Thoughts and advice on the care and feeding of fine automobiles from Machine Aficiionado and bestselling author John Elder Robison, owner of JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts

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Intermittent Problems That Can't Be Fixed

AUDI service. © copyright JE Robison

I receive a surprising number of messages from motorists who are unhappy with dealer service departments.  Who can repair my BMW right?  Where do I find a competent shop to work on Mercedes?  Who repairs Land Rovers?  One of the biggest sources of distress comes from intermittent problems with certified used cars that are out of new car warranty, but still covered by certified warranty.  This recent missive typifies what I hear:

For the past few months I've had both the check engine light and tire pressure monitoring system warning lights come on and off.   I check the gas cap and the engine runs fine.  My tires pressures seem ok, too.  I've taken my Mercedes to a dealer three times for these warning lights, and every time they've returned the vehicle saying it's fixed. After driving the car again for a few hours, or a day, the lights come back on. The dealer said that as long as the check engine light is not flashing, it's not a critical problem.   I'm just tired of dealing with this dealer's service department.

Why does this happen?  Is the dealer incompetent, or the problem so intractable?  In most cases, the answer is neither.  Much of the time, the answer can be boiled down to four words:

No pay = no work.

Rolls-Royce service. © copyright JE Robison

To explain what this means in the context of car repair I need to start by explaining some things about warranty and service.   When a car is new, it is backed by a warranty from the manufacturer.  With rare exceptions, there is no limit to that warranty, and the dealer is not responsible except as the service agent.  The manufacturer cannot say, “we’ve done all the warranty repair we are going to do,” and abandon you.

If a new car has a really intractable problem the manufacturer will usually offer a replacement vehicle or in some cases a refund or lease cancellation.  Carmakers go to great lengths to satisfy customers.

They also expect a lot of their dealers.  One thing they expect is that the dealer will do something in response to customer complaints.  If a car comes in with an intermittent fault the dealer will often change the most likely parts even if the fault is not present at that moment, because that gives the best chance of cure, and the manufacturer stands behind them and pays the bill.  If a subsequent repair is needed, they generally stand behind that too.

If a lot of time is needed to diagnose a difficult problem the manufacturers have a policy of paying the technician as needed.  Knowing that, they usually get the job done.  Problems can still happen but the vast majority of new cars get fixed successfully.

Cars covered by certified programs are a whole different story.  Once the new car warranty expires the manufacturers unlimited obligation comes to an end.  The certified program is often administered by a third party company who didn’t make the car and has strict limits on their responsibility for it.

In most cases, there is no longer provision for paying to diagnose difficult problems.  Indeed, many used car warranties – technically called service contracts because they are not actual manufacturer warranties – don’t pay for diagnosis at all.  Those that do often pay a fraction of the real time taken.

Yet customers don’t know the difference. They just expect their problems to be solved.  But that can’t happen when no one is willing to spend money to find a problem.  It’s not the dealer’s car – so he’s not writing a blank check if the trouble can’t be found in 15 minutes.  The car’s owner thinks warranty covers everything and the dealer must be trying to cheat him if they ask for any money.  The result – the dealer says “no problem was found” and boots the car out the door. One day, they figure, it will come back with a visible failure and they can fix it then. 

The focus of carmakers is to make money by keeping customers happy so they buy more cars.  Good service on new cars is part of that.  The dynamic for a third party administrator is totally different.  They make money from finance, by collecting fees for service contracts and paying out as little as possible.   

Once those folks manage the car’s service, everything changes.

Yet the motoring public knows nothing of this.  Everyone tries to hide this ugly truth.  Many dealers are told they cannot charge customers extra for so-called certified repairs.  That is presumably meant to prevent gouging, but in practice it ensures no dealer technician will waste a single unpaid minute chasing a difficult intermittent problem. 

The system works for most people, most of the time, because most problems are not intermittent and motorists learn to ignore the rest.

For the rest of you . . . .

We’re here in Springfield, Massachusetts, and we’ll diagnose and fix anything at our regular shop rate.  If an extended warranty pays us, great.  If not, the owner can pay.  From the shop perspective that’s the only fair way to do this.  We get our clients everything we can from their service contracts and they pay the balance.  We charge for actual time worked, and WE WILL solve the problem. 

J E Robison Service Co, Inc
Springfield, MA, USA
Bosch Authorized Car Service
Specialists in Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, Porsche, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley


Bryce Oliver said...

Sounds reasonable. I tell people all the time: "We can do anything you want. Just bring money."

jim said...

I LdoL. Every time my wife asks why it isn't done, I merely reply, "All it takes is time and money... simultaneously!" :-)

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