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The commoditization of auto repair

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 09:00
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The other day I was standing in line waiting at a parts store to pick up an order. I had the opportunity to hear two conversations from parts counter salespeople that I wanted to share with you. It doesn’t matter which parts store because this is not a unique conversation that happens infrequently.

The first conversation began with a salesperson – not parts professional – selling a “tune up” for a 1996 Taurus with a 3.0-liter engine. There were so many errors in the dialog that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. There are two 3.0-liter engines in that year – Taurus plus a flex fuel option and they do not share ignition parts except a spark plug. The salesperson never asked so a return was going to occur.

More disturbing to me is that rather than telling the customer, who clearly had no idea what he was doing, this is the correct spark plug that came in your engine he took the approach that makes technicians all over the country cringe. I have the NGK for $4.87, or the Denso at $5, or the Autolite for $3.26 or the Bosch Platinum on special for $1.99. The guy bought the Bosch, which is the wrong plug for that particular engine.

Now I am not saying anything negative about my friends at Bosch. This is a straight up merchandising problem. Bosch built this plug years ago to solve a problem with a particular Porsche engine. It doesn’t work in a late model fuel-injected engines and causes misfires. They make a plug that will work in this engine but the point I am trying to make is that the salesperson is short changing both the business he works for and his customer by selling on price instead of taking the time to read what actually goes in this car.

Since I know some of you will check on me, Ford wants double platinum spark plugs in all of the 3.0 liters that year. So in summary, wrong part, wrong information, return imminent, P030x misfire imminent, loss of revenue and potentially loss of a customer.

Problem number two I observed was another salesperson – not a parts professional either – who had a customer on the phone and was diagnosing myriad issues over the phone and looking up prices for parts to repair his diagnosis. The vehicle – a late model Toyota pickup – would not start on cold days.

Having asked zero qualifying questions our hero was going to sell the guy a throttle position sensor, a fuel filter, injector cleaner, a fuel pump (if all else failed), a new cap and rotor. I was in line for 20 minutes to pick up a will call order so I got to listen to this inane diagnostic debacle the entire time because Johnny technician, who did not make a sale, was on the phone that whole time.

His contribution to the situation is that he confused and disoriented a customer rather than recommending the professional help they needed. When he completed his call he called my number. I politely asked him what technical school he attended and he informed me that he was self-taught. I told him I thought so.

This is what I call the commoditization of auto repair. $25 oil changes with the wrong products, $1.99 spark plugs designed for different vehicles. Free and useless advice from people who cannot possibly be doing their job the way their company trained them to do it.

The average car buyer is spending about $25,000 when they buy a car these days. Things have changed boys and girls. We cannot treat cars like it is 1970 anymore. What you believed was true then was based on even older technology. Universal is a lie. Cars and trucks are built at a level that requires we treat them as individual products with specific requirements.

Customers price shop because they don’t know any better questions to ask you than “how much.” Why don’t more technicians and parts professionals read the amazing articles that my peers write to help them be better at their job? I don’t know. What I do know is that clear back in the 1970s our industry was in trouble for misleading customers. It was not fraud. It was incompetence.

Many great men and women have worked their tails off to raise the level of our profession from the image of those days to that of skilled technical professionals. We owe it to them to be completely prepared for the job we do and to know what our limits are.

We owe that even more to our customers because they don’t know what they don’t know and they think that the service of their second biggest investment is a commodity. What are we doing to help them to understand thinking like that results in financial disaster to them? Now I’ll slide my soap box back under my desk and thank you for your consideration.

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