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How to Get Better Automotive Service

Part I. How to Describe What is
Going On with Your Vehicle

Part II: Bring all Warranty and
Service Contract Documentation

Part III. Keep All Your
Repair Order Receipts!

Part IV. Problems with the Service Center, Warranty or Service Contract?



Part I. How to Describe What is Going On with Your Vehicle


As a customer, you know exactly why your are bringing your vehicle in . . . it is doing something that you do not think it should be doing. These are called symptoms. Symptoms are the only thing you need to describe to the Service Advisor or whoever is writing your Repair Order. Symptoms are the only thing a good Service Advisor will ask you to descibe so it can be documented on the Repair Order.

Basically, symptoms are:
  • What happens
  • Where it happens
  • How often it happens
  • Circumstances before the symptom started
  • Under what circumstances it happens
  • How it sounds/feels/looks/smells
  • What customer said in their own words . . .

Symptoms are not:
  • Description of repair needed to correct symptoms
  • The Service Advisor’s rephrasing of what the customer said in “better” terms
  • Special phrases or acronyms – inop, NPF, etc . . .

Use your own words and do not worry if the information makes sense or not, that is the technician's problem. They are trained to deal with all types of symptoms, even weird ones. If you are unsure how to describe something, the Service Advisor should be trained in how to help you get this information on the RO. Most important, use your own words and descriptions about what is happening to your vehicle, you are the expert on your car. Don't assume that the Service Advisor knows more than you do.

However, customers can make this process confusing in three ways. First, do not assume the techs will automatically know what is wrong with your vehicle, especially if you are at a car dealership service department. Too often, the customer will not give enough detail of the symptoms which can make it hard for the technician to duplicate the symptom. This is worst at car dealership service departments, where the customer assumes they can access a database of information about their car. Though, they can access these databases, the access is limited to the quality of symptoms the customer describes.

Second, do not suggest what you think may be wrong with the vehicle. I train Service Advisors to not diagnose customer concerns on the service drive, but to only deal with symptoms based on customer descriptions. You can really mess this up by not giving adequate details of your symptoms and keep the tech from being able to duplicate your concerns and repair them. If you get a Service Advisor that is diagnosing, do not agree with any repairs or maintenances until you get the formal technician report.

Last, cooperate with the Service Advisor with hard to describe concerns, like noises, or hard to verify concerns, like driveability or intermittent problems.  If they need you to go on a test drive, do it. They need to see how you drive the vehicle to better understand the concern.  Don't just pitch them the keys, throw a symptom at them and tell them to call you when it is ready.

Sometimes you may have an intermittent problem, one which only creates symptoms occasionally. This is as frustrating for the service center as it is for you. They need to be able to verify the symptoms to do an accurate repair. To make matters harder, Lemon Laws and manufacturer warranties require that the symptom be verified before a repair is attempted.

One final concern, review how your symptoms are described on the repair order that will be presented to the technician. Make sure your repair concerns and service are described in the manner you want. A good service advisor will invite you to read the repair order, otherwise you may want to ask.




Part II: Bring all Warranty and Service Contract Documentation


Many times repairs may be under warranty or a service contract. Keep these documents or copies of them in your car and bring this information when you have repair work done. They have details about what is covered. Do not make any assumptions about what is covered. The biggest mistake the average consumer makes is not reading this information, making assumptions and then getting upset with the service center when the coverage is different than expected.

The biggest problems are with understanding warranty coverage or service contract coverage including rental car plans or deductibles. Warranties and service contracts are very specific about what is covered and not covered.

You may be charged a diagnostic fee under a warranty or service contract until it can be determined if the repairs are covered under the programs. There are many repairs and services not covered under warranty. Oil and filters, brake pad replacement, possibly timing belts and tune-ups are a few examples. The exceptions are carefully outlined in these documents, as required by federal law.






It is critical that you keep all repair order receipts.   These outline all repairs and services you have received on your vehicle during ownership. These are helpful when working with a manufacturer for concerns out of warranty, tracking   warranty repairs, dealing with service contract problems and for your service history, which could be helpful in selling your vehicle for top dollar.

Carefully review the items on the repair order when picking up your vehicle. Notice any uncompleted repairs or special ordered parts, making sure these items are carefully documented as to what will happen next.  On special ordered parts, find out who will be contacting who and when.






It is not usual to have problems with service centers. The Better Business Bureau reports that car repair problems are in the top three complaints they receive every year nationwide. However, they also state that 99% of the time the problem was not a service center doing anything illegal or unethical, but poor communications. These include misunderstandings about the coverage of the warranty or service contract, cost of services or unauthorized repairs.

The best way to minimize these types of situations is to read all information concerning your repair order, warranty or vehicle service contact before you have the repair done.   Carefully review what is written on the repair order, including any prices for diagnostic fees, towing or car rental allowances, maintenance services and service contract deductibles. If prices have been discussed, make sure they are recorded on the repair order.

If you feel the service center is not giving you the proper service, start with the service manager or the customer relations manager. These folks are usually trained to assist you with service problems, which may include contacting the manufacturer if the repair concern is still under warranty.

However, the most common mistake a customer makes is starting off angry. There is a time for anger, save it for when you need it, otherwise people will not take you seriously.

The best way to help yourself is to present facts. Facts need to come from the repair order, the warranty or service contract. If you want something not covered by these documents, then you must negotiation with either with the service center, the vehicle manufacturer or the service contract provider. Facts are very important in these matters.

The type of things that will help you get benefits outside of the covered items are:
  • if the vehicle is down for many days, usually more than three days
  • if the vehicle has been in for many different repairs over a short period of time, say two years or less,  or the same repair more than twice within the same year
  • if you if you can prove that you were overcharged or unfairly charged for service
A good way to deal with pricing problems is to shop other shops or dealerships for the same repairs and parts.   Many shops may sell parts for a higher than regular retail price.  Do your homework, even with service centers you have done business with before.

If the repair is out of warranty or service contract coverage limits, either time or mileage, and you want it covered by the warranty or service contract, you may have to contact the manufacturer or service contract provider for assistance. A good service department will assist you with this.






Vehicle service contracts are excellent extended repair coverage once the basic manufacturer's warranty has expired.  However, they can be a real hassle if you have not reviewed or read its coverage, which is the most common consumer mistake. There are two types of vehicle service contracts:
1. Auto Manufacturer Service Contracts (GM, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Mazda, etc.)
  • usually more expensive because it has better coverage
  • can be redeemed at any manufacturer service center nationwide
  • less hassle and easier to work with because repair center can easily check coverage through the manufacturer's customer database
  • will not go bankrupt because it is backed by the auto manufacturer
  • highly recommended by this writer
2. Independent Service Contract providers
  • provided by an independent company to the dealership, but sold under the dealership's name, which can be misleading to the customer thinking they have bought a regular auto manufacturer's service contract
  • at time of purchase, consumer is told that it is good at any auto service center, which is not true
  • easiest to use if you take vehicle back to selling dealership's service department
  • usually less expensive
  • can be a lot harder to use with less coverage
  • not accepted by many service centers
  • very risky for consumer, these companies go out of business all the time because of cheap cost to dealership and consumer, and they usually do not have a good financial reserve to cover repairs over a long period of time
  • dealership is legally responsible for coverage by service contact, but if contract company goes out of business usually any covered repairs can only be handled by the selling dealership's service department
  • many service centers will not assist customer is getting repair approved, will provide customer with estimate and then customer must get repair approved by vehicle service contract provider
  • repairs must be approved by the service contract company BEFORE the repair is attempted or you will not get paid - period!
  • you may have to pay for the repairs up front, send in your receipts to the service contract provider to be repaid, which many consumers are not told when they buy the service contract
The biggest problem with any warranty or service contracts is the customer not reading their service contract coverage.  They will usually have some type of deductible, possible diagnosis fee, towing allowance and limited towing coverage, rental car allowance and limited rental car coverage, and certain conditions which may not allow for towing or rental car.  Customers, do your homework, know what you have and do not have.

© 1998-2013, J. Daniel Emmanuel



The Service Advisor is a free service presented by Daniel Emmanuel.
For more information about my automotive background go to my Bio/Résumé.

If you work in the automotive industry, visit Automotive Service Management.com.


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