"We couldn't replicate the problem."
Sound familiar? There are few things more frustrating than spending time and money to fix a car problem, only to have the issue persist or reoccur. You're not stuck, though. Most car problems can be resolved by a combination of diplomacy and perseverance, and here is a plan of attack.
Throughout the process of resolving your car's problem, keep all paperwork from your visits to the auto repair shop, making sure that the work performed and amount paid are documented clearly.
Communication Is Critical
Before accusing an auto repair shop of botching the job, it's important to ask if you properly communicated the specific nature of the problem to the service personnel before they started troubleshooting your car's problem.
"The key element to tracking down a problem is effective communication between the motorist and the repair facility," says Tom Torbjornsen, host of America's Car Show, a syndicated radio program. "The service department needs to understand when the problem occurs: under load, turning right or left, under a full moon, whatever," Torbjornsen says.
Have a service advisor or technician take a ride with you to try to duplicate the noise or behavior. That way there will be no question about what the mechanic is trying to address. If you didn't do this at the first visit, definitely do so on the second try.
David Arne, channel marketing manager for Ford Customer Service Division (FCSD), feels that good communication can also prevent you from wasting time and money on imaginary problems. "Customers used to bring cars back all the time because of what they thought was a brake problem, and it was just the ABS brakes, which pulse," he says. "Sometimes the issue isn't really there." Better to eliminate such possibilities at the start rather than be told later that nothing is wrong.
Ask what the guarantee is on the parts and labor before beginning work. The answer will vary depending on the type of shop you use (dealer vs. independent) or parts installed (original, original-rebuilt or aftermarket. This will prevent surprises if the fix doesn't "stick" with time and driving.
Work the Dealership's Chain of Command
If your car's problem isn't resolved when you pick it up after the first visit, or it reappears soon after (like the notorious "Check Engine" light that keeps appearing), it's time to escalate the issue to the next level.
Start by speaking with the service advisor who originally helped you, or the shop foreman. Ask to get a second opinion from within the shop. He may then ask a technician with more specialized experience to troubleshoot your car problem. Because dealer service department personnel get paid bonuses based on customer satisfaction surveys, they will likely pay a lot of attention to your problem at this point.
If the car isn't fixed the second time round, it's time to go up the chain and explain the issue to the parts and service manager. The manager should double-check that your model isn't subject to any technical service bulletins and make sure that a certified technician is using the latest diagnostic tools on your vehicle.
Problems seldom need to go beyond the service manager, but if he or she still can't resolve your car's problem to your satisfaction, ask to speak to the general manager of the dealership, followed by the dealership owner. Let them know — tactfully — that if there isn't a satisfactory resolution, you'll have to report it to the Better Business Bureau and the automaker.
After two unsuccessful attempts to fix your car, insist on an ASE-certified master technician. After three attempts, if the car is still under factory warranty, read "Getting Some Lemon-Aid From Your Lemon Maker."
Get Help From the Automaker
An automaker's goal is always to develop loyal customers, so it provides its dealers with tools for problem cases: tools that most customers are unaware of. Ford's Arne encourages the customer to be forthright and ask that all possible manufacturer resources be brought to bear.
"Ask the dealership's shop foreman or service manager if they're fully engaging all the resources of the manufacturer," he says. "The dealer can call the manufacturer hotline for help, and we'll also dispatch field service engineers, if necessary."
If all else fails, contact the automaker directly. Detail everything that has transpired to date and include copies of all paperwork. Describe what you'd like to see done. Do you want the installation of new parts? Do you want a refund? Specify the action and by what date.
If there isn't a response within a reasonable period of time, consider going to your state's small claims court. It's relatively easy and inexpensive, and it always gets a response.
Solutions for Used Cars
Just like everything else, cars always seem to develop problems just after the factory warranty has expired. These vehicles can still be eligible for "after warranty assistance," also known as a "goodwill adjustment." In this scenario, a dealer service manager enlists a manufacturer service representative to judge the situation. In order to resolve the problem and keep your loyalty, the rep may decide to have the automaker share in the cost of repairs.
Factors that the automaker considers in making a goodwill adjustment include how well the customer has maintained the car and the customer's loyalty to the dealership or brand. Not all automakers offer this assistance, but it's certainly worthwhile to ask for it.
What About Independent Auto Repair Shops?
Once a car's factory warranty has expired, consumers are far more likely to give independent repair shops a try. But if you get the feeling that the auto repair shop is less than honest, follow your instinct to get a second opinion. You risk losing the money you've already spent on your initial diagnosis, but it may prevent you from throwing more money at a mechanic who can't really help you, but won't admit defeat.
Choose an independent repair shop approved by the Automobile Association of America (AAA) or the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Both require approved dealerships to commit to an ethical code of conduct and to submit to a binding arbitration process in the event of a customer dispute, according to Torbjornsen.
They're Not the Bad Guys
While horror stories abound concerning cars that spent weeks in the shop and cost many hundreds of dollars in botched repairs, the truth is that most auto repair shop personnel are trying to make an honest living and want to do quality work. As frustrating as the situation may be, refrain from losing your cool and taking it out on the service staff, or you might end up with more problems in your car than you started with. Patient, polite, but persistent, customers are far more likely to get a favorable outcome.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.