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5 tips for working with an auto dealer's service department

Nov. 29, 2006 - 02:20PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 29, 2006 - 02:20PM  |  
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Death, taxes and dealing with auto dealership service personnel are three of the unavoidable ugly parts of life. But unlike the first two, dealing with the service department can be made less stressful -- and certainly more productive.

Start with the basics:

1. Be specific.

The person you speak with at the dealership is usually not the technician who will work on your car. Most dealers have a service adviser who acts as an intermediary between customers and technicians. He fills out the forms, then assigns a tech to your vehicle. He's also the one you'll call later to find out whether your car's ready -- and how much it's going to cost.

The danger here is of communication breakdown. You tell the service adviser what's wrong,but he may hear something else. He may relay some, all or none of the relevant information to the technician. So they may change your oil but forget to check your screeching brakes.

To make sure everyone's on the same page, write a detailed description of the problem and hand it to the adviser to give to the technician. Not only will this help the technician understand the nature of the problem, your note makes it harder for the service adviser to claim later that you said things you didn't -- or that you didn't mention something important, like checking the brakes.

If the car is hard to start when the vehicle is cold or hot, make sure you note that; don't make the mechanic guess. He is not Karnak the All-Knowing. If the car runs wrong only some of the time, don't just say "it makes a funny noise." Tell him when it makes a funny noise (for example, when going around a left-hand corner at about 30 mph).

Also, if a hard starting/rough idle problem occurs only when the vehicle is cold, drop it off in the evening so it can cool completely overnight before anyone works on it. Make certain the service adviser knows the car needs to be cold for the trouble to occur.

Likewise, if the problem happens only after the vehicle has been driven on the highway for a while, authorize the shop to road-test your car as necessary to duplicate the conditions that lead to the trouble.

2. Don't be a pest.

Never hurry the repair by making constant inquiries and demanding to know if it's ready.

Some things take time -- and car repair is one of those things you don't want to rush. It's understandable to be frustrated when your means of getting around is laid up in the shop, but it's better to endure a little inconvenience once than to come back a second time to fix the same problem. Let the service adviser know you are interested in getting the problem fixed, first -- and getting the car back, second.

3. Get an explanation.

When you pick up your car, don't just pay the bill and take the keys. Before you pull out your credit card, speak to the service adviser and have him explain what was done and why.

Make sure all repairs and replacement parts used are clearly listed on your invoice, with a brief description of the work performed, as well as of the original complaint. Documenting every bit of work is important if you need to come back or if you have an ongoing problem -- especially if it's a warranty-covered problem.

4. Test drive.

If you're worried that the problem may not have been addressed, test drive the car before paying your bill. This is an especially smart thing to do after having noises repaired.

Most shops won't mind, if they stand behind their work. If the problem is still there, don't pay your bill. Instead, explain to the service adviser that the problem has not been fixed -- and invite him to take a test drive with you to see for himself. Ask that he take back the vehicle and find out what the problem is.

5. Ask for a loaner.

If the shop takes an unusually long time to get to your car, the problem is recurrent or it's a warranty-covered issue, you may be able to get a no-cost or low-cost loaner while your vehicle is being repaired.

Some dealers will provide a loaner as a courtesy service -- especially if you've had to take your car in for a second time to fix something that should have been taken care of the first time. Some manufacturers also provide loaners under the terms of new car warranties -- but in either case, if you're persuasive enough, you may get one out of the dealer even if he's not legally required to provide one.

If all else fails ...

If you aren't treated professionally or fairly -- or the shop seems unable to fix your car's problem -- there are two steps to take.

The first is to speak directly with the owner/manager of the dealership. He should want happy customers who believe they have been treated fairly -- and who will come back to him for their next vehicle. A word from the owner/manager to the service adviser can work miracles.

Call him as often as necessary and concisely and politely explain the nature of the problem. Point out that you spent a large amount of money at his business and that you expect to be treated fairly.

If this approach does not work, the next step is to move up the food chain to the automaker the dealership represents. Ford, GM, Honda and other companies don't like it when dealers aren't satisfying their customers and can bring enormous pressure to bear to make it right.

Call the regional customer-relations officer (or corporate headquarters); explain your problem, as above, with supporting documentation; and ask for help. You will find the contact information in your owner's manual.

Don't make accusations or threats; this won't help your cause. Instead, simply state that Dealer "X" has been unable to resolve the problem and that you are disappointed by the manner in which you've been treated.

Explain that you enjoy your vehicle but that the service experience has been unsatisfactory and that you are having regrets about having bought that make of vehicle. State that you want your vehicle fixed or the problem taken care of -- don't make unreasonable demands.

Most automakers will respond positively to inquiries of this kind, and the problem should be addressed in short order.

If this doesn't work, you may have to pursue other avenues, including getting in touch with the appropriate state bureau of consumer/regulatory affairs or hiring a lawyer to compose a suitably serious letter threatening to take the matter to court.

But your car troubles usually can be dealt with by simple, effective communication.

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist who has covered the auto industry since 1992. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, among other publications. E-mail him at

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