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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Trustworthiness Versus Credibility in Auto Repair

A lot is said about trust in the context of auto repair.  While trust is important, I think it’s often confused with credibility.  Consider this common scenario:
A motorist drives into a shop for a diagnosis of his check engine lamp.  The car runs fine.  After an hour of testing, the service advisor tells the car’s owner that the problem is actually inside the engine, in the timing chains and gears, and it’s going to cost $5,500 to repair.  The car is still running ok for now, he says, but if the problem is not repaired the car will not pass state inspection, and will eventually suffer greater damage.

The service advisor says he knows that’s a lot of money, and a big surprise.  But he’s seen that same issue before and it’s actually happening to a lot of cars like his as they get over 100,000 miles.  This, by the way, is a real example on Mercedes V6 cars.

Hearing that, what does the customer do next?  It’s a much bigger expense then he expected.  The customer might say he wants to seek a second opinion, or he might just schedule the repair.   What he does will not have much to do with trust.  It has everything to do with credibility.

From a client’s perspective, a trustworthy mechanic is one who does not lie to them.  A credible mechanic is one they can count on to give them the correct answer.   For a business to enjoy maximum success it must be both trustworthy and credible.

Investigative television shows have traditionally been fond of filming “stings” where they try to catch dishonest service personnel recommending parts cars don’t actually need.  While that can be a result of dishonesty it is more often a result of incompetence or even different service standards.

For example, when a car comes in with a complaint of unstable steering, an incompetent advisor may recommend new shocks.  In fact, the car has worn out control arms and he didn’t see that.  He’s not dishonest; he simply wrong in his diagnosis.

In my experience technical competence is the biggest problem facing our industry at all levels.  That speaks to the importance of credibility.  What makes a repair shop credible?

Long term clients decide a shop is credible based on long experience, where the advice they are given proves correct over the long haul.  Clients who are referred start with a presumption of credibility because their friends say things like, “I’ve gone there 10 years and they are the best.”

How does someone who does not have a personal referral choose a credible shop?  Most people today turn to the Internet.  Imagine a new client is standing in the waiting room of Shop A, and he just heard the news in my example.  What would assure him the shop is credible?

He’s driving a Mercedes, and the service advisor just said his problem is showing up in other cars like his.  Looking in the parking lot, he sees 10 other Mercedes cars like his own.  That speaks to credibility.  What about the Internet?  If the service advisor said something like, “If you Google E350 timing chain problems, you can read all about the issue on your car.”  Would that increase credibility?  Probably some.

What if the service advisor said, “We fix those timing chain issues fairly often, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it.  Would you like to see some photos of a job we just did, so you can understand what we do and why it costs what it does?”  In my opinion, that would increase credibility a lot to a stranger.

What if the service advisor said, “Are you a member of the Mercedes Club?  I’m a technical advisor and long time member, and we just hosted a tech session where we talked about this very thing.”  That too would increase credibility.

In the examples above I hope I’ve shown that credibility is actually a bigger deal that trustworthiness.  As indeed it should be.  Straight-out liars are not too common.  Insufficiently skilled and incompetent auto service personnel unfortunately are.

What else would make a repair shop credible to a new potential client?

John Elder Robison

(c) 2016 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent BMW/MINI, Mercedes, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

1 comment:

gsmac said...

I think there is one more cause that you didn't touch on: pressure from management to get the vehicle out the door. My experience (with warranty work, pretty much the only reason my car sees the inside of a dealership service area) has been that the inexperienced techs are pressured to get the car fixed and out the door within the shop hours allotted for the repair by the manufacturer. This does not lend itself to careful diagnosis, and more often than not leads to diagnosis via process of elimination part replacement - a technically viable option for the dealership when the manufacturer is footing the bill.

I have literally had my car at a dealership for a repair that was not resolved after two attempts. In frustration I researched and diagnosed the problem myself, presented the car once again, this time with documentation as to the problem AND the solution, and only then was the car correctly repaired. Another time, same car, same dealership, the main telematic screen would not boot up. The dealership had ordered a $1500 computer module as well as a $700 screen to try to fix the problem. Upon hearing this, I asked them if they had tried pulling the fuse for the system, to "reboot" the computer (I had to tell them which fuse) - which of course fixed the problem. This is not how a service department should be run, but my experience is that it is more often than not the case when dealing with a dealership service area.

Trustworthy, capable and credible private repair shops are few and far between, and still rely on word of mouth for referrals. With modern cars and the proliferation of computers requiring extremely expensive manufacturer-specific diagnostic equipment, I fear the private shop will become a thing of the past.

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