Saturday, December 22, 2007

Pitfalls to avoid when having your car serviced

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 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 5% or 10% 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 2nd or 3rd 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.


  1. Sir, With all due respect, I DOUBT your radio & newspaper ads. In September 1998, I bought a 1998 Toyota Tacoma DIRECTLY from your dealership. I brought it back 3 times, and the LEAK on the passenger side was NEVER fixed to my satisfaction. I love Toyota, but I QUESTION your sincerity & honesty. So talk to me, Earl. Explain why I never heard from you in 1998 although I sent you a letter.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I sincerely apologize for not replying to the letter you wrote me nearly 10 years ago about your Toyota's water leak. I promise you that this was not intentional. I always try to reply to letters, phone calls, and emails. But, I'm far from perfect and, in your case, just "dropped the ball".

    You probably don't own that Toyota anymore, but if you do I would be happy to help you with any problems you may have with it.

    Your comments are a very good lesson for me and all car dealers (and all businesses in general). They demonstrate that our customers have long memories and are unforgiving of being treated shabbily.

    Your bad experience with me and my company occurred before I instituted the procedures of 4 red phones in my dealership directly connected to my cell phone, 7 days a week. When you call my dealership, 561 844-3461 and ask for Earl Stewart, you are directly connected to me immediately. No one asks "may I ask whose calling?" or "May I ask the nature of your call?". I don't have a secretary.

    I even have my home telephone number and my cell number on my business cards which I give to all of my new customers at our New Owners' Events.

    Thanks very much for your comments. Not only are they a "wake up call" for me but I'm giving a copy of your email to all of my employees as reminder of how important it is to always respond immediately to customers needs.

  3. I just had my A/C repaired and they did add on $50 misc.I asked for it to be taken off and stated they cannot, this is allowd in Florida, what other recourse do I have to get refunded, frank, PBG

  4. I'm sorry that the cashier refused to take off the $50 miscellaneous charge. Unfortuntely Florida law does not prohibit this charge, just like they don't prohibit the dealer fee charge when you buy a car.

    My suggestion to you is to contact the service manager of this dealership or, if possible the owner of the dealership. If they refuse to issue you a refund, take you car to another service department who will waive this charge.

  5. Thank you on your advise to me regarding reimbursement for the $50 misc charge added to my air conditioning repair bill, got a call from Cadillac stating they have revised their billing effective Jan 1,and offered me a free oil change and tire rotation on my next visit.I will take them up on it but I will be visiting your show room this year for a new car, thank you,

  6. Dear Frank,

    You are very welcome.

    Congratulations on having he nerve to stand up against a dealer making this surprise charge on service bills. I wish more people would do the same and also on the dealer fee which is the surprise you pay when you BUY a car.

    It's encouraging to learn that this Cadillac dealer is changing his billing method which I interpret to mean he is eliminating the "miscellaneous" charge tacked on the service invoices.

    If more customers would stand up like you did, we would see more dealers stop with these deceptive charges.

  7. Mr. Stewart,
    I have had work performed at your location always having to wait twice the time the service rep quoted. I am always told I will receiving a survey on service and am asked/begged to PLEASE complete the survey saying I was wonderfully treated giving the highest rating possible. Isn't this a little unusual that this happens everytime I have been there? Seems your reps are being forced to be rating high. Why not set the customer express their own feelings without coaching? I think your service has many areas that could be improved upon. One time I call your red line and received an attitude from you to take my business elsewhere. So I did.

  8. Dear Mr. Anonymous,

    It's difficult for me to address your points without having more facts.

    Why do you choose to remain anonymous? Whenever I get an anonymous complaint, I have to suspect that you may be one of my competitors trying to paint me in a bad light.

    I'll assume that you are being honest for the sake of this blog. Let me have some facts. Did your service delays occur when you had made an appointment or did you come in without one? What was the name of the service advisor who asked you for a high score on the survey? What is your name? If you will tell me that I can pull up your service records and address your complaints specifically.

    As far as my telling you to take your service business elsewhere when you called me on the red phone, I don't recall ever telling any caller to do that. However, there are some customers who simply can never be satisfied and this is even addressed in our company "bible", Customers for Life by Carl Sewell. Are you one of these, Mr. Anonymous?

  9. Mr. Stewart,

    Carl Sewell, who I happen to know very well, wishes he never wrote the book "customers for life". He is a true American and a true business man who knows the meaning of "complete customer satisfaction". He charges shop supplies and a dealer fee. A sight more than in Florida I can assure you. Especially on his high lines. He truely believes in being honest with all of his customers and taking care of them like any business should. He also believes that you must turn a profit. He believes when his dealerships are honest with people and treat them like frinds instead of customers then they will continue to do business with him. He does not have to meet with his customers to make sure that this happens. He shows on every invoice why a customer pays for the shop fee and dealer fee. He refuses to hide them in his prices or raise all of his rates to cover the cost of doing business. If you truly believe in Mr. Sewells "bible" then begin being honest with your customers and show them what they pay for.

  10. Dear "Mr. Anonymous who knows Carl Sewell real well",

    You apparently don't know Carl Sewell well enough to know that he is very proud of his book, Customers for Life. The book is selling extremely well and is now in its second publication. He personally autographed a copy for my wife Nancy when she was in Ft. Worth last month.

    Your other misperception from your "good friend Carl Sewell" is that "He charges shop supplies and a dealer fee. A sight more than in Florida I can assure you. Especially on his high lines"...end quote. In both of his Lexus stores, Dallas and Ft. Worth his shop supply fee is a flat $11.80. Many Florida dealers charge 5% or 10% of the total service invoice. Carl Sewell charges a documentary fee of $50 and a highway and bridge tax of $5. Florida dealers charge dealer fees up to $950 and they average around $600.

    You obviously don't know what you are talking about which means that you do not know Carl Sewell. I can only assume that you are fabricating your story to run down my reputation. You identify yourself doubly as an employee of one of my competiors through your need for anonymity and your deliberate misstatement of the facts.

    For readers of this blog, to confirm my comments about Carl Sewell's dealer fee and sundry supplies job, click on

    For my anonymous antagonist, probably employed by Palm Beach Toyota, consider a New Years Resolution of telling the truth and not concealing your identity.

  11. WOW you ego is something else. You are wrong and want to mix words. I never said Mr. Sewell wasn't proud of his book. Why shouldn't he be. He has made millions from it over the years. Every dealer in the country has a copy in their office. What I said was he wishes he never wrote it. Read and comprehend before you speak.

    His dealer fee, doc fee, transfer fee, whatever he calls it is $999.00 per car. His shop supply charge is a flat fee in only one store. The rest are determined by the managers.

    I am very happy for you that your wife got a personally autographed book. So did the rest of the country. He signs books every week counting to hours of his personal time.

    Carl Sewell is a great man and a good friend. I have known him for years. He has changed the way people purchase and service cars in Texas. He has destroyed his competition and continues to grow.


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