In a car with disc brakes, that consists of a caliper, pads, and a rotor. The brake calipers are like clamps, whose faces hold brake pads. When you step on the brake pedal, the clamps press the pads into the sides of the brake rotor, which is like a spinning plate. That friction is how brakes stop your car.


It’s the same idea as the brake on a 10-speed bicycle, just bigger and heavier.


The pins the fellow refers to are part of the caliper assembly. When they rust in place, the caliper is no longer free to move, and it doesn’t clamp correctly. That can cause a number of problems. First, the brakes simply won’t work as well as they’re supposed to. Second, some parts will wear out early while others don’t wear at all. Third, when one wheel has a problem and the others are fine, the car will develop a tendency to dive to one side when the brakes are applied – a dangerous situation.


There is more than one way to solve this problem. The most basic solution is to hammer the rusty pins apart, clean them with sandpaper, grease them and put everything back together. That’s the solution my blog commenter chose. But that’s not the only solution.


I’d like to share some of the choices a service manager must make when advising a motorist about a simple problem like this:


First, a few technicians would do what the commenter did – free up the stuck pins and send the car on its way. In my experience, though, most good technicians would feel that wasn’t an adequate response, for a number of reasons . . .


Many of them would recommend replacement of the whole caliper assembly, reasoning that the rust will simply return and new parts will ensure a more permanent repair. There’s also the concern that visible rust on the pins may be just the tip of the iceberg. The inside of the caliper may be rusty and ready to fail, too. That’s a perfectly valid reason to recommend a caliper in this situation.


On an older car, when you replace one caliper, it often works better than the original calipers on the opposite wheel. The result: the car now pulls to one side when you apply the brakes. The answer to that is simple – replace calipers in pairs on older cars. It’s not always necessary, but it’s quite common.


When you remove a caliper for any reason, there is always the risk that one of the metal lines that connects it to the master cylinder will fail from rust and age. When that happens it may take several hours to fabricate and install a new line. That’s an example of a complication that can cause the price of a job to increase.


After deciding what to do with the caliper, the service manager has to decide what to say about the pads and the rotors. If they are in near-new condition, there is little to decide – you leave them alone. But that’s rarely the case when a car arrives with a problem the driver can feel. By then, both pads and rotors are probably worn, and the question becomes . . . how worn is too worn?


There’s a lot of leeway for interpretation at this point. A shop that works on high performance cars might recommend replacement when the pads fall below 50%. A shop that caters to older cars whose owners are on a budget might stretch that margin to 10% or even 5%. There is no absolute right or wrong – they just serve markets with differing needs and expectations.


Rotors are the same way – the carmaker provides a minimum thickness, and you measure the rotors, compare to the spec, and make a judgment call. But thickness isn’t the only criteria. There is also flatness, which is more subjective. A rotor that is just a few thousandths of an inch out of flat will make the whole car shudder when braking from high speed. That’s a big deal to on a fast highway, but it might not matter much to a city cab driver. Once again, the service manager has to know how to match his customer’s needs with his own recommendations and the car’s condition.


Can the service manager understand those issues, explain them, and help guide the motorist to a good choice? Some can. Other “service managers” have little or no training or automotive knowledge, and they simply sell the “special of the week,” something that virtually ensures mistrustful, dissatisfied customers.


In my opinion, the best way to earn a consumer’s trust is to explain the situation to them so they can make an informed decision. Someone who understands the choices may disagree with my recommendation, but they won’t think I am crooked or tricky. However, the service manager has to have a deep understanding of how automotive systems work to be able to explain anything on demand, and that’s where our system breaks down. We don’t have enough trained and articulate people out there, and that’s a bit part of the industry’s trust problem.


I think that ability is one of the things that sets Robison Service apart from many other shops.

6 comments:

FZ1_Boone said...

Actually, I bought new pins for the rear calipers... the old pins were corroded so bad that it required a good soak in PB Blaster and some not so gentle persuasion with vise-grips and a hammer... 4 new pins, 4 rubber protective boots, and a bit of waterproof brake grease, and everything was moving just fine again.

What made me lose trust in the shop in the first place, was that as I said, it was in the winter, I described the problem I was having with the car to him, and asked him to take a look as he changed the oil. When I went to pick the car up, which was covered in salt from the roads, there were no fingerprints/hand-prints in the salt on the wheels or body panels. They never even took the wheels off to check. On top of that, he told me that the radiator was leaking. I asked him to show me the leak since the car wasn't leaving puddles, and the fluid level wasn't changing and he quickly changed the subject and then rushed back into the garage.

Trust is a big issue with mechanic shops, and normally after a person builds a relationship with one mechanic, they will not take their car anywhere else. I'm still looking for that special mechanic around my area. I don't mind spending the extra cash to take care of other potential problems "while we're in there" such as: when you replace a clutch, it makes sense to replace the throw-out bearing and check the condition of the pilot bearing and the rear main seal while you're in there, but up-selling to something that the customer doesn't need is ridiculous, and I won't frequent that type of establishment.

I know you don't run this kind of shop, but many in my area (a college town) do. It seems like the shops are ready and willing to take advantage of the young college students with their parents' credit cards.

John Elder Robison said...

Thanks for your elaboration.

You have touched upon a very important tip for getting good service. Simply say, "Can you show me why you think I need those things?"

I always take customers into the shop to show them what we are doing, even if they are only marginally interested.

I tell them that this trust and interest thing works both ways . . . if they go out into the shop and show interest in what our tech is doing, they may well get a little more care put into their repairs.

rick.colson said...

Yup. Trust is definitely hard to come by. John has been servicing our vehicles for, well, I hate to think how long but it has to be more than 15 years. Does he ever make mistakes? We all do. What sets those who are trustworthy apart is the willingness to do what it takes to make it right. That's where the rubber meets the road. (By the way, John doesn't make mistakes often. He has an intuitive relationship with machines and usually gets it right the first time.) This is an entirely unsolicited testimonial and you can "trust" that I don't offer one very often. John's place is simply the best and most trustworthy I've found. Why else would I drive 90 miles from Boston for service?

Rick Colson

Steven said...

Hi,

Automotive service manager’s duty is to look after the operation and the maintenance of the fleet by taking care of its repair. He is supposed to coordinate activities such as conducting a study and assuring quality of automotive. The automotive service manager looks at the overall performance, price of the automotive.

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