Comment: I get tons of email each week from readers asking me for advice on how to avoid being "oversold" (some readers used the word scammed) at the dealership service department. Below is a condensed version of my reply.
Dear concerned car owner,
First let me start off by saying that not all mechanics or auto repair shops are crooks out to get you. Mechanics for the most part are just trying to make a living like you and me. Granted, I will be the first to agree that some mechanics and repair shop owners are poor business people, and some of the mistakes they make are due to this fact. If they were good business people, they would probably not be in this business in the first place. Most mechanics just like to work on cars--running an honest and profitable repair shop is usually not on their priority list…they just want to work on cars.
Let's take a quick look at another industry. My wife is expecting our second child soon, and she had some routine blood work done last month. The lab billed our insurance company $422, but our insurance company "negotiated" the price down to $67. To me this is an absurd way to run a business. Charge an exorbitant amount and then negotiate down to a more realistic number.
Why did I tell this story? I find that mechanics and auto repair shops work on this same principle. Start high and see how much you can get away with. Most repair shops pay their mechanics and service writer staff (the person who takes your repair order) on a commission basis. So the scenario I describe below is what usually happens at most new car dealerships and at most large repair shops.
You take your car in for repair and talk with the service writer who takes your order. Let's say you think your car needs a brake job. You ask them to inspect the brakes for wear and to call you with an estimate. The mechanic inspects the car and informs the service writer of the repairs needed on the vehicle. The service writer then informs you that your car does indeed need new brakes, but while the technician was doing his inspection he noticed a few other items that you should be aware of.
These additional parts can be perfectly legitimate sales items that really need to be repaired, or they can be like the blood test story I talked about above. You will usually get a huge list of things that need repairing, and they hope you will at least buy one of their other recommendations in addition to the brake work you took it in for in the first place. The idea is to get you focused on how much work your car "needs" and to feel somewhat responsible for the negligence of regular maintenance. The brake job will usually take a back seat to all the other work that they say you really need, and this additional work should be done NOW.
The mechanic and the service writer are getting a commission for any additional work they can muster up, so it is to their benefit to be as thorough as they can in their inspections. Sometimes these inspections can be a little too nit-picky though, and something that might be slightly worn, but still in good condition, can be added to the repair/replace list.
So what can you do to protect yourself against unnecessary repairs? Ask the service writer if he or she personally inspected the vehicle and has seen these recommended repair items first hand. If he or she is held responsible for the decisions they make regarding your car's "needed" repairs, the service writer might be more inclined to look after your and your car's best interest.
I would also ask the service writer to prioritize the needed repairs for you, and ask him, "What would you do if it was your car, and you were in my shoes?" Honesty is still the best policy, and putting someone on the spot is a great way to test one's honesty level.
Most service writers will get a salary bonus for their good customer relations and customer survey reports. The dealership will follow up with a customer and ask how the service and the service writer lived up to their expectations. It is probably more beneficial to him or her in the long run to keep you a happy customer than it is to get you to agree to a repair the technician might have prematurely recommended.
Austin C Davis
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