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Trust reputable mechanics with “the news”

One of the most difficult jobs in the automotive repair business is calling the customer with the news. It’s the same for people in the medical, legal, accounting and even funeral fields.

We all have one thing in common: We give you news, and often it is not good news. We don’t make any of the news; it’s just the facts. But this is how we make our living, on the news.

I don't know how Bob the attorney (not his real name) did it to me, but every time I call him, I feel guilty for what his car needs. After doing this for 30 years, I am usually pretty good at not feeling bad about what a customer's car needs.

There is a joke in the business called the 3 Bs: "I didn't build it, buy it or break it."

I had a cup of coffee and worked up in my mind how I was going to call Bob with "the news." I reviewed his car’s records for the past five years and found that the BMW had been very good to him -- very few repairs, mostly routine maintenance.

I mustered the courage to call with the list of repairs. Slightly distressed, Bob asked for details. I went over the list and heard a big sigh. "How come every time I bring in my car," he asked, "you tell me how much money I need to spend on repairs?"

I was ready for him.

"Bob," I said, "I want you to know I don't make up what your car needs. I only investigate, prioritize, price the repairs and give you the news. I do make a profit on the news."

After a long pause, Bob said, "We are in the same business. As attorneys, we don't make the news, but give you the news, and we also make a profit on the news."

It's not uncommon for customers to think we have control over what's wrong with their cars. What a compliment! But I promise you, auto repair shops and dealerships have no control over your car's problems.

Often customers ask us how much it will cost to fix a problem before we have diagnosed it. If I don't know what's wrong, how can I tell you how much -- or even when it will be finished?

The sad part: These people will call around until they get the answer they want. Then they will go to that shop, only to be disappointed. No one can tell you the cost until they know what repairs are needed.

The important question for me to ask is, "How soon do you need the repairs to be done?"

In auto repair, there is good and there is bad. But, as in life, there also are many shades of gray. Just because an oil pan is leaking, you must first determine how much it is leaking.

I have had customers come in with a “leak,” and we did not recommend a repair. We reclassified it as “escaping molecules.”

A leak, in my mind, is oil that reaches the ground. A “seep” is oil starting to coat the area where it is leaking. I had to make up a new term, and I call it escaping molecules. This “leak” is so minor that under no circumstances should it be repaired.

The most common oversell in car repair is to fix so-called leaky struts and shock absorbers.


Priority list for action

A priority list is important for determining a car repair. I use a scale of 1 to 5:

1. Under no circumstance do we recommend repair. We classify the leak as “escaping molecules” of oil.

2. This is just the start of a problem; we still don't recommend the repair. For example, an oil pan is starting to seep, or tire wear indicates replacement after another 5,000 miles.

3. Time for preventive maintenance: A service that is due; tires are at minimum tread depth. You would be able to drive to Seattle without a problem, but work should be done now or soon.

4. Repairs need to be done very soon. The vehicle could be driven in town on short trips, but not taken on the open road. This includes worn-out tires and oil or coolant leaks.

5. This vehicle should not be driven. Brakes are worn out, or a water pump is about to break and throw the fan through the radiator.


It comes down to asking how soon repairs should be done: Now? Next month? Maybe even next year?

Also, keep in mind that a newer vehicle is very complex. The following quotes are from the New York Times:

“New high-end cars are among the most sophisticated machines on the planet, containing 100 million or more lines of code. Compare that with about 60 million lines of code in all of Facebook, or 50 million in the Large Hadron Collider.”

“Cars these days are reaching biological levels of complexity,” said Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

The sophistication of new cars brings numerous safety benefits. Just two examples are forward-collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking. But with new technology comes new risks — and new opportunities for malevolence.

The unfolding scandal at Volkswagen — in which 11 million vehicles were outfitted with software that gave false emissions results — showed how a carmaker could take advantage of complex systems to flout regulations.

Carmakers and consumers also are at risk. Dr. Patel, a computer science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, has worked with security researchers who have shown it is possible to disable a car’s brakes with an infected MP3 file inserted into a car’s CD player.

A  hacking demonstration by security researchers exposed how vulnerable new Jeep Cherokees can be. A series of software-related recalls has raised safety concerns and cost automakers millions of dollars.” (For more see http://nyti.ms/2vEBf3i)

Service professionals do not make the news. We just report the news. Don't shoot the messenger. Please be kind and understanding.