By Mitch Schneider
I’m a “first person” writer. I write about things that I’ve either experienced personally, or that have profoundly affected me in some powerful or compelling way. Almost without exception, these “things” occur either at the shop or have at least something to do with what goes on there. They are things that, in some way, intimately impact me, the people I work with, our clients or our industry.
Over the years, both have provided an almost inexhaustible supply of subject material for columns like this. One reason could be the 60 or more hours a week I spend at the shop dealing with “broken” cars and “broken” people. Another could be the 22 years or more I have dedicated to “working” on what certainly appears to be a “broken” industry.
After almost 41 years of working as a shop owner and a professional technician, I’d like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with broken stuff. However, every once in a while something occurs that shakes my confidence to its very foundation. This time, it was an email sent by Ed Sunkin, editor of Underhood Service magazine. Attached was an article written by someone else who has apparently spent “a lifetime” in this industry; a lifetime whose experience it seems could not be more different than my own.
This article was written for public consumption and posted on the Internet and there was a disturbing bias woven throughout its content…A bias I can’t help but feel was not only inaccurate, but dangerous and destructive as well. And, while it also was written from a first-person perspective by someone representing himself as an expert in automotive service; it certainly did not accurately or adequately represent the people or the industry I know and have known for more than 40 years.
The article began with a question: “Have you ever felt like you got ripped off by an auto repair shop?” And, answered: “I am sure the answer is yes.” Then, it promised to “shed some light on the difference between good repair shops and bad ones.” As if life or anything else of consequence could be explained in just 500 words.
It went on to state unequivocally, that “having a vehicle repaired by a dealership is always the best way to go.” And, suggested that based upon the author’s experience at least, just about everyone outside the dealership network is either incompetent or a crook.
At first, he presented what seemed like a compelling argument: dealerships have the advantage of factory information and training, immediate access to technical service bulletins and factory recalls, and the availability of original equipment parts. But, those of us who have spent our entire careers working outside the dealership environment have to wonder just how compelling that argument really is? After all, are those advantages ‘real?’ Are they available only through the dealer network? Or, are there equal or perhaps even superior alternatives available to the motorist through the independent service aftermarket and the traditional neighborhood service center?
The last time I looked, anyone could buy parts at a dealership parts department and many independent repair shops often do. But, that isn’t really the question, is it? What the author suggests is that original equipment parts are somehow always superior and words like “every,” “never” and “always,” always make me a bit anxious.
Aside from that, I’m not altogether sure his assertion is accurate. In many cases, the aftermarket equivalent is at least equal to the OE part because it is the OE part. In many cases, the aftermarket manufacturer is, in fact, the same Tier 1 supplier providing the same part to both the dealership network and the aftermarket. In others, that part has been re-engineered beyond the specification called out by the manufacturer and will outlast and outperform its dealership counterpart.
Evidently, the author has never heard of or worked with aftermarket information suppliers either. Or, recognized just how many of the technicians currently working in the aftermarket came from the dealership network or availed themselves of the truly excellent educational opportunities available here.
If that’s where the author stopped, I would probably have just read it, gotten aggravated and let it go. But, he didn’t stop there. He went on to imply that another benefit of going to the dealer was the “nine out of 10 times” the motorist wouldn’t have to return to his independent service provider to have “the same problem fixed the very next day due to improper repair.” Or, that somehow the dealership a dealership, any dealership would be more able or more willing to stand behind their work with more “flexibility” than their independent service dealer counterparts.
I don’t know how you just reacted to that statement, but my blood pressure jumped more than a couple of points. That assertion not only flies in the face of logic, but it’s contrary to everything I know about this industry and every responsible professional in it. The independent service aftermarket exists because we are and have always been more able, more willing, more apt and more likely to turn ourselves inside out to satisfy a customer. And, the notion that the vehicles we work on are returned to us “nine times out of 10” as a result of inadequate or improper service is nothing short of laughable. If that were the case, we would have disappeared long ago, and with good reason!
Unfortunately, the author went on to talk about the unethical and probably illegal practices of a former employer and, in doing so, revealed the most likely cause of his anger and his enmity, notwithstanding his apparent lack of understanding. He apparently accepted a challenging managerial position with a relatively large tire chain at a struggling location and began the difficult task of turning the store around. Despite the increase in volume and improvement in customer satisfaction, his numbers still weren’t “adequate,” prompting a visit from corporate headquarters and a lesson in “Bait & Switch” techniques; something he implies is universal in its application throughout the industry.
He gives his readers a “How to” lesson in the actual mechanics of “Bait & Switch,” including the accompanying practice of overselling: padding the estimate with unnecessary parts and services, all at “unbelievable” mark-up mark-ups high enough to “discount” the estimate enough to create the illusion of a deal.
“That’s how simple it is.” The motorist calls in for a “phone quote,” gets hooked by a low-ball price and then almost instantaneously is taken to the cleaners.
Perhaps the only single piece of valuable or relevant advice was the author’s admonition to seek a second opinion when unsure of the diagnosis or the cost of repair, and even that was jaundiced by what has to be a career pockmarked by bad choices and personal disappointment.
You and I might suggest a second opinion the same way a good doctor might, to help reassure an otherwise anxious or frightened patient. He recommends a second opinion to ensure that the original prognosis is correct because if it were formed in an independent repair shop it’s more than likely incorrect.
In the author’s own words, “Remember, technicians at independent repair shops are trained in general repairs. They are not specifically trained on your vehicle by your vehicle’s manufacturer. They can be wrong very often concerning their diagnosis of your complaint with your vehicle.” Closing with, “One last point: If your vehicle is repaired incorrectly, THE REPAIR SHOP SHOULD FIX IT FOR FREE OR YOU SHOULD GET YOUR MONEY BACK. This is an absolute!! If the repair facility gives you any problem whatsoever, go straight to their manager or corporate office (my emphasis, not the author’s)."
Now, most of the technicians take great pride in their work and are usually more than happy to correct any error they might make. The problems with auto service usually fall upon the service advisors, service managers and store managers. Their main concern is hitting their sales numbers for the month and they will move to these tactics to achieve those goals. Remember, if you get a second opinion and negotiate the price of your repair, you will be in a lot better position to protect yourself when getting your automobile repaired correctly the first time for a fair price.”
Again, I’m not sure how you react to this kind of an assault on your integrity, the indictment of our industry or insult to our profession. But, I’ll bet if you feel the same way I do about the tens of thousands of ethical and honest professionals who come to work every day with nothing more in mind than keeping their customers safe, this kind of senseless, angry, fear-inspiring rhetoric makes your blood boil, especially when it comes from someone who obviously has a very personal axe to grind and little or no experience with the same industry you and I serve!
However, it does make you wonder just what kind of experience the author does have and with whom. By his own words, it wasn’t in a shop like yours or mine; a shop unlikely to have “service advisors, service managers and store managers” or a “corporate office.” Unfortunately, that did not stop the author from piling everyone who functions outside a dealership service department into one large bundle and then painting that whole bundle with one brush, when it would be hard to find an industry that was more diverse.
I write in the first person because someone once told me that you write best when you write about what you know. I know this industry and the people in it. I know the motoring public: the people we serve, equally as well. I know countless repair technicians, business owners, service managers, directors of fixed operations and dealer principals, and I can say without hesitation that there are talented, caring and professional people both inside and outside the dealership network. You can find customer-centric managers everywhere, just as you can find individuals all of us in automotive service would be better off without.
I know that words are powerful, especially the written word. They can be used to elevate, expand or inspire, or they can be used to reduce, diminish or destroy. And, I know that because words are powerful a certain amount of care must be exercised when those words are sent out into the world.
Implying that a specific behavior within one segment of an industry as vast as ours is universal can be dangerous because few things are. But, not as dangerous as demonstrating just how little you do know, especially when you do it in the first person!