As one of the first auto owner stories I’m sharing on this blog, my purpose for posting it is not to get down on repair shops, but rather to encourage and help them provide better service as they consider constructive feedback offered by auto owners about the service they’ve received. Auto repair has consistently been included on lists that rank industries with excessive consumer complaints. A 2013 article that illustrates this, a sample compiled by the St. Louis BBB, places auto repair on the list of top 10 industries with the highest number of consumer complaints.
If you are the owner of a business in an industry with a tarnished reputation, how can stories shared by car owners have value for you? To answer that question, let me begin by telling the following story about a car repair experience I was part of. It features a 2014 Subaru that displays a check engine light and a repair estimate for a camshaft valve-timing problem.
Auto owner stories give valuable feedback
This story begins when the vehicle is taken to a body shop after a being in involved in a rear-end collision with damage on the right rear fender. There was no prior history of check engine light warnings, but this vehicle was past due for a maintenance oil change. On inspection, the oil was dirty and low by about three-fourths of a quart.
After being in the body shop for 2 weeks, the repair was completed. The owner picked up the car and drove down the road a short distance when the check engine light came on. The engine had a rough idle with the light on. The cruise light flashed and cruise control didn’t work. The traction control dash warning light also displayed. With follow-up research, I discovered that when an engine fault code sets on this car, its computer disables cruise control and traction control as a safety measure to avoid a possible problem.
The owner’s concern was that the body shop had caused this problem during some part of their repair work. When the owner returned the car to the body shop, they checked the vehicle and claimed the problem was not related to any work they had done. They recommended taking the car to the dealership to have the problem diagnosed.
Dealership Service Advisor Communication Improvement
The service advisor at the dealership interviewed the owner for information pertinent to the history of the vehicle’s current check engine light problem. When the owner asked what the procedure would involve to have the car checked, he was told there would be a $60 diagnostic fee to determine the cause of this problem, after which a quote for the repair work would be provided. The owner was later contacted by phone and provided a quote of $375 to replace a failed part and $65 for an engine oil change with synthetic oil. The explanation given was that dirty engine oil had shorted the camshaft timing valve component, which would require replacement.
As a side note, I’d like to point out that a repair shop can often choose to advocate for the auto owner by presenting any less expensive options that may also correct the problem. In doing this, the vehicle owner’s perception of the repair shop can sometimes be improved, especially when the options suggested represent a cost savings to the owner and a decreased profit for the shop.
I also need to point out the importance of clear communication and documentation to protect the interests of both customer and repair shop. The auto repair professional discussing options must make sure the customer understands the pros and cons of each option well enough to make an informed decision.
The story continues when the owner picked up his car, and the dealership didn’t collect the $60 diagnostics fee. An omission like this, while appearing to save the car owner money, could actually lead the owner to wonder whether or not the shop’s technician had spent diagnostic time testing the component to determine that it was shorted as indicated by the quote.
The vehicle owner consulted with me and shared details of the estimate as well as the explanation provided by the dealership. Based on my experience with how automotive electronics systems work, I was concerned about the accuracy of dirty oil causing a component to short. After some digging, one reference indicated that dirty or low engine oil might contribute this code being set. In light of my research, I talked with the owner, and we decided to see if cleaning the engine oil and crankcase could correct this check engine light problem.
After replacing the oil filter, SeaFoam was added to the crankcase and the engine oil topped off with half a quart of synthetic oil. The vehicle was then driven approximately twenty miles when the check engine light went off and stayed off. After driving for another 50 miles, the owner had a full oil and filter change service. The plan is for the vehicle to be driven 3000 more miles, followed by another oil change service.
This vehicle owner had been scheduling oil changes for around 5,000 to 6,000 miles. Even thought full synthetic oil typically runs longer than non-synthetic, this interval may have been too long in light of newer vehicle design changes that have reduced the size of fluid passages and openings making them more susceptible to becoming clogged by dirty oil.
Time will tell if the check engine light remains off after the measures taken to remove the dirty oil, but the hope is that another oil change service after 3,000 more miles will see this problem resolved. In this case, a savings of around $300 would be realized by the vehicle owner in not replacing the supposedly “shorted” component.
Did the component really “short out” as a result of dirty oil? I would be inclined to say no, since the vehicle is currently operating as designed without the component being replaced. Did the repair professional at the dealership skip diagnosing the symptom and instead assume a failure shared by other cars presenting with a similar symptom also caused this vehicle’s problem? Since no diagnostic fee was charged when the owner picked up the vehicle, it is probable that no diagnostic test was actually done.
In making the recommendation to replace a single camshaft-timing component, did the service advisor present possible repair options, pointing out that these Subaru models have a total of 4 camshafts in the dual overhead cam engines. This means each shaft has a component that electronically controls valve timing and makes the recommendation to replace one camshaft-timing component and change the oil unwise without addressing the issue of a dirty crankcase and oil passages. This shortsighted repair could easily end in failure of one or more of the timing components in the 3 remaining camshafts. The additional parts and labor costs to the customer could have run as high as $1200.
Auto owner interview reveals less than satisfactory experience
I interviewed the vehicle owner after he had received the dealership’s estimate for their recommended repair. He commented that the service advisor came across as less than friendly during face-to-face and phone encounters. He shared that his overall feeling about this auto repair experience was less than satisfactory. Unfortunately, this is characteristic of too many customer service experiences in the dealership setting. It’s easy to see why many dealership repair customers opt to go elsewhere for their vehicle service and repair needs.
While there are many dealerships that provide satisfying customer service to their repair customers, scenarios like the one above are all too common. In sharing this story, my objective is bring to light situations that cause the problem of poor public perception. The burden is on all car dealerships to work harder if public perception about how dealers operate is to improve. An excellent place to start would be to work at improving communication with customers.
A reputation is built by standing behind exceptional customer service and providing superior quality repair and maintenance work. When customers sense that a repair shop is honest, helpful, cooperative, and cares more about them than the dollar amount at the bottom of the repair or service order, those satisfied customers will spread the word.
Independent and dealership auto repair shops alike can be profitable and still provide auto owners with significant savings in auto repair costs. It requires a decision to value the customer more than the bottom line because customer loyalty has value that is measured beyond the bottom line. Put another way, when a shop’s business model focuses on saving customers money, profitability increases as people are naturally drawn to a business that values people over profit.