When Is A Deal Not A Deal?

Unless you’re Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or like them, most of us are feeling the pinch from the higher costs of almost everything we use from day to day. Everyday I pick up the paper and watch the news, the overall theme of our economy is not good. Record foreclosures, the slipping dollar, record highs for a barrel of oil, the list goes on and on. There hasn’t been a better time to tighten our collective ‘bootstraps’ for awhile now.

Lets face it, most of us love getting a good deal, and in todays economy it makes good sense to shop for a bargain. Or does it? I’m a firm believer that certain things should not be shopped the way we would by looking for who has the best deal on a box of Cornflakes. You might not be like me, but if I were to have a heart attack, I’m not picking up the phone book and doing a google search on who has the cheapest by-pass operation listed. I want the best doctor and hospital my money can buy. The IRS is looking into my tax returns, I’m sorry I’m not looking at a PennySaver for a low cost CPA. This may, or may not be, a foreign concept to you, but services can not be shopped the way you would for commodities. At least it shouldn’t be in my opinion. Which brings me to the point of his blog.

If you’re reading this, you might put two and two together and figure somehow this is automotive related. Big surprise, it is. I’m amazed at the deals circulating in various publications trying to get a share of your dollar for automotive repair. I’m equally amazed at the volume of consumers that think this is a good way to shop for who is going to take care of your second most valuable possession. The vast majority of my phone calls from prospective new customers focus on cost, instead of why I should trust you to take care of my vehicle. I’m going to explain why this is not a good idea, or at least try to.

First off let me talk about some of the facts about this business that you may or may not be aware of, at least in the state of California. This also holds true, with a few exceptions in the other 49 states.

Other than smog, and brake and lamp inspectors, mechanics are not licensed in the State of California.
What this means, is exactly what it sounds like. There are no minimum requirements to start working at a shop and subsequently, on your car. Better repair shops would not employ someone with little or no experience, but it happens all the time at some of the so-called competition. I wouldn’t be comfortable trusting the kid who was last in his medical school practice medicine on me, but at least they have passed a competency test.

I once worked at a GM dealer, that when I had come back from lunch there was a new mechanic working next to me. It turns out that he had just gotten out of the Air Force and was now looking for a job. He had his fishing tackle box ‘o’ tools, so he was ‘qualified.’ There was one small problem, the truck he was assigned to fix was not racked correctly and was ready to fall off the rack. I went to the service manager to find out what the heck was going on. He kindly asked if I would help the guy out, as he was new. On the job training was not part of my job description, so I politely declined and found employment elsewhere. Unfortunately, this was not the last shop I worked at that this happened. You might be wondering what this has to do with me and getting my car repaired. This was almost 30 years ago when this first happened and it still happens today. When I started in this business, points and condensers and once a year tune-ups were the norm. Today there are networks in your vehicle, with multiple computers, yet the process of shopping for car repairs remain almost the same as they were thirty years ago.

Opening a Shop

Here again, with the exception of smog testing, air conditioning repairs, and Brake and Lamp stations, the state of California is remarkably quiet on what is required to open an auto repair shop. As long as I don’t have a criminal record, I send off my $200 to the state for a license and basically I’m in the auto repair business. Many, if not most of the shops that are opened are started by ex mechanics that got tired of their job situation and decided they could do better and hung a shingle on the window. To be honest this was me 17 years ago. I’ll try not to toot my own horn, but when I opened, I decided what services I was going to offer and actually tooled up based on that. It seemed like a simple concept, but if I was going to be taking customers money for a service, I should at the very least be properly equipped for what I might encounter. I decided I was going to start with tune-ups/driveability and electrical repairs. I bought/leased/used credit cards for my new business. I purchased a scope, scan tool, books, VAT 40, and some other specialty tools to add to what I owned already. Once I had officially opened, I found I was better equipped than quite a few other established shops. Not all, but quite a few. Here we are competing for the same dollars, yet they are not capable of doing the job correctly either due to not having the proper equipment or experience. See licensing of mechanics above. In the 17 years since I’ve started my own business I’ve seen quite a few auto shops open and close. It’s truly an eye opening experience to see shops open without so much as even books, or a computer information system that think they are qualified to accept payment for fixing your car. Which brings me to some final thoughts on this…

The State Of California, Bureau of Automotive Repair Mission Statement :”To protect and serve California consumers by ensuring a fair and competitive automotive repair marketplace and administering a model motor vehicle emissions reduction program.” From the Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau Of Automotive Repair

If this were true, the state of car repair in California would not be in the condition it is in. Competition, in my mind, at least means we are all bound by the same rules. I guess to back up, since the state has not spelled who can call themselves a mechanic, and shops the minimum tooling required to perform certain services, I guess we are all ‘playing by the rules.’ Which would then leave the “fair and competitive” statement as a contradiction. You can not have fair competition without rules. Which might explain why consumer complaints for auto repair rank near the top. Comments?

4 Responses to “When Is A Deal Not A Deal?”

  1. Lance says:

    Hello Scott

    “You can not have fair competition without rules.”

    Can you elaborate, please? Does the California BAR exercise some form of favoritism? Is it your belief that the California BAR allows some repair entities to enjoy an unfair advantage over others?

    “Which might explain why consumer complaints for auto repair rank near the top.”

    I assume you’re addressing the *volume* of complaints. In your opinion, what drives automotive consumer complaints?

    Thanks,

  2. Administrator says:

    Hi Lance,

    “Does the California BAR exercise some form of favoritism? Is it your belief that the California BAR allows some repair entities to enjoy an unfair advantage over others?”

    That’s a very interesting observation/question, and to be truthful, one that I hadn’t considered. At first glance, I was going to dismiss your idea, but after carefully considering the question, it’s one that I agree with.

    When the California BAR was first proposed, it was to be a government liaison between consumers and repair shops and an overseer of shops and licensing. The consumer has a complaint about a car repair, or facility, and the BAR investigates to see if any wrongdoing has occurred. My observations and opinions of the BAR are as follows:

    The BAR’s focus on repair shops is biased towards paperwork, not repairs. Sure, giving a customer a correctly filled out estimate/repair order is the law, and important, but…More importantly, are they capable of fixing vehicles? If not, why not. Is it a lack of experience, not having the proper equipment for the job, or a combination of both? I think their priorities are in the wrong location.

    Other than for fraud (charges for repairs not done, or needed), and the above mentioned paperwork violations, there is little, or nothing, the BAR can do about incompetency. They can make recommendations, but without the ability to enforce, what good is that? This would be similar to getting caught stealing, going through the expense of a trial, to be found guilty, and then having the judge say you are free to go, there are no jails; don’t steal anymore.

    So, to get back to your question,…While that may not have been the intended consequence, the way the California BAR is currently run, it does allow an unfair advantage for some repair shops. It’s currently, earn while you learn, and the customers seeking a good deal, usually are getting anything but.

    “I assume you’re addressing the *volume* of complaints. In your opinion, what drives automotive consumer complaints?”

    This is not a simple question with one answer. There are many reasons why people complain, some justified, and others are not. It could be as simple as miscommunication, where explaining the repair process better could eliminate most of those complaints. But to answer your question in the context of the blog…Most consumers have no idea what’s under the hood of their vehicle, let alone what’s actually involved with the repairs of a modern vehicle. The feeling that anyone that hangs a shingle out for car repairs is actually qualified is simply not true.

    When I first started in this business 30 years ago, probably less than 1-2% of the repairs required a true professional. Semi-skilled mechanics were needed for probably 80% of the other repairs, and the remainder could be handled almost anybody. This probably would account for the large DIY market that has been steadily declining over the years.

    Today, even the most mundane tasks often involve electronics, as in the case of changing tires and tire pressure monitors. There are lots of other examples, but cars have become very sophisticated and they’re getting more so every year. Where 30 years ago 1-2% required a true professional, today that number might be 20%, or possibly higher. What this means for the typical consumer, is they might not be able to go to a repair shop that ‘specializes in everything’ as they had in years past, due to specialized equipment needed.

    That’s today’s reality, which if anything, I see the volume of consumer complaints going upward in the future. This does not explain what happened in 1971 when the California BAR was formed and I guess was the point of my blog. Services should never be shopped the way you would for commodities, something some consumers should consider the next time they’re clipping a coupon for a $10 oil change. The next time this sounds like a ‘good deal,’ go shopping for oil and filter to it yourself and then consider why they are doing the service for less than it costs? I can’t count the times I’ve heard complaints from customers who were “surprised” with a bad experience doing exactly that. A few clichés come to mind. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and you get what you pay for.

    IMHO, ultimately what “drives complaints” falls into 3 categories, greed, pride, and finally, people unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions and poor choices. The blame eventually rests on the shoulders of the customer in most situations. One could argue that without an unscrupulous repair shop there would be no complaint. I would counter, that if the customers were better informed and would stop shopping for repairs based on price and start shopping for a repair shop based on qualifications, the less than stellar repair shops would either improve, or go out of business.

  3. Lance says:

    “The BAR’s focus on repair shops is biased towards paperwork, not repairs. Sure, giving a customer a correctly filled out estimate/repair order is the law, and important, but…More importantly, are they capable of fixing vehicles? If not, why not. Is it a lack of experience, not having the proper equipment for the job, or a combination of both? I think their priorities are in the wrong location.”

    Hello Scott

    Can you define “repair” for me, please? What standards does the BAR utilize to recognize a “repaired” vehicle? I would guess the only item the BAR can rely on is the paperwork. For instance, assume for a moment that the BAR hired an expert. Someone like yourself. Now once that expert goes into field to examine repair concerns, how could his handlers deal with the feedback? In other words, without paperwork the BAR has literally NO idea of what’s happening in the field. Paperwork is only a start. A necessary start.

    “Other than for fraud (charges for repairs not done, or needed), and the above mentioned paperwork violations, there is little, or nothing, the BAR can do about incompetency.”

    Ahhh…here we are again. Define incompetency. What is the BAR using for standards as far as automotive repair? Do they “take the customer’s word for it” that the concern was not resolved? Do they take the shop’s paperwork as gospel? Do they adhere to manufacturers service information? Correct tooling? Necessary shop equipment? A license? Do you see where I’m going? Without some form of guidelines (standards) the BAR is free do as it wishes….AS ARE THE SHOPS in the People’s Republic.

    “So, to get back to your question,…While that may not have been the intended consequence, the way the California BAR is currently run, it does allow an unfair advantage for some repair shops.”

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. What shops are at an advantage and why can’t you do what they do?

    “The feeling that anyone that hangs a shingle out for car repairs is actually qualified is simply not true.”

    Correct. Absolutely correct.

    “This probably would account for the large DIY market that has been steadily declining over the years.”

    Oh really? Riddle me this, Scott – Why is Autozone the #1 parts retailer on the planet? Are you SURE about the DIY market?

    “That’s today’s reality, which if anything, I see the volume of consumer complaints going upward in the future.”

    Ok, so the increasing volume of complaints is due to the repair shops…not the BAR. Is that correct?

    “I would counter, that if the customers were better informed and would stop shopping for repairs based on price and start shopping for a repair shop based on qualifications, the less than stellar repair shops would either improve, or go out of business.”

    Hmm….Ok. How would you propose the BAR impact consumer buying habits?
    I think your basic premise overlooks the reality of today’s economics – Less expensive is better. A local repair shop is no different than a large corporation. Both are always looking to cut costs in order to attract consumers. So how could a consumer judge the quality of a repair shop?

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