Who should work on my car?

Stephen Covey said it the simplest way, “Always surround yourself with people that are even more talented and competent than you.”

Al the Mechanic

So why is it when people need their car repaired they call a “friend” that once made a car run with the tools in their backyard? Better yet, they turn to the Facebook to fix a problem where everyone has an opinion. Or… they call their friend of a friend that is actually a master technician at 8 o’clock at night wanting free advice. Once in a while, if you are stranded, maybe you are in a foreign country, that is o.k. but as grown ups we need to establish a relationship with a reputable shop or technician. This is no different than picking your General Physician or Dentist, there should be research, discussion, even an interview.

Unlike popular opinion, not all technicians or shops are out to get you. Most are hardworking people that are just trying to make a living in what has become a dying art form. Note: if we do not start sending kids to tech school we will soon not have enough technicians to work on our cars – and you think it is expensive now!

Here is some random advice on how you should shop for a repair facility.

Ask your friends or co-workers that have similar vehicles who they recommend, and ask why they continue to use that shop. I do not recommend asking where your friend with a newish Land Rover where they go for repairs when you drive an ’88 Dodge Neon – that would be like going to the dentist because your foot hurts. You want a shop that is familiar with your model of vehicle, and sometimes that means your import needs to be worked on at a shop that specializes in imports cars. Not only is the expertise and problem solving going to be better, but the shop will have specialized tools just for working on your vehicle.

I don’t always trust online reviews or listings for several reasons. Just like the old yellow pages most listing services charge businesses to be there. For the pages that charge, only the shops that are willing to pay the extortion fees will be there. For the free pages there is no guarantee a great shop will even be listed. Reviews – I love to hate shop reviews. EVERY shop has had an upset customer; please remember that just like relationships there are two sides to every story. And there is a well-known rule, a happy customer is content and usually does not bother to write a review, an angry customer will write five and then tell five of his friends (and then those five friends will go on Facebook and childishly review a shop they have never been to – yes, I have seen this happen many times). If you truly believe that online review systems are great, ask yourself “do I go out of my way to review businesses that I love?” With what I have seen in recent years I don’t even trust the Better Business Borough as an unbiased source.

Also, cheaper is not always better. Your question should not be where to get the cheapest brake job, oil change, etc. but who do you trust. Sometimes cost can be a perception, marketing is a big tool in automotive. Just because they advertise a $200 everything included brake job does not mean that price includes everything for your car. And BTW – I would much rather go to the shop that wants to look at my car first to see what it actually needs than price shop myself into a situation of buying things I did not need to begin with.

Check out the facility, some shops will not let you enter the work area for insurance reasons, but if you can take a peek into the shop make sure it is a place where they take pride in their work area. Look to see if the shop is well lit and looks well organized? It is one thing to have a stall or bench that a project is spread out in, but a shop that is well managed will not have greasy floors or rags lying around. It will be obvious that they have an intentional work flow.

Ask about ongoing training and equipment made to work on your vehicle. Honestly, the training question maybe answered several different ways. There is a national certification organization called ASE that has minimum standards for each type of car repair, technicians that participate in these programs can earn up to a master level certification which means they passed all of the disciplines on paper. However, the Jack of all Traits technician can be hard to find these days and there is a big difference in the skill sets of technicians that might work on your brakes or suspension, versus the ones that can diagnose and repair a runnability problem. In my opinion it is great if they have the time to go through all of this testing, but what really matters is their experience. If the technician has been only working on Volkswagen’s for the past 20 years, and he has a line of cars out front, I bet that is the guy to take your VW to, even if there is not a plaque on the wall.

Specialty Shops: There is certainly a place for the local lube and tune, or alignment specialty shop in the market. Specialty shops can generally charge less because they have people that are essentially doing the same job over and over again making them fast and efficient. The ugly side to this is the shops that are not hiring qualified individuals – yes, just about anyone with the proper tools can change your oil, but do they have the experience to know how to look over your vehicle to find potential failures? And there are some that will try to oversell you on service needs. This is where you have the responsibility to arm yourself – this cute little book came with your car, it is called an owner’s manual, and in it there is a chart with the recommended services and mileage intervals. That being said, sometimes things can get ugly faster than recommended. If they come to you with a dipstick with something smelling burnt it needs to be changed, if you are in a dusty area you might need filters changed more often. Again, do your homework to find shops with a good reputation that are willing to meet your needs. Personally I have an advantage; I have worked with some of the best tech’s and shop owners in my town so it is hard for me to choose. I like consistency with the technician looking at my truck, just like going to the same Dr. that can tell when you are really not feeling well this also makes record keeping easier as well.

**Performance Shops: A shop that is run well and really knows there area of expertise will probably want a deposit for performance work. Also, do you bring your eggs to a restaurant to save money? Probably not. Talk to the shop first before investing in parts, they may have policy’s prohibiting installing your parts – for good reason. If they do not purchase it themselves the manufacturer is not going to stand behind them if there is a failure.

Character reference for your shop manager, I am big on supporting businesses that support the community. Do they have plaques on the wall from kids’ teams that they support? Are they involved in Chamber, Rotary, or Lions Clubs?

If you are willing to do a little homework, again much like finding a Doctor, you can find someone that is reputable and willing to go the extra mile for not only price, but quality.

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