Next to a home, automotive vehicles represent the largest expenditure for most consumers. Keeping those vehicles well-maintained and, when necessary, properly repaired can ensure many years of reliable service.
Types of Auto Service Centers
Dealerships. The service centers of new car dealerships provide warranty service and repairs for the models the dealership sells. (Some dealerships may also service other make vehicles.) Positive reasons for choosing a dealership may include: they should be thoroughly familiar with your vehicle, they should offer factory-trained technicians, and original factory (OEM) parts are usually quickly available. Repairs under warranty must usually be performed by an authorized dealership. Most dealerships offer decent guarantees on parts and labor. On average, however, dealerships tend to charge a bit more than other types of service centers.
Independent service centers. In surveys of several types of work (brake, muffler, oil change) conducted by Consumer Reports, consumers rated "best" independent service centers offering a full range of repair and maintenance services. An independent service center that offers experienced, well-trained mechanics working in an up-to-date shop, that has experience in working on your make vehicle, and that stands behind its work can deliver excellent service. Establishing a long-term relationship with a shop and mechanic that know your vehicle and take pride in their work can prove ideal. But the category of independent service shops also provides cover for the fly-by-night, incompetent and dishonest operators.
Specialty shops. Specialty service centers are those that focus on one aspect of automotive service, such as brakes, mufflers, transmissions, oil changes, and the like. Some are regional or national chains and others are independent. Many consumers find such specialized service convenient and reliable. Others like the "lifetime guarantees" that seem to be a common stock-in-trade of such chains. Several cautions apply, however: Consumers should be sure that technicians are trained and certified. Beware of shops that try to sell services or repairs that the vehicle doesn't need or that are outside their specialty. Read the small print on the "lifetime guarantee"—in many instances, it covers only the part(s) and the consumer must pay for labor each time the part (which may be of lower quality) needs replacing.
Tips for Finding a Good Service Center
Using the following tips to check out any type of service center can help you select a shop qualified to meet your needs.
Start with recommendations. Ask friends, neighbors, and coworkers for recommendations of service centers at which they've gotten good service. Ask them why they felt it was satisfactory, what they liked best about the shop and service technicians. You might also look at web sites that rate service centers or provide a consumer forum (enter "evaluating auto service centers" in your search engine), although Money Matters reminds you to use commonsense when judging the usefulness of the site. Before paying a visit to any recommended shop you like, check it out with the local Better Business Bureau and with local and state consumer affairs agencies.
Select shops that are properly licensed and have well-trained experienced technicians. Don't choose a shop just because it's the most convenient. The quality of the technicians that work on your car generally determine the quality of the repair. Look for ASE certification (from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence), indication that the shop offers "AAA Approved Auto Repair" or other evidence of training. Ask if the shop has experience working on your make and model vehicle. Determine if they are familiar with the type service or repair you need.
Check the shop out in person before you need it. If a service center passes your initial checks, visit it. Make an appointment for some minor maintenance service, such as an oil change, if you like. Does your experience provide satisfactory answers to the following questions?
- Is the shop clean and orderly, particularly in the service bay areas? Fancy isn't important, but professional is.
- Is the service manager or intake person courteous and willing to answer questions and otherwise communicate well with you as the customer?
- Does the service center have written policies about how labor is charged, about refunds, and about warranties, guarantees and "comebacks"?
- Does the service center provide written estimates? Do they explain their diagnosis fully and allow you to talk with the technician if you request it?
- Does the service center provide an itemized bill and return used, replaced parts to the customer if requested?
Don't hesitate to ask the service manager or mechanic any questions or to communicate any concerns you have during the repair process. A repair shop that cares about its customers will keep those customers informed as necessary during the repair. If unexpected problems are uncovered during the routine maintenance or contracted repair, the service personnel will explain fully, be happy to answer questions and will work with you to find solutions. If the nature of the problem is unclear, a good shop will fully explain the diagnostic process, the probability of the potential problems, and the options for addressing those problems. If you are unsatisfied with how the shop handles any of these aspects, look for another service center.
A good service center stands behind their work. In addition to having a written policy for the warranty on their repairs, a good service center will request that you bring the vehicle right back if the diagnosed repair did not correct the problem. They will happily work to pursue the problem further and get the job finished.