Before I get into the pitfalls, it is important for you to understand how important it is to have your car serviced according to the manufacturer's recommendations. The pitfalls and consequences of not doing so can be equal to or greater than those you might experience at the hands of an incompetent or unethical service department.
I strongly recommend that you have your car serviced and repaired by a franchised dealer of the make of your vehicle. I know that this statement, coming from a franchised car dealer, may be met with some skepticism. Listen to my reasons before passing judgment. Modern vehicles are highly complex computerized machines requiring very sophisticated diagnostic equipment and highly trained technicians. The evolution of new, expensive diagnostic equipment requires constant updating. The evolution of car technology requires continuing education of dealers' factory trained technicians who attend many weeks of schools every year. Forty years ago, it was possible for a really good mechanic to fix anybody's car. Those days are gone and your car needs a highly trained specialist with the very latest diagnostic equipment. It is impossible for an independent service company to be competent in servicing and repairing all makes of automobiles.
Carefully choose the dealership that will service your car. You do not have to take your car to the dealership that sold you the car for warranty repairs, as many believe. Every dealership of your make of car will welcome your warranty and non-warranty work. Do your homework on which dealer has the best service department. Every dealer is graded in customer satisfaction by the manufacturer. Ask to see a copy of his CSI (customer satisfaction index) scores. Check with the BBB and the County Office of Consumer Affairs.
When you take your car in for maintenance or repairs, always ask for an estimate. State law requires that a service department not exceed a written estimate by more than 10%. When paying your bill, scrutinize the detail to be sure that you know exactly what each charge means. Most service departments add a fee on top of everything else with various labels like "miscellaneous supplies," "sundry supplies," "environmental handling," etc. This fee is simply a five or 10 percent charge tacked onto the total bill. If you object to this fee, which you certainly should, dealers will often waive it.
You will find that prices for maintenance like oil changes, alignments, tire rotation and balancing, etc. are usually priced competitively. Where you have to be careful is in the pricing of major repair items like transmission, engines, and air-conditioners. When quoted a price on a big repair, don't be afraid to negotiate. If you let it be known that you are willing to take your car elsewhere (even if you're bluffing), you can often negotiate the price down significantly.
You should always make an appointment before bringing your car in. Appointments should be scheduled at relative slow times and days. Avoid bringing your car in early on a Monday morning and other very busy times. You want the service advisor to spend as much time with you as is necessary. This will allow you to drive the car with the service advisor if necessary to identify a specific problem like a squeak, rattle or vibration. Pick your car up at a time when the service advisor or technician has time to road test the car with you again to be sure that the problem was fixed.
Don't be shy about asking for a loaner car when you have to take your car back a second or third time for a repair that was not done properly. It's the dealership's fault and you should not be inconvenienced. On a comeback, always talk with the service manager directly. Also ask that they assign their best technician to the job.
As I have said in earlier columns, there is nothing more important than choosing the right dealership to do business with. No service department is perfect and never makes a mistake. What you want to find is that service department that, in addition to being competent, will fess up to their occasional mistakes, sincerely apologize and make them right.
Earl Stewart is the owner and general manager of Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach. The dealership is located at 1215 N. Federal Highway in Lake Park. Contact him at www.earlstewarttoyota.com, call (561) 358-1474, fax (561) 658-0746 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to him on Seaview AM 960, FM 95.9 and FM 106.9, which can be streamed at www.SeaviewRadio.com every Saturday morning between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.