Answer: before you need one.
Because making a sound decision is difficult when you are faced with a car problem and time restraints, finding a shop takes time and patience; you want to research and evaluate the facts in a relaxed fashion. Emergencies create an emotional climate that thwarts a clear and objective evaluation. So find a repair facility before you need one.
The Prime Time To Visit A Shop
The process of evaluating repair shops is really quite simple. Call or visit shops in your area. The best time to call or visit is between 9A – noon because it is after the morning rush and cars are in the bays being evaluated. By noon the techs have completed their diagnoses, come up with an estimate of repairs, and customers are being called to discuss the necessary repair work. Thus, 9A – noon is lag time for the owner/shop manager and the best time to talk with them. Catch them any other time and you might find them curt.
Once you have the owner/shop manager's undivided attention, tell them you are looking for a repair shop. Ask them what professional automotive repair associations they belong to. Membership in associations such as AAA (AAA Approved Auto Repair), iATN (International Auto Technicians Association), ASA (Automotive Service Association), or TechNet (Carquest Technician's Network) means the shop and/or technicians care about their level of expertise and have met the standards of membership. In addition, look for membership in such associations as the BBB ( Better Business Bureau), SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers), ASP (Automotive Service Professionals), and ICAR (Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair).
Involvement in these organizations tells you that the owner of the repair facility is interested in the quality of the workmanship, and most likely operates by a code of ethics expected by the organization. In addition, membership in these associations often requires that the shop subject itself to an arbitration process that is binding, should the need for arbitration between customer and shop arise.
To further make this point, consider the following: To become an "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 roughly 100 of the shop's most recent customers and conducts a CSI (Consumer Satisfaction Index) study (the number varies from club to club but it represents a significant number of the shop's most recent customer base). They ask the customers questions such as:
- Was the estimated bill the same or close 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 meets their standards, it is granted membership and they can hang the "AAA Approved" shingle. As you can see, membership in such an associations is a significant qualifier when evaluating a facility.
Use Your Time Wisely
While visiting the shop(s) you're interested in, note whether they are clean and orderly (or do they look like they ought to be condemned by the health department).
If there are customers there, be bold and ask them questions, such as, "Why do you do business with this shop?"
Some answers don't hold much credibility, such as: "They are the cheapest." "They offer a lot of specials." "Because the owner is a friend of my father's."
Look for responses such as: "They fix my car right the first time." "I can trust them to do the job at a fair price." "No surprises when I pick up the car." "The price is always what we agree on." "They welcome my questions and concerns and take the time to answer them." "They explain in plain English what the problem is and what my options are... patiently." "Their technicians are the best in the area." Good "word of mouth" is a great qualifier.
While at the facility, look for technician certifications displayed on the wall. If the walls are bare, ask to see the techs' certifications. This will tell you a lot about the people that work at the facility. What shingles and certifications should you look for?
- Certification from ASE, ACDelco, ASP, and/or manufacturers such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan
- Aftermarket training from such leaders as NAPA/Echlin, Moog, Carquest, TRW, ACDelco, or Bendix
- Continued education from a technical training 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 they also show a serious interest and pride in their work. Continued education/certifications also convey that the owner of the shop cares about the quality of the work because usually he/she is the one who foots the bill for any extended training.
Another factor to consider when choosing a repair facility is the equipment and repair information systems available. Does the shop have state-of-the-art equipment such as hand-held computer scanners and diagnostic software, digital volt-ohm meters, logic probes, lab scopes, and on-line repair information systems like Alldata, or Mitchell-On-Demand? Don't be afraid to ask if they have these resources. Up-to-date information 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 that you pay dearly for, in both dollars and vehicle down time.
Size Matters, To A Degree
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 and large or small independent shops have balanced out. As a matter of fact, in a lot of cases we've seen the larger entities (dealers and larger repair facilities) actually offer more competitive pricing than the 'little guys' in an effort to gain more retail customer business. If the criteria we have discussed are in place, and the quality of the parts and warranties are equal, most likely the pricing will be close. At that point, it's just a matter of where you feel most comfortable.
Use The Internet As One Data Point
A quick and dirty way to narrow your field is the internet. While some of the more general sites such as Yelp and Angie's List provide a lot of feedback, often you'll find you'll get a skewed sense of a shop from feedback that isn't entirely helpful. RepairPal offers a leg up on those general review sites since it's automotive focused.
The best recommendation is to use these review sites as a strong starting point. But then do you own research. If you can identify a good repair shop before you need it, you'll be in the best position to get your car back and on the road safely and to your liking.