For sometime now I’ve been involved with other shops, either in a consulting, or in an industry 20 Group. Over the years I’ve developed a set of criteria that I’ve shared with friends and family about how to properly evaluate where to obtain high quality, ethical auto service. These apply if your auto is an Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Saab, Volvo or VW.
Some of these items may seem basic, even commonsense, but all too often folks make the decision of where to take the car under duress, you want to have an ongoing relationship with shop before problems occur, indeed a good shop will save you money by preventing problems whenever possible. After one’s home, the car usually 2nd largest expense most folks face. Determining who and where you bring your car for service can be one of the most important decisions you can make. The level of service can either positively or negatively affect both your pocketbook, and the value of your car.
Hourly Labor Rate
While this generally the first question most people ask, its really not a good way to properly evaluate a shop, but is often used as most folks don’t know what else to ask. Cost is understandably an important factor, but the most expensive and disappointing service you can buy is the wrong or poor service on your car. While a shop with a low labor rate may seem a bargain, it will often be undercapitalized and not able to properly equip its workshop, buy needed diagnostic equipment, or provide training for its staff. Undercapitalized shops are likewise usually not able to hire and retain top talent. Likewise an undercapitalized shop will be much less likely to reach into their own pockets to help with goodwill for its customers. What you want is a “fair” labor rate, one that is reasonable to you, and allows the shop to stay in business.
When evaluating a service facility be cautious not to repeat the reasons you left the new car dealer. While a clean and modern facility is important, you want to avoid the frills and flourishes that have nothing to do with
servicing your auto, and only serve to raise the cost of the repair. Glass palaces with gold plated facets are known in the industry as “Taj Garages”, and you don’t want to be the one paying for the owner’s mortgage and ego. If the facility looks like a new car dealer on the outside, you’re going to find the same cost structure on the inside.
Perception is often reality, look at the facility from the outside; does it look clean and safe? Does it look like the ownership takes pride in the business, if they don’t take care of their own property, do you think they will care for yours? How are you greeted at the service counter? Does the staff seem to welcome you? Look around at the waiting room, most progressive shops will now have WiFi Internet in the waiting area, ideally there may even be a desk and computer for you to work from while your car is being serviced.
Loaner Cars & Shuttle Service
Does the facility provide loaner cars or alternative transportation arrangements? Do they offer pickup and delivery valet service, or after hours drop off and pickup of your car? In short, are they thinking about your convenience?
While you are looking at the outside property, take a look at cars in the prospective shop’s parking lot. Are they the same model as yours? Ideally you want a shop that specializes in your car type, we’ll talk more about that later. Are the cars waiting for service about the same type, Audi, BMW, Volvo, and vintage as yours or older? A parking lot with late model cars generally means that the workshop is keeping current on technology, and is likely properly equipped to service your car. Take a critical look at the condition of the customer cars, this is almost as important as their age. Do the cars look well maintained; or are they damaged, dented, held together with duck tape? If it looks like a car you’d be uncomfortable parking next to, then this may not be the right place for your car. If the cars in the parking lot look attractive, then the shop is doing a good job making their customer’s cars last.
Ask if the prospective shop is familiar with your type of car, not just if they have worked on them, but if they specialize in it. Ideally you want a shop that specializes in your car type; they will have the tools, parts and experience to handle your service promptly and efficiently. It works in the medical profession, and it’s doubly true when you are dealing with more than just two models. Remember the phrase – “Jack of all trades, master of none?” – most of today’s cars are far too complicated to be handled professionally by a general repair shop, you don’t want someone learning how to fix your car – on your dime. You’ll find a specialist will save you money, provide a better outcome, for they know what to look for, and have often developed service procedures to quickly handle the common problems.
Are you allowed inside the workshop? A professional organization will eagerly offer to give you a tour of the facility; after all they are proud to show off what they have built. Don’t rely on website photos, they may not even be of the facility you were visiting, and it is all too easy to make even the dirtiest look pretty in photos/videos, so ask to walk inside the workshop. Can you walk from one side to the other without getting greasy? Are there used parts piled up, is the floor clean and painted, remember, what’s on the workshop floor will end up on the floor of your car. Over the years I’ve noted that the higher skilled technicians simply won’t work in a dirty environment for any length of time. The cleanliness and order of the workshop is perhaps the best indication you can get as to the service philosophy of the ownership and technicians.
While you are in the workshop, take a look at the staff, perhaps more intangible, but important nevertheless, look at the folks who will be working on your car. Do they look happy, are they working as a team, do they seem to enjoy where they are and what they do? Do they smile, can you speak with them, and does the service advisor bring you out to the shop and introduce you to the person who will be working on your car? Today’s cars are complicated, the best shops work as teams.
Computers, often-specialized computers, are need to service almost every late model car now. Ask to see diagnostic equipment specific to your car, if you have a BMW, ask to see the BMW computer, a Mercedes, the MB DAS system, a Volvo, the VIDA computer. Such computers and diagnostic tools represent a major expense; properly equipped shops will love to show them off.
Ask about factory service information, does the workshop use online service manuals, the paper service books have been largely obsolete for nearly a decade. Ask about factory service bulletins, does the shop require technicians to check for bulletins, which may apply to your car during service, do they regularly share such bulletins with you. Ideally you should a minimum of one computer per technician in the workshop, this may be a mix of laptops and desk computers.
Ask if the shop has a regular training program, do all the people who might be working on your car go…or just a few? Where do they train – hint local parts vendor training only helps them sell that company’s parts, training should be high level training, often done off site. Ask what is their training budget for each tech – you are entitled to know, these are the people working on your car, and if they are not trained, they are learning at your expense.
Look for certifications for technicians, not all shops display these on the wall, so you may need to ask. You should see a minimum of ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) an independent certification body, but check also for other training certificates, and check that it is current – auto technology changes fast.
This is a question for the shop owner, ask him or her about their service philosophy. You want a shop geared toward Maintenance rather than Repair. Odd sounding perhaps, so let’s talk about those two terms, often interchanged and not clearly understood. Maintenance means “maintaining” your car, servicing it before it “breaks down”. All manufacturers, from Audi to Volvo have service schedules. Repair on the other hand is done after a failure has occurred. Maintenance is almost always less expensive than repair, it is far easier and less costly to maintain rather than replace. For example, it is less costly to paint your house every 5 years than replace all the wood every 10 years.
A well-maintained car is safe, reliable and has a much higher resale. An ideal shop will have safety and reliability as their two top values. Ask if they follow the factory maintenance schedule, and then ask them to show you the actual schedule for your car. The factory schedule is the minimum care that a manufacturer has determined a car needs to be safe and reliable, often in harsh climates more frequent, or different services are required.
The best service facilities want to have an ongoing relationship with you and your car. Ask about their after-service follow up – do you receive a call after service, thank you cards for referrals, does it seem like they appreciate you as an individual? Do they provide free service reminders for when you car should be serviced in the future?
Quality control, today’s cars are sometimes a real challenge to service, every shop should have a quality control program, and you the customer should not be the quality control department. Ask about quality checking, how many times is your car checked over before being released from service, which does the quality checks, it should be more than just the technician who serviced your car.
Can you freely speak with owner, is the owner on premieres? Ask about the shop’s relationship with local new car dealers if warranty problem or recall occurs. The best shops will maintain an ongoing relationship with the service department of the new car dealer, assuring you that if a warranty problem does occur, it will be handled promptly. The best shops will arrange and handle the warranty service process for you, working with the dealer to resolve the concern.
The best businesses are generally actively involved in their local community, and not just there for a fast buck. As the staff about their community involvement, or giveback. Are the owners or staff involved with local non-profits, on boards of community organization, etc? While this shouldn’t be not a major focal point, especially for a new business, but it will tell you a bit more about the philosophy of the ownership.
The internet has empowers the consumer like nothing before, it’s your friend here as well. Look for online reviews written by the shop’s customers, the best are DemandForce and then Google. Read their customer’s words, you can often learn a great deal reading between the lines. No shop is perfect, and mistakes do happen from time to time, what you want to look for is how the workshop worked with the customer to resolve the issue. A string of negative reviews, or worse, few or no reviews, should prompt you to reconsider your choice.
Does the company own its own building, in certain metro areas this may not be feasible, or if the business is young this may not be the case, but it does give you some idea if the business is financially secure.
At Atlantic Motorcar we are sometimes asked what makes us different, better or a superior choice to your current service facility. Simply stated, because we provide the overall lowest cost in auto service, preventing problems rather than just repairing them. We use better methods to give you the highest quality service. In short, we care about you, and your car. We don’t just say that, we measure it! We consistently rank in the upper 3% of Customer Satisfaction Surveys from Customerlink. We are conveniently located on U.S. Route 1 in Maine’s midcoast, and offer complimentary loaner cars as well as valet pickup and delivery service from Falmouth to Camden.
We have over 25 years of experience servicing Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Mini, Porsche, and Volvo. We utilize all of the latest technology and factory computerized diagnostic systems. Our service staff is trained on even the very latest models and systems. As Maine’s Bosch Authorized Service Center (since 1989) we have both the experience and training to repair and service these fine automobiles. Our facility offers comprehensive service for your car, and we are not limited in our capabilities.
Please take a few moments to let us know how we can help you! (207) 882-9969 or on the web at AtlanticMotorcar.com.
Bruce J. Howes