Why the dealership service department sucks
William Shakespeare would have said the service department at a new car dealership is the winter of a car owner’s discontent. (If he’d had a car, which, pretty clearly, he did not.)
That's a roundabout way of introducing a new chapter in my ongoing jihad on bullshit: The top 10 reasons why dealership service departments are just such breathtaking arseholes.
1 It's where the brand betrays you
The car industry is mentally retarded about your relationship with them. You fall in love somewhere ‘out there’ - on automotivematchmaker.com. Whatever. You consummate your relationship right there on the showroom floor, in front of the salesman (which sounds reasonably tacky, but hey … it’s either there or in the car park out the back). But when you break up it’s always in the service department. This is invariably where you say ‘it’s over, and it’s not me, it’s you’.
Because that’s where the car finally comes clean and admits it’s being doing it behind your back, with your best friend, in your bed, with tremendous enthusiasm and great stamina, on just about every day ending in ‘Y’ last month.
The service department is intrinsically where the brand’s betrayal of you crystallises and precipitates out, after which the relationship takes off on an exciting new tangent. I can tell you that betrayal of this magnitude is something of a tipping point. Women, in particular, fail to see any humour in it. You’re buying the pyjamas with the kevlar inserts after that. The point being, relationships with carmakers get broken - a lot - because of poor experiences in the service department.
The mentally retarded part is: the easiest person on earth to sell a car to is the one who’s extremely happy with the car he or she already owns. (This is why it’s so hard to sell people a second Jeep, Volkswagen, Ford or Holden.) But people who are happy with their Mazda3s, with their Corollas - whatever - often don’t even shop around.
So keeping people happy in the service department makes sense, but needs more work. Isn’t it perverse that car dealers don’t perform all kinds of customer-centric stunts trying to keep you happy? Instead, the entire car industry sinks millions into the acquisition of new customers, and often existing customers are seen as an inconvenience. Which brings us to...
2 Profit margins on new cars are shrinking
Profit margins on new cars are making like a catwalk model in the lead-up to Fashion Week. (Lettuce. Vomit. Lettuce. Vomit. Repeat. Getting anorexic.) And because car dealers don’t want to start eating cat food instead of fois gras any more than your average pensioner does, this puts other business units within the dealership are under even more pressure.
This means more profit is expected of the parts and service business than ever before. Which is good for them and bad for you (and bad for them in the long term too) because of this next point.
3 It’s so easy to rip you off
It is. It’s really easy. So easy it’s a standard practise in some dealerships. This next part of the report is inspired by a bloke in Western Australia named David, who discovered that his nearly 80-year-old dad was being ripped off by a major multi-franchised new car dealer in Perth: John Hughes.
[Just to be clear, in all references to this business I am talking about the company, not the man himself or the employees as individuals.]
What a pack of unprincipled shitbags. [In my honest personal opinion - the company, not the individuals.]
I’ve seen the documents supporting David’s dad’s plight, and this arsehole dealership had apparently charged dear old dad - in addition to the allegedly capped price servicing - an extra $700-plus bucks for three throttle body services, five quote-unquote ‘emissions services’ (whatever the bloody hell that is) and injector cleaning.
All of it categorically unnecessary.
This is over several allegedly standard services. And dad … he just paid. Wanted to do the right thing. This is a little old man, driving a little old man’s car. It’s done only 48,000 kilometres of - presumably - septuagenarian driving.
So I have this little off-the-record chat with the parent car company about those cockhead dealership practises, which was interesting. I think the brand in question was somewhat cheesed off. But what happened next says a lot. My understanding, from the documents, is that the dealership’s position went from ‘bugger off’, a propos of a refund, to, quote (right):
I would so love to have been a fly on the wall for that cascade of corporate arse-kicking. Most days, you know, I kinda like my job, but some days I bloody well love it. And that was absolutely one of those ‘I love my job’ days. A victory for the good guys.
But it would be lame to suggest a war against dealership rip-offs had been won. This was just one minor skirmish.
See another classic service department rip-off >>
Another key reason the service department seems like such a pack of uncaring arseholes is that they’ve seen it all before. The car’s been back 20 times. They still haven’t fixed it. This is a new experience for you. It’s kinda raw and emotional. But to the service department - been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
They have seen this crap before - the tantrums, the threats: Fair trading, the Civil & Administrative Tribunal, the tears, the threats. (Third time before lunch, if you’re a Jeep dealer.) You really care when your car lets you down. This is a big deal for you. It’s not even nearly a record for the dealer.
It’s like this: you’re walking down the road … all good … then your leg falls off. The ambo races you to hospital. In this situation you want Marcus Welby MD sprinting out, with a dozen nurses (all hot) - and you want that frigging leg bolted back on ASAP, so you can do walking again, right? Well, the exact opposite happens in the service department.
It’s like ‘Yeah - you again? Take a number’. On the showroom floor, that Grand Cherokee is awesome. The SUV Jack Bauer would drive. When it gets towed to the service department, three times, it’s just another Jeep that’s shat itself. They see that all the time. It’s not even curious. Business as usual.
Part of this is human nature. There’s a systematic imbalance between happiness and unhappiness as an emotional motivator.
Here's how it works: you meet a nice girl, she says ‘yes’ to a coffee. (Because you don’t look like a serial killer. Yet.) And you proceed through the … let’s be kind … complex mating ritual.
If you tick every box - charming, funny, pick up the tab, hold the door, don’t mention that your hobby is collecting human ears (because there’s time for that later). You kick every first-date goal, and the most you can hope for is an agreement in principle, the firm possibility of a definite maybe, for a dinner engagement at an unspecified time in the future.
But if you do all that - and you give her arse a nice companionable squeeze as a parting gesture, she’s probably going to slap you and/or knee you in the balls, and/or call the cops.
The point being: dissatisfaction is a stronger emotional motivator than satisfaction. Much stronger. With cars, satisfaction is expected. It’s almost a neutral ownership state. But dissatisfaction is a red-hot poker - headed ‘downstairs’.
A couple of months ago I reported on Joe and Kate Masters, a young couple so dissatisfied with their shitbox Dodge, they did this:
That’s pretty much a knee in the nuts to the world’s most unchivalrous arse grope, metaphorically. See Joe & Kate's full story >>
In contrast, you never - never - see a satisfied owner commission a skywriter to proclaim one’s satisfaction with a particular car. Anyone who did such a thing would be a candidate for acute psychiatric care.
So, dealerships need to acknowledge and compensate for this fundamental asymmetry of human emotional bandwidth. And more than anything else, what needs to occur is that if you present at a service department with a problem, you need to be taken seriously, and effective action needs to occur.
A problem on it’s own is not too bad. Cars are complex things. Complexity is the enemy of reliability. Fair enough. But how you get dealt with is a relationship choke point. Not nearly enough service departments take customers’ problems seriously enough - they’re seeing it through their own eyes, not the customer’s. It’s a grope on the arse on the first date.
5 The elastic interpretation of warranty
Arguing the toss over warranty is a classic deal breaker. Warranty doesn’t cover wear and tear. It does not cover abuse. But it does cover just about everything else. And still, service departments argue the toss.
If it’s a warranty job, the parent car company signs off on it. They send the dealer the parts, the service department fits them, does the repair, and the dealer sends the car company a bill for the labour. The dealer has a negotiated low-tier labour rate agreed with the carmaker. So there’s really not that much profit in a warranty repair for the dealer.
But if the dealer can convince you it’s not a warranty job, he gets to charge you a higher labour rate for the job, and also mark up the parts by his customary 10 billion per cent.
If the dealership convinces you it's not a warranty job, there's a lot more profit in it for them. This is a massive conflict of interest.
See also: How to slash service cost without killing new car warranty >>
6 The great 21st Century diagnosis dumb-down
Service departments are getting a lot dumber. Perhaps you’ve got this problem. The car blows smoke intermittently. It stalls intermittently. Whatever. You bring it in. They plug their computer into the onboard diagnostics port, run a scan. The scan comes back negative.
Often, this is as far as the investigation goes.
So you pick the car up. They tell you ‘it’s all good, no problem’ and you drive home. (And remember, it’s a pain in the arse to bring the car in and then come back to collect it.) You get five minutes down the road and it stalls, blows smoke, does the St Vitus dance … whatever. That’s a first-date grope on the arse right there, too.
This situation reminds me of the old pseudoscience headline: ‘According to aerodynamic theory, bumblebees cannot fly’. Obviously, then, it’s the theory is somewhat rooted - because the bees appear not to be walking from flower to flower. Just because the car hasn’t logged a fault in its computer system doesn’t mean there’s no problem.
Treating your complaint in this way - all good; no problem - insults your intelligence. You live with that car every day. There’s a good chance you know if there’s a problem. Clearly there is a problem - and they need to diagnose it. You know, the old-fashioned way - using critical thought, training and investigation.
If there’s no fault logged, that’s a starting point for further investigation, not the end - and so many dealerships treat it like the end.
7 Training cost
Dealerships pay to send their technicians to carmaker technical training - and lots of dealers don’t invest enough in technical training. Dealers are multi-franchised, too, generally, so a lot of service departments service more than one brand - and the big brands that make a profit get more money spent resourcing them.
And that means if you buy a niche brand with low sales volumes - a special hello to Peugeot, Volvo, Renault, Citroen, Alfa Romeo, Dodge, Fiat, and Skoda (among others, in Australia) - then you can expect a fairly shit level of technical and logistic support.
This is simply because there’s no critical mass to underpin an investment in technical training and logistics.
8 Dealerships consider you a captive audience
Of course, a lot of dealerships consider you a captive customer. After all, you bought the car there, right? Where else are you going to get it serviced?
Answer: Anywhere you frigging want.
Every car dealership is keen to service your car. There’s nothing wrong with shopping around.
If I were you I’d be buying the car wherever you can for the lowest possible price, and I’d be servicing it that way as well (within the limits of geographic convenience). Servicing makes dealers money. Therefore, you are doing any dealer a favour by getting the car serviced with them - not the other way around.
The notion that you need to get the car serviced where you bought it, or that if you attempt to get it serviced at another dealer they will treat you like a second-class citizen is common enough, but it's dead wrong. There’s nothing Car Dealer A would like more than to acquire some of Car Dealer B’s servicing clientele.
But Car Dealer A wants you to think you need to get it serviced with him. And if you think that, then he’s got you over a barrel. And that jacks up the price. Of course, if you buy one of those niche brands I just mentioned, it’s harder to shop around for service because competing dealerships are a lot further afield. You should always shop around for service.
Should you opt-in for an extended warranty? >>
9 You can't talk to the tech
One of the things that shits me - profoundly - at dealership service departments is that you never get to talk to the actual technician who has had his hands on your car. I hate that. Instead, some concierge with manicured nails reads off a computer screen what was done to your car.
It’s just not the same.
When I use my local bloke - Stig with a spanner - I talk to him. He goes: ‘Mate, I know how you drive. The front brakes are probably good for another 5000 kays. Bring it back in three months, and budget about X, or (X+Y) if we need to change the rotors. This is useful intel - and a dealership doesn’t do it.
At a dealership you pay higher prices for a lower level of service. That kinda sucks.
10 Carrying the can
This is the only thing I’m going to give them a pass on. And you should, too. Mistakes get made all the time, designing and building cars. Ultimately, the poor bastard at the coalface of interacting with you, the customer, over everyone else’s R&D mistakes is the service guy.
100 million Takata airbags need recalling. Takata buggered this up, big time. How many service managers do you suppose have been royally abused by now because Takata just cannot magic up a lazy 100 million replacement airbags immediately? Probably quite the tsunami of abuse over the counter, don’t you think? Nature of the beast.
I know this is part of the job - it’s their lot in life to pick up these pieces. As far as the flow-chart is concerned, these are problems they did not cause. A lot of people vent their dissatisfaction at at high volume to that poor bastard over the counter who, often, is actually just trying to help, and not responsible for the creation of the problem. And for this alone, I think you should cut the service department some slack.
Except for that rip-off merchant in Western Australia I won’t name: John Hughes. (The company, not the individual.) That business deserves no benefit of the doubt whatsoever, in my view. A textbook example of why most people think car dealers - and especially service departments - are nothing more than arsehole rip-off merchants.