I've spent quite a few hours reading online reviews of shops across the country. I'm looking for trends in what makes customers happy and what makes them unhappy. I plan to find out what makes customers most happy and give them that while avoiding things that make customers unhappy.
Here's what I've learned. Real mistakes, real complaints, are few and far between. Most 1 and 2 star reviews fall into 1 of 5 categories:
1) PRICES - This is the most common complaint. Somebody feels like a shop overcharged them. My question is always "compared to what?" Overcharging requires a comparison. Well, independent shops like mine are always more expensive than Wal-Mart, parts stores, friends who work on cars, uncles, and salvage yards. However, we also offer warranties, courtesy cars, highly trained technicians, quick service and reliable business hours. So our customers also get more.
2) GRUMPY STAFF - This is usually tied with warranties. It's a legit complaint that should never happen.
3) WARRANTIES - Warranties are just confusing and there are always ways for shops to wiggle out of honoring them. Sometimes however, it really is a misunderstanding. It's important for you to understand that a warranty only covers parts than fail due to defects during the warranty period. We escape most of this problem by using quality parts the first time.
4) KNOW-IT-ALLS - These are the guys who don't know what they don't know. They know just enough to ask challenging questions but not enough to fix it themselves. There are 100s of ways to approach a repair and every technician has their preferred method. When I see these reviews I suspect that no shop could have gotten it right.
5) OLD CARS - I'm sorry, but when I read through bad reviews they tend to involve older cars more frequently than newer cars. Here's why, older cars are hard to work with, things break during repairs and they are often poorly maintained. They are really hard to work with and easy to make mistakes with. It's no wonder they attract bad reviews.
If you haven't noticed, I'll point it out for you. Of the 5 items on this list, I can only control the GRUMPY STAFF. My prices are set to keep me in business, warranties have terms that I can afford to honor, old cars are brittle and challenging and certain customers will argue with everything.
My search to improve my shop has revealed that there are some things that are simply beyond my direct control and that the odds of having 0 negative reviews is 0%. However, that will not stop us from getting better each day and doing our best to earn positive reviews.
I agree. Everybody hates them. Most of all they hate paying for them because it doesn't feel like you get anything and it looks way to easy to cost that much. However, part of the problem is the terminology used in this industry.
So, before we go down this road of pain, I want to clarify a few terms that I will be using to make sure there is no confusion.
CODE CHECK - When I plug my scanner in and acquire the codes stored in your car's computer module(s). This is what some parts stores will do for free.
DIAGNOSTIC - When I start taking things apart, digging into computer modules, testing different parts, checking fuses, testing fluid pressures, etc... (sometimes this requires the use of a scan tool but at a much deeper level than a code check)
Okay, now we're on the same page with the lingo.
So, often when a car comes in with a check engine light the customer wants us to scan it to see what is wrong with it.
Simple enough right? Yes and no.
When this happens I grab my scan tool, head outside, plug it in and run a CODE CHECK.
After we have the codes pulled out the real fun begins. Codes can be understood in 3 distinct categories: 1) part specific codes 2) system specific codes 3) generic codes
This is where it gets confusing. See, depending on the code, I might be able to order a part and install it without further DIAGNOSTICS (remember that term from above?). Or...I might have to spend 3 hours figuring out what went wrong to set the code.
For example, I can usually get by with a simple code check if the code is a PART SPECIFIC CODE. The p0440 gas cap code is an example of this. I see p0440 and I check the gas cap. No DIAGNOSTICS needed.
However, if I get a SYSTEM SPECIFIC CODE such as a p0301 then I know it's a misfire, and I know to look at the ignition system but I don't know which part is causing the code to set. It could be a bad injector, coil pack, spark plug, coil pack connector, injector connector, or coil boot. So, when I see a p0301 I know it's going to take me 30-60 minutes to figure out which part is causing the car to set that code. I have to take things apart and inspect them and test them so that I don't fix the wrong thing. Sometimes I might have to spend 2+ hours working on something just so I can access the parts to test. Typically, we have enough experience with SYSTEM SPECIFIC CODES to correctly estimate the DIAGNOSTIC time and we will stick to that estimate like glue.
It gets worse. If I get a GENERIC CODE like a U1000 or a p0300 then it is going to take significant time to track down the culprit because at this point I don't even know what system is causing it to set the code. Is it your fuel pump? Is it 1 of over 100 connectors that is melted? Is it a hairline crack in your air boot? These codes really stink. These codes are uncommon and DIAGNOSTICS are not estimable. I can spend up to 2 hours just reading about these codes, possible causes, fixes that have worked in the past etc... When this happens we ask customers to give us a dollar amount they are willing to spend. Then we work right up to that amount and call them to ask for more if we haven't figured it out. Usually, we spend way more time than we bill for when this happens.
Just when you thought it couldn't get worse...it does. Sometimes cars will have numerous codes. I had one the other day that had over 30 codes in it. Think about it, if I only charged him $20 per code to diagnose it would cost him $600. It's actually quite common to find 3-5 codes on a code check. When this happens it can really become confusing because often you have to fix something to test something else. For example, it's hard to diagnose a bad coil pack if the car also has really bad spark plugs. The plugs themselves can set off the same codes as the coil pack and we have to fix those before we can track down the broken coil pack (cars have between 4 and 8 coil packs depending on the engine).
Okay, so while it seems like DIAGNOSTICS are a rip off, they aren't. It takes years of experience and expensive training to perform DIAGNOSTICS at a high level. Codes help us find a direction to look in but most of the time there are multiple parts that could set the code and it takes time to disassemble, inspect, test and research the parts so that we can identify the root of the problem.
I hope this helps you understand why DIAGNOSTICS are so expensive and why some auto parts stores can perform free CODE CHECKS. You see, they really aren't remotely the same, even if the names and tools are confusingly similar. And a CODE CHECK can be very misleading without the proper DIAGNOSTICS to go along with it.
We get this question all the time. In fact, a good friend of mine just asked me this question a few weeks ago so I'll tell you what I told him...if you consider only the dollars and sense then yes.
I've calculated this a few times over the years and I always get the same answer so I'll share it with you here. It costs about $400 per month for depreciation, interest, maintenance for the first 4 years of an average vehicle's life. It costs about $250 for depreciation, interest, and maintenance for the next 4 years of an average vehicle's life. So, it's about $1800 per year cheaper to maintain and repair a used car than it is to buy a new car. This difference is even more pronounced for trucks because the depreciation is so much higher in the first few years. It is almost always cheaper to fix a truck than replace it.
So, that's how I do it. I buy vehicles with 100-150k miles on them and I fix and maintain them whenever they need attention. When my needs change I buy a new vehicle. Otherwise I just keep fixing them. It's hands down the least expensive option.
The best way to do this is as follows: Find a trusty repair shop. Have your vehicle inspected as soon as you buy it. Update any fluids if you don't know when they've been changed. Fix any belts/pulleys, leaks and suspension parts ASAP and then run it. Do all your oil changes at that shop and fix any items as they appear on an inspection so that a small issue doesn't turn into larger one. Rinse and repeat.
While this advice may seem tilted towards the shop I can assure you that it is by far the cheapest way to buy and maintain a reliable vehicle. We've seen $250 wheel bearings turn into $1300 jobs because customers don't follow this. We've seen $150 differential fluid changes turn into $2500 differential replacements. Keep the monster at bay and feed him small bits frequently. :)
Well, actually...it's a cookie alert. Thanks to D & J (you know who you are) for the amazing oatmeal raisin cookies. And a special thanks from Craig for sharing the recipe.
The auto repair industry tends to take a beating when it comes to pricing. You hear people complain that it's "highway robbery" or "they've got you" when a repair seems excessively expensive. Some people even think we just add money to pad the bill. Well, that just isn't true here at Integrity.
For starters, ethics is about choices. When you're being robbed, or strong-armed, or tricked, it is usually because someone has limited your choices. Being robbed with a gun to the head is about limiting your choices. A deceptive sales person will limit your options to trick you into picking their product. So ethics is only about putting all options on the table and letting the customer pick.
Pricing in only one part of those options. The other parts are longevity, convenience, comfort, and quality. For example, I could do $5 oil changes.
Would that be ethical?
Well, it depends on what is included. If I used corn oil from my kitchen then the answer is no. I could also do $200 oil changes.
Would that be ethical?
Well, it depends on what is included. If I used a 200,000 mile oil with a super duper life long reusable oil filter the answer is yes.
So ethics is not pricing. It is what you get and your ability to choose what you get.
Here's what I want you to think about when you are choosing a repair shop to take care of you car or truck; if you pick a shop that doesn't tell you everything that is wrong with your car, then do you actually have all of your choices in front of you? It's hard to choose to fix something you don't know is broken. And, if a repair shop chooses to use cheap parts because they are afraid you might not fix your car due to the expense, then they aren't even giving you the option to use better parts. Once again your choices have been limited. Is that ethical?
Ethical shops give you the truth, that your car is broken and there are some great parts out there than will last for a long time if you fix it. Unethical shops limit your choices to what they want, your money, even if they have to put in chintzy parts and hide known issues from you so they can fix it when it breaks later. Now that's unethical. Don't be confused and substitute prices for ethics.
Diagnosing vehicles can be a challenge. Some vehicles in particular are extremely challenging. However, over the years we've noticed that certain circumstances almost always result in an unhappy customer and there is usually not much we can do about it - try as we might. When I look back at customers who have become upset with us, I've noticed that they all fall under a few simple patterns.
1) Poorly maintained vehicles
Poorly maintained vehicles present a few challenges to auto repair shops. First, they often have multiple issues that can show up as one symptom. This means that even if we find one of the issues, it won't fix the problem until we find the second or sometimes third issue. From a customer's perspective this can be infuriating because it looks like we didn't find the problem the first time. In reality there are numerous problems. Sometimes we can't diagnose one problem without fixing something else in the system. The best hedge against this is to maintain your vehicle. It makes diagnosis faster and less expensive when you do have a problem.
2) Non-professional repair history
Often times we see vehicles that have been diagnosed and repaired by non-professionals. We find duct taped parts, zip ties, glued brake lines, bad electrical work, and parts installed backwards. Really, it's amazing what we see sometimes. Inevitably, this type of repair history gives a repair shop no base line to rely on. Instead of being able to count on expected measurements and well-performing components, we not have nothing to rely on. Literally anything/everything could be wrong and diagnostics become time-consuming and expensive. This rarely makes customers happy because it usually ends up being more expensive than the estimate. It also means that we might have to replace a part just to get a baseline measurement to make the diagnostic.
3) Modified vehicles
Vehicles with performance chips, and engine modifications or upgrades can also be challenging to diagnose efficiently. Performance chips change the values we expect to see when diagnosing a car. That can mask what is happening and provides us with no way to determine if what the data we are seeing is from a failure or from the chip.
Modifications such as aftermarket intake/filter systems, turbos, etc... change the expected values in the vehicle as well. It can make the car run rich or lean, it can give ruin spark plugs, it can cause catalytic converter issues and O2 sensor issues. The problem once again is that the normal way to diagnose these problems becomes tainted because the modification is changing the expected data that the computer is reading. Instead of comparing readings and noting the differences we now have a more difficult task of figuring out what we should even be expecting.
After writing this blog post, it has become apparent to me that each time we've had an extremely challenging vehicle or a bewildered customer, it comes down to the presence of 2 of the 3 items above.
We aren't magicians. Our work is somewhat dependent on what we have to work with. I can promise you this however, we will be honest and straightforward with you throughout the whole process and you will always be able to authorize any charges before we move forward.
Can you? Here at Integrity sometimes we get grilled about our estimates. Sometimes customers know of a "guy" who can do it for much less. Well, here's how we look at it.
I know which parts come back for warranties frequently because I track everything. So, I avoid selling those brands, or those parts. For example, we only use original equipment seals. If you have a leaky seal on your Ford we will only install a Ford seal. Why? Because in our experience aftermarket seals leak and Ford seals don't. Sometimes this means it will cost more for a repair here at Integrity. However, I know other part brands that are less expensive that are also better quality. We only install those parts as well. So sometimes we are less expensive. Over time, we are in the middle.
The overall theme is that we install the most reliable parts regardless of cost. Isn't that the right thing to do? To fix it right the first time? I think it's rather shady to put a bad part in a customer's car if you know it's a bad part. It causes my customers headaches because they have to come back for warranty work and it causes me headaches because now I have to fix it again for free. Bad parts are bad for everyone.
So how can you avoid bad parts?
1) Find a shop with a great warranty. Our warranty is 3 years 36,000 miles because we know which parts will last and we will only use those parts. Why will some shops only offer a 24 month 24,000 warranty? Well, it probably has to do with the quality of their work.
2) Be wary of inexpensive estimates at shops. Are they using bad parts (usually very cheap)? Will they be able to afford to warranty the part if it fails (they might just blame it on normal wear and tear if they can't afford the warranty) Will they even be in business when you need the warranty (if they don't charge enough they might be gone soon)?
3) Ask the service writer why or how they pick their parts. The answer should be something along the lines of "we've never had trouble with that brand" or "we've had trouble with other brands."
4) Avoid shops who compete on price only. In the auto repair industry, this is a death sentence for the business. It means the business is not attracting customers because of quality so they have to lower their prices to try to snag customers. Why do they do have to do this? Because their quality is bad. Be it cheap parts, poor repairs, grumpy service or short warranties, something is bad. You just won't find out until later.
So yes, the truth is that sometimes auto parts are expensive. And, that's good for me but it's only good for me because it's even better for you. That's why we use good parts. Because it's best for you.
We typically see two types of customers. The first budgets for their repairs and the second does not. The condition of the vehicles between these two groups is striking. People who budget tend to have better maintained vehicles than people who don't budget. I suspect this is because they can afford repairs when they are discovered and therefore avoid a small repair turning into a larger one. Well maintained vehicles also have higher trade in values to people who budget are able to afford lower mileage vehicles. As you can see budgeting is a great way to save money on vehicle expenses. Here are 4 tips to help you budget well and save money on vehicle maintenance.
1) Put $100 in a jar every month until you have $1200. Use that money exclusively for auto repairs and replenish it as necessary.
2) Use a reputable auto repair shop with a solid inspection process. Ask to see what's wrong with your vehicle and if it's broken or worn out, fix it immediately. This will prevent one broken part from wearing out another part in the same system. For example, a bad wheel bearing can crack your brake pads and a bad idler pulley can shred your serpentine belt. Fixing problems soon is a simple way to avoid additional expenses. When looking for a reputable shop remember there are 2 ways to be dishonest: 1) telling a customer to repair something that isn't broken and 2) not telling them about something that is broken. Find a shop that cares about your safety and will share the complete condition of your car on every visit.
3) Follow your maintenance schedule, especially fluids. Old brake fluid can cause seized calipers. Old coolant can eat away at hoses and coolant passages. Fluids are important and are much cheaper to maintain than repairing what they can damage.
4) Consider affordable repairs when you buy a vehicle. Imported vehicles often cost more to repair. Trucks cost more than cars to repair. Tire prices increase dramatically with the size of the rim and the weight of the vehicle. There are many more considerations, but choosing a vehicle that is affordable to maintain can make a massive impact on your ability to actually maintain it well.
Following these tips can save you big dollars. I've see customers literally spend thousands of dollars that were unnecessary because they didn't follow one of these four tips. Following all four tips can save you even more.
We get this question a lot here at the shop. It especially comes up when the cost of a repair approaches the value of a car. The best answer is that it is almost always cheaper to fix a car than it is to buy a different one. Only in very rare circumstances such as a transmission or a motor replacement, does it make sense to replace the entire vehicle and even then it can be cost effective to perform the repair. Here's how the math shakes out:
Including depreciation, interest, repairs, and maintenance a new vehicle costs about $5800 per year to own. The same expenses on a used vehicle add up to $3200 per year. That's a savings of $2600 per year! (I excluded license plates and insurance because it varies so much be inevitably a used car is cheaper here too.) The savings is even greater if you have the vehicle paid off because there is no interest to pay.
However, vehicles are emotional for most people. Many of my customers can't bear the thought of spending $1200 on a $2500 car even if it saves them $2600 that year.
The benefits to repairing a vehicle exceed the cost savings in other ways too. First, you know it has been cared for and who cared for it. Second, you might also know that there are no major hidden problems to surprise you. Third, you position yourself to take advantage of the full value of the repairs you've paid for. Fourth, it's also greener to repair a vehicle than replace one. New cars take many more resources to produce than repairing old vehicles, and scrap yards are not exactly environmentally friendly places.
At some point a vehicle will come to the end of its life but that point is usually much farther along than most people are willing to go. At that point we can help you make that determination. In the meantime, consider the significant cost savings and investment of repairing your vehicle. What would you buy with $2600 extra per year?
The auto repair industry has a sketchy reputation. Part of it is the players and part of it is the nature of the industry. While it is 100% on shop owners to make the changes, part of the changes rest on educating customers and debunking common myths. I want to take a minute to share some of the structural components of this business that contribute to the mistrust surrounding this industry.
The Players - A large percentage of shop owners are former technicians. While technicians are fantastic at working on vehicles, they are not always so talented at communicating with customers. The problem with this is that when customers don't understand why they need a repair, or how a system works, they can easily think that a shop is just adding parts or fluids to pad their profit. Shops need to do a better job explaining repairs to customers, especially the 'why'.
The Industry - This industry is challenging. Cars can be rusty, poorly maintained, inherently complex or expensive to fix and often the owners of these vehicles can't afford to perform maintenance or repairs. When techs attempt to fix vehicles parts often fail during a repair. Bolt heads snap off, fluid lines crack, and sensors break, to name a few of the many things that can go wrong when working on a vehicle. This is the nature of maintaining old machines. It doesn't mean a shop is unethical, it just means that the vehicle was not in a serviceable condition and required unforeseeable work outside of the estimate to complete the repair. The customer doesn't always see it that way which is understandable. Shops need to do a better job of defining an estimate and explaining upfront that an estimate is subject to change for unestimable items.
The Distribution System - Parts prices are always a source of frustration with customers. Often they are comparing the prices that shops charge with the prices that auto parts stores charge. These are not comparable because the prices are at different points in the distribution system. To understand this we need to look at the distribution system. There is a manufacturer(usually a factory in China), a distributor (Moog, AC Delco, etc...), a retailer (NAPA, O'Reilly's, etc...) and finally the shop. Each part of that distribution system needs to make a profit on the part. Look at a steakhouse for example. You can buy a steak for $6 at the supermarket but it's $30 at a restaurant. The same is true for auto repair shops. We sell parts at a price that is higher than we buy them for just like every other point in the distribution system. That isn't unethical but some customers have a hard time understanding why shops set their parts prices higher than auto parts stores. The price at each point in the distribution system should be set to allow the business to stay in business and expand their business without borrowing.
What I've found is that most unhappy customers are unhappy with one of the three situations mentioned above, all of which are inherent to this business. They require proactive communication to help customers understand 'why' repairing vehicles is costly and unpredictable.