How to Overcome Unethical Auto Repair Practices
The best way to avoid unethical auto repair shops
If the title of this article caught your eye, you’ve probably gone through an experience with an unethical auto repair shop or know someone who has. Most of us want to believe that there are repair shop owners and employees in our community committed to ethical business practices, but the dishonesty of one “bad apple” can spoil the whole bunch. And if the bad apple is a shop owner or a lead technician in the company, the perception can be that the entire company is flawed, from the top down.
The cars and trucks of today are filled with complex electronic controls and gadgetry that will eventually fail, if not sooner, then later. It takes a trained automotive diagnostic technician to diagnose and correct the electrical or electronic problems that turn on your car’s dash warning lights like a check engine light.
When problems happen, you’ll need an auto repair professional with the skill and equipment to make the necessary repairs, and you’ll want that person to be someone you can trust. So how do you avoid the unpleasantness of having to deal with an unethical auto repair shop? Listed below you’ll find some basic information that can help:
- Finding an honest shop
- Asking for written estimates
- What essential maintenance items does a car need
- Navigating the warranty on repairs
- What to ask when a service advisor recommends repair or maintenance
Probably the most important way to avoid ending up at unprofessional or unethical repair shops is to find an auto repair shop you “know, like, and trust”. If you’re new to an area, ask co-workers or neighbors if they have a reliable and professional repair shop they use. Take time to read reviews from the recommendations you were given, and then interview the one or ones that sound the best before you need their services.
Once you make a selection, work to establish a mutually beneficial professional relationship by using them for all your auto maintenance and repair needs. Ask them to help you set a reasonable and workable budget for vehicle maintenance. Have them educate you about your vehicle(s). Then support them with reviews and referrals.
In a recent post, I shared a story about a 2014 Subaru with a check engine light on. While the auto owner wasn’t technically ripped off or subjected to unethical business practices, his encounter did end up being another unsatisfactory auto repair experience he’ll remember and likely share with friends when the opportunity presents.
In seeking a second opinion from another repair professional, this Subaru owner told me that he was unimpressed by the service he received and felt the dealership’s primary interest was limited to what they could sell him. He shared that the service advisor failed to clearly explain the technician’s initial diagnosis or discuss interim options that could be tried to confirm the diagnosis before proceeding with the recommended repair. These options might have successfully addressed the problem and cost the owner a fraction of the estimated cost of the repair that had been recommended. While this wasn’t a clear case of dishonesty or misrepresentation, the dealership personnel failed to communicate that they were looking out for this owner’s best interests.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of stories about unsatisfying auto repair experiences that also include unethical elements. A case in point was featured in a recent article written by Cheatsheets.com, How Jiffy Lube Got a Reputation for Ripping Off People. It’s another example of disreputable practices darkening the name of the entire auto repair industry. The article is well written and includes links to legal documents filed in California by the BAR and an NBC affiliate conducting operations to catch Jiffy Lube scammers.
Specific examples outlined unprofessional service and unethical sales practices that resulted in auto owners being charged for parts and services that were unnecessary. It cited ten scams customers and investigators experienced.
Having worked my entire career in the auto repair industry, I’ve seen situations like this first hand. And while reports like these serve the interests of the public in exposing the shoddy and substandard practices of unethical repair shops, they also sully the reputation of repair shops in general, even those who work hard to provide excellent service with integrity.
Personal experiences of auto repair incompetence and dishonesty
During the 15 years I worked as an automotive equipment and software rep, I had hundreds of repair shops as customers. On occasion, shop owners would share stories about vehicles coming in with printed repair estimates from another shop that included $1000 to $2000 in repair work beyond what was necessary. Many of these estimates came from franchise shops like tire stores that also do general vehicle repair. To make matters worse, these stories often featured vehicles owned by women.
Another scenario I encountered was while doing extended warranty inspections on vehicles with recent intake manifold gasket replacement, many of which were on GM v8 engines. Flat rate technicians had started using a new technique to speed up the gasket replacement but frequently demonstrated incompetence, laziness, or both in the process.
Installing a new gasket meant the old leaking gasket had to be removed from bottom surface of the v-shaped intake manifold. That surface mates to the cylinder heads with a gasket in between. Because the old gaskets were strongly adhered to the surface, technicians often used a high-speed sander to remove all traces of the gasket material. When nothing was placed in the v-shaped valley to catch the gasket pieces and sandpaper abrasives, these materials would end up being washed down into the engine’s oil pan. Unless the technician cleaned the oil pan to remove this material, it would circulate in the engine oil as a contaminant. Once the engine’s oil filter was clogged with this debris, it could no longer “filter” the remaining abrasive material from the oil. A by-pass valve opens to allow oil to continue circulating. Because the oil is contained by remnants of abrasive material, the crankshaft and bearings would be worn away until the engine ultimately fails.
Engine failure is common after sloppy intake gasket replacement
Approximately 3 to 6 months after having a gasket job, some of these vehicles ended up back in shop with engine failure asking their extended warranty company pay for a new engine. Inspection revealed crankshaft bearing journals appeared rough and eroded, as if someone had put sand in the engine oil.
Was this done intentionally to rip customers off? Probably not, but carelessness and incompetence were definitely factors in the poor workmanship these vehicles were subjected to. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to rule out unethical behavior on the part of some mechanics hoping for a possible engine replacement job in the future.
When the extended warranty claim was denied, many repair shops absorbed a portion of the engine replacement cost in an effort to retain loyal customers. And while the customer didn’t have to pay the total cost of the engine replacement, they were inconvenienced by the loss of their vehicle during the repair.
First hand experiences of unethical auto repair mechanics
While at a dealership to inspect a vehicle for a covered extended warranty issue, I remember a technician asking me to look at a “leaking” front differential axle seal. I could see the oil around the seal and also a six-inch long line of fresh oil near the front differential that looked like an accidental trail from an oil can used to “place” oil on the seal.
Suspicious of misrepresentation, I acknowledged the oil’s presence and promptly asked the service manager to look at the complaint and offer suggestions as to what I should do. After looking, he told the tech to lower the hoist and get the truck out of the shop, shaking his head as he told me to forget it. He confirmed my suspicions that the tech had put the oil on the seal in an attempt to get more work.
In this situation, the unethical deed was discovered, but many times dishonest practices go undetected. The result is expense and inconvenience for the customer charged, dishonest gain for the technician, and this example to justify your fear that you might be “fleeced” the next time you have to visit an auto repair facility.
As a dealership Service Manager, I am sad to relate a situation where I had no choice but to fire an engine mechanic. After he left, new parts in un-opened packages were found under his workbench, evidence that he had been charging customers for parts that never got installed while getting paid for work he didn’t do.
Is the problem dishonesty or incompetence?
While attending college, I researched and wrote a paper on the topic of how people viewed auto repair shops, and dealership service departments, in particular. My research led me to conclude that many complaints were not the result of dishonesty, but rather a lack of training and poor communication skills.
Many customers reported a preference for small independent repair shops because they could talk directly to the owner or mechanic who would work on their vehicle. Dealership service departments, in contrast, felt less personal because of their size, and service advisors who seemed either untrained or unmotivated to communicate clearly. While some dealerships have worked hard to overcome the stigma of being impersonal, it will take more work if public perception is to change for dealership service departments as a whole.
Communication is the key
It is my belief that the industry’s reputation suffers primarily as a result of poor communication and inadequate training for technicians. There is no doubt in my mind that efforts to improve communication and technical skills would go a long way toward improving the auto repair experience and changing public perception from more negative to positive.
Consider, for example, that today’s auto mechanic needs to know electricity, electronics, hydraulics, diagnostics, computer networking, and logic. They must have hands on mechanical experience with engines, brakes, steering, cooling, transmissions, drivetrain components, air bags, and much more. This experience and knowledge is required on hundreds of different models from the various manufacturers. To accomplish this to a high degree of quality and accuracy would seem almost impossible.
This would explain the growth of independent shops that specialize in repair and service of one manufacturer. It’s a reasonable and attainable goal to gain a thorough knowledge of one vehicle make, rather than trying to become proficient on all makes.
In defense of the auto repair industry, many of the shop owners I know are honest, hard-working individuals who are committed to providing quality service and repair. They are as concerned about the negative reputation created by unethical repair shops as the general public.
When mistakes happen during a repair job, shop owners with integrity acknowledge the error and absorb the cost of fixing the mistake at no cost to their customer. This can end up being far more than the cost of doing the repair over. Here’s how:
Some shop owners will compensate the technician with his regular wage while working to correct a repair mistake he made. However, even when he is required to work without pay while correcting his mistake, it still costs the shop owner because while “redoing” a job, the technician is unable to produce billable work for the shop.
In addition, there is the cost of duplicate parts the shop owners absorb when a repair must be redone. And consider the loss to the business in terms of overall customer satisfaction when they are inconvenienced by loss of their vehicle during the repeat repair.
As you can see, mistakes are expensive for a reputable shop owner whose goal is to take care of customers and employees. Still, these owners understand the value of a satisfied customer and are committed to making sure their customers feel valued.
Most people accept that problems can’t always be avoided. With the increasing complexity of today’s cars, it’s increasingly important for auto owners to do all they can to protect themselves from encountering repair shops with unethical policies or personnel.
Working to repair the public perception of auto repair
Improving perception of auto repair is the mission of this auto repair blog and its companion website the Auto Shop Connection Podcast Show. Involving repair shops and customers in sharing stories to educate, facilitate communication, and encourage development of mutually beneficial relationships is our main objective.
And the hope is that with improved consumer education, the number of unethical auto repair shops will diminish as educated auto owners take their vehicles elsewhere.
Wouldn’t it be something if repair shops and dealerships adopted a “Miracle on 34th Street” philosophy for doing business by putting the customer’s needs ahead of the almighty dollar? It might sound silly, but here’s my point: If repair shops worked conscientiously to save customers money, a situation of reciprocity might develop. Customers would feel valued and respond with loyalty. It could be something as simple as a service advisor pointing out possible repair alternatives, when they exist, that might correct the vehicle’s problem while minimizing expense to the customer. The shop that does business this way might end up with a customer for life.
Ongoing education and training will be critical to enhance communication and technical skills of industry employees. This will involve expenditure of time and money by industry members.
Social media and mobile connection to unlimited information and reviews are being utilized to help businesses improve the way they provide services. Communicating change and improvement helps, but actual in-shop improvements that positively impact the customer’s auto repair experienced will be required to overcome the negative impact unethical auto repair shop practices have had.
The negative stories in this post have been included to substantiate why auto repair consumers perceive the repair industry in negative ways. If you haven’t had a negative experience with an unethical auto repair shop, you know of someone who has. And while auto repair still places on the BBB’s list of top 10 industries most complained about, don’t forget there are nine other industries on that list. Just like the automotive industry, these industries are comprised of businesses owned and run by people, some of whom are honest and provide good service.
To be fair, there are probably many more shops that provide honest and professional auto repair services than those that don’t. Valuable reviews and podcasts sharing of stories by reputable auto shop owners and their employees offer hope that communication and trust can improve. The best way you can protect your second highest investment, your vehicle(s), from the dishonest practices of unethical repair shops is by identifying the great shops in your community. Do your research by going online to read their reviews. Ask the ones that get the highest reviews to do a complimentary inspection of your car. Then ask them to prioritize a list of maintenance and repair services that fits in your budget.
Give them a chance to earn your business. Once you become a satisfied customer, support them with your loyalty and with positive reviews and referrals.
In closing, consider listening to and participating in the Auto Shop Connection auto repair podcast. You can develop your automotive knowledge, hear helpful tips from shop owners and employees, and contribute by being interviewed or sharing feedback about your auto repair experiences to sharpen repair shops understanding of the customers perspective. If we all work together we can improve the auto repair industry.
If you have any comments please share them below. If you are interested in sharing a story on the Auto Shop Connection podcast you can also leave a comment to that effect or contact me directly by email at email@example.com