Recently, an elderly woman called my radio show. Her husband of 32 years had passed away and she was left to take care of the household responsibilities, which included the family car. Her question? "How do I know if I'm going to a good auto repair shop?" I have been in the automotive talk show business since the early 90's, and every year the number of people who ask me this question increases. Why? In today's society, people are living (and thus driving) longer. People are moving to different cities and towns at a phenomenal rate. The auto repair business is changing (for example, dealerships' service departments are in serious competition with the independent repair facilities for our dollars). Vehicles are evolving at a rapid pace and are more hi-tech, requiring repair facilities to continually upgrade their equipment and educate their technicians. Automotive advertising/marketing is drowning the marketplace with excessive mailings, Internet ads, television ads, and newspaper ads. Everyone is having a big sale! Is it any wonder that many of us find ourselves lost in this "labyrinth of auto repair?" Is it any wonder that more and more people are looking for a guide to take them through this labyrinth? That's my job. So lets start our journey and answer the question: How do you find a good quality auto repair facility?

First of all, you should start shopping for a repair facility before you need one. Why? Because making a sound decision is more difficult when you are faced with a broken down vehicle that transports your family and gets you to work. Intelligent decisions are made after evaluating the facts. Emergencies create an emotional environment that thwarts clear and decisive action.

Call local repair shops in your area and ask them what professional automotive repair associations they belong to. Membership in such associations as: 'NAPA Autocare,' 'ASP,' 'Parts Plus,' 'AAA,' or 'TechNet' means the shop has met the standards of membership. For instance, to become a AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility, a shop must undergo a rigorous investigation. In addition to having state-of-the-art equipment, training, qualified technicians, and information systems in place, the shop must score high with its customers. AAA contacts about 100 of the shop's most recent customers and conducts a CSI (Consumer Satisfaction Index) study. They ask the customers such questions as:

· Was the estimate accurate compared to the actual bill?

· Was the job done on time?

· Did they fix it right the first time?

· What kind of warranty did they give you?

· Was the shop clean and presentable?

· Did they offer a ride to work or somewhere you needed to go?

· Was there a comfortable, pleasant, and clean waiting area?

If the repair facility passes the test, it can hang the "AAA Approved" shingle. As you can see, membership in associations such as this is a significant qualifier when evaluating a facility.

Visit the shop(s) you're interested in. Is it clean and orderly? Or does it look like it ought to be condemned by the health department? Ask their customers, "Why do you do business with this shop?" Answers such as: "They are the cheapest." "They offer a lot of specials." "Because the owner is a friend of my father's." ... don't have much credibility. Look for such responses as: "They fix my car right the first time." "I can trust them to do the job at a fair price." "They welcome my questions and concerns and take the time to answer them." "There are never any surprises when I come to pick up the car." "They explain in plain English what the problem is and what my options are ... patiently." Good "word of mouth" like this is a great qualifier.

While at the facility, look for certifications displayed on the wall. If they have none, ask to see their qualifications. This will tell you a lot about the facility. What shingles and certifications should you look for?

· Do the technicians have certification from ASE, Delco, ASP, and/or manufacturers such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, etc.?

· Do they have after market training from such leaders as NAPA/Echlin, Moog, Carquest, TRW, or Bendix?

· How about continued education from a technical training course or college?

These shingles are evidence that the technicians have taken the initiative to "go beyond the call of duty" and keep up with changes in their field. Not only are they trained in the latest technology, but also they show a serious interest and pride in their work. They know how to fix your car. Continued education/certifications also convey that the owner of the shop cares about the quality of the work, because usually he is the one who foots the bill for extended training.

In addition, look for membership in such associations as the BBB (Better Business Bureau), SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers), ATEA (Automotive Technology and Energy Association), ASP (Automotive Service Professionals), ICAR (Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair), and ASE (The Institute for Automotive Service Excellence). Involvement in these organizations tells you that the owner of the repair facility cares about the quality of the workmanship, and most likely operates by a code of ethics as required by the organization. In addition, membership in these associations usually requires that the shop subject itself to an arbitration process that is binding, should the need for arbitration between customer and shop arise.

Another factor to consider when choosing a repair facility is the equipment. Does the shop have state-of-the-art equipment such as hand held computer scanners and diagnosis software, digital volt-ohm meters, logic probes, lab scopes, and on-line computer systems like CAS, Alldata, or Mitchell-On-Demand? Don't be afraid to ask the shop if they have this equipment. These systems and tools are necessary to diagnose and repair your hi-tech car accurately. Without them, fixing your automobile is a hit-and-miss proposition.

Sometimes it's best to take your car to a specialist. Specialists cost more money initially. But because they are specialists, they often know how to pinpoint and repair certain types of problems more efficiently and effectively. Why? Because they deal with these problems every day; thus they have the knowledge, equipment, and information systems necessary to go directly to the problem. While "Joe down the street" is busy replacing parts and floundering, the specialist usually diagnoses with laser-like accuracy, locates the problem and replaces only what is necessary. Consequently, less guesswork and fewer parts are being replaced, saving you money. Don't be "penny wise and pound foolish." The cost of diagnosis is often far less than the cost of the trial and error method when repairing today's hi-tech vehicles.

Common areas of automotive specialties:

· Transmission and Drivetrain

· Computer, Drivability, and Electrical

· Collision Repair

· Foreign Car Repair

· HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning)

· Radiator Repair & Cooling System Repair

A note about shop size: Some people think that because a shop is either smaller or larger, the price will vary greatly. That's not true these days. With the high cost of equipment, training, and information systems, prices between dealers, large independent shops and small independent shops are balancing out. As a matter of fact, in a lot of cases I've seen the larger entities (dealers and larger repair facilities) actually offer more competitive pricing compared to the 'little guys.' If the criteria we have discussed are in place, and the quality of the parts and warranties are equal, probably the pricing will be close. At that point, it's just a matter of whom you feel most comfortable with.

The next issue that arises when selecting a repair shop is the price. Let's say that you do know that your car needs the shock absorbers and struts replaced. You call around to four places and (assuming you car is not an exotic) you get a price for the job over the phone. For the sake of argument, let's say that you get prices of $200, $215, $195, and $129.95. Wow! Why such a difference between the first three and the last?! Whenever you run across a drastic price difference, find out:

· How do the warranties compare?

· How does the workmanship and quality of the parts compare?

· Does the shop have the equipment and training to do the job?

· Does the shop employ qualified technicians?

Remember ... you get what you pay for. That is a fundamental law of business, as rock solid as the law of gravity. Make sure you know why the differences exist; only then are you ready to make an informed decision on repairs.

Finally, I'd like to comment on the importance of building relationships. When customers and repair shops take the time to build relationships over a cup of coffee, watching families grow up, exchanging gifts during the holidays, or perhaps sharing the loss of a mutual acquaintance ... trust and mutual respect grow. Now when the customer calls with a problem, the shop responds to the needs, even though they may have a full workload for that day or week. Or, perhaps the customer has a car that needs major work. The shop then becomes an advisor to the customer, suggesting the best repair options based on the customer's need, budget, and the condition of the car. When it comes time to buy a car, the shop will check the vehicle out for the customer and evaluate its integrity. Don't float around trying to find the 'best deal!' The 'best deal' is found in competent auto repair! Deal shopping is shortsighted and ultimately the most costly way to do car repair business. I strongly urge you to find a high quality repair shop, where you are able to reap the rewards of a good working relationship. It will be like coming in out of a driving rain where you are safe and secure, knowing that your best interest is at heart. I like doing business that way. I'm sure you do too.

'Til next time...Keep Rollin'

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