By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Getting your car fixed right, the first time, is a process that begins long before any wrenches are turned.
1) Be aware that the person you speak with at the dealership may not be the technician who will actually work on your car.
Most dealers have a service advisor who acts as an intermediary between the customer and the technicians. The service advisor is the person who fills out the paperwork and assigns a tech to your vehicle. He’s also the one you’ll be calling later to find out if your car’s ready — and how much it’s going to cost you.
The danger here is one of communications breakdown. It’s important to do everything you can to explain what’s wrong as precisely as possible, for openers. Equally important, that you’re both on the same page as far as the extent of the work to be done.
To make sure, it’s a good idea to write out a detailed description of the problem before you get to the shop and hand this to the service advisor 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 advisor to claim later on that you said things you didn’t — or didn’t say something that was potentially important, such as the fact that the car pulls to the right or makes a weird noise when you put the transmission in gear.
On modern cars, with their myriad complex electric systems, glitches can come and go for no apparent reason. For example, a dashboard warning light may come on sometimes — but only under certain conditions (such as after the car has been sitting for a day or two). Try to note the precise circumstances when an intermittent problem crops up — and relay this info to the service adviser when you drop the vehicle off.
If a hard starting/rough idle problem only occurs when the vehicle is cold, drop it off the evening before, so that it can cool completely overnight before anyone attempts to work on it. And be sure the service adviser knows that the car needs to be cold for the trouble to manifest itself. It does neither you nor him nor the car any good to attempt to find and fix a problem on a warmed-up vehicle that only experiences trouble when it’s cold.
Likewise, if the problem is one that manifests itself only after the vehicle has been driven on the highway for awhile, authorize the shop to road test your car as necessary to duplicate the conditions that lead to the trouble. Etc.
2) Never hurry the repair by making constant inquiries and demanding to know, “is it ready yet?”
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 far better to endure a little inconvenience one time than multiple times as a result of having to take the thing back a second (or third) time to fix the same problem that didn’t get fixed the first time around. Let the service adviser know that you are interested in getting the problem fixed first — and getting the car back, second.
3) When you return to pick up your car, do not just pay the bill and accept your keys back.
Before you pull out your wallet, speak to the service adviser and have him explain what was done and why.
Make certain that 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 all work done is important in the event you need to come back or have an ongoing problem — especially if it’s a warranty-covered problem or issue.
4) If you are concerned the problem may not have been addressed, you may want to test drive the car before accepting the vehicle and paying your bill.
For noises, rattles, etc., this is an especially smart thing to do. Most shops will not have a problem with your doing this, if they stand behind their work.
If the problem is still there, do not accept the vehicle back — and do not pay the bill. Instead, explain to the service adviser that the problem has not been fixed; invite him to take a test drive with you to see for himself. Ask that he take the vehicle back and get it taken care of.
5) 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 haggle your way into a no-cost (or low cost) loaner while your vehicle is being repaired.
Some dealers provide a loaner as a courtesy service — especially if you have had to take your vehicle in for a second or third time to fix something that should have been taken care of the first time.
Some manufacturers also provide loaners under the term of the new car warranty. But in either case, if you complain loudly enough about being without your car, you may get a loaner out of the dealer, even if he’s not legally required to provide one.
6) In the event you are treated unsatisfactorily — or the shop just seems unable to fix the problem with your car — speak directly with the owner/manager of the dealership.
If this person has any business sense at all, he will want happy customers who believe they have been treated fairly — and who will be coming back to his store for their next new vehicle, or for service.
A word from the owner/manager to the service adviser can work miracles. If he’s not available in person, call him on the telephone and concisely, politely, explain the nature of your problem. Point out that you’ve spent a large amount of money at his store — and that you expect to be treated accordingly.
7) If this approach does not work, the next step is to move up the food chain to the automaker the dealership represents.
The automakers do not like it when their dealers aren’t satisfying their customers — and can bring to bear enormous pressure to “make it right.” The way to go about this is to call the regional customer relations officer (or to corporate headquarters), explaining your problem, as above, with supporting documentation — and ask for their help. You will find the contact information in the pages of your car’s owner’s manual.
Caution: Don’t make accusations or threats. This will not help your cause. Instead, simply state that the dealership has been unable to repair your vehicle, pointing out the specific facts involved — and that you are very 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 what you want is for the vehicle to be fixed — no unreasonable demands.
Most automakers will respond positively to inquiries of this kind, and the problem should be addressed in short order.
If, however, this approach doesn’t work, you may have to pursue other avenues, including state lemon laws (see www.123car.com/lemon/lemonbystate.html or www.lemonlawamerica.com), getting in touch with the appropriate state bureau of consumer/regulatory affairs — or hiring a lawyer and pursuing the matter through the courts.