Bait and Switch: Car Dealers Have to Improve the Service Experience

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 08, 2019

Car dealers are under a lot of pressure. Servicing and selling parts represents 50 percent of a typical showroom’s income, yet the public perceives independent garages as better bets—cheaper and more honest.

As I wrote in a recent New York Times story, dealers have taken to sprucing up their waiting rooms with amenities, ranging from massage tables and screening rooms to cafés and putting greens. But that’s just cosmetic—loyalty is based on the whole transaction, and people have to feel they’re being treated fairly. That means the whole dealer experience has to be better.

The dealer service experience needs to get better. (Christopher Ziemnowicz/Wikipedia)

One of the problems is “upselling,” which I’ve noticed is particularly bad at both dealers and chain service outlets (quick oil change, for instance). Come in to swap out that 30-weight, and within minutes they’re showing you a “filthy” air filter and telling you that your tires need to be balanced and your fluids flushed. C’mon, air filters always look dirty, and people are very susceptible to being told they’re not being conscientious car custodians.

I also hate to see line items for “checking” something. What does that mean? Looking at it? I can read a dipstick on my own. And the prices for “genuine” parts often seem outrageous. (I say this knowing the importance of avoiding cheap, Chinese-made parts.)

Mr. Goodwrench? (Honda photo)

Other service fast ones, according to Popular Mechanics, include charging for “shop supplies,” i.e., stuff like the shop rags the mechanics use to wipe their hands. One dealer billed a customer $30 for three such rags. “For that price, I can buy 20 rolls of shop towels at Auto Zone,” the magazine said.

The article also recommends getting your car serviced on Monday mornings, because on Friday afternoons “the service department is trying to push out as many vehicles as possible.”

My brother's ailing Honda Odyssey. It runs, but no tunes! (Nancy Graham photo)

Here’s an example from personal experience. I actually have an identical twin brother. Yes, there are two of us! He lives in Florida and is not a car nut. He wanted something that can haul a lot of boxes, since he’s an antique book dealer. I helped find him a low-mileage Honda Odyssey. So far so good, but the CD player stopped working.

If you’re under 40, you probably haven’t bought a CD in years. Music in the car means plugging in your phone. I recently gave a 35-year-old friend some music I wanted him to hear—on CD. He looked at it, puzzled. “I wouldn’t know how to play this,” he said. OK, but it was important to my brother. I’ll let him take up the tale from here:

Although I have been a Honda driver for decades, I have never taken any of my cars to a Honda dealer for servicing. Why? Because I knew that the service would be indifferent or worse and that it would cost a LOT more than my local car guy, Buddy, who is insanely honest.

The broken CD player. They charged $50 to "look at it." (Nancy Graham photo)

But, the other day, I broke this longtime rule, because my CD player stopped working. I drive a lot, and I want my tunes to continue. So, I reluctantly made an appointment at my local Honda dealer, figuring they would have replacement parts at least. When I got there, I noticed the assembly line of 40 or 50 cars being “serviced.” I was also struck by all the “amenities” on offer, including popcorn, hot coffee, and even a museum exhibit—an early Accord. I had time to try out the perks, because I waited more than two hours for word from the service department. When it came, it was disappointing in the extreme.

The “customer service representative” I was dealing with proceeded to tell me that the CD player was “broken.” But he would be happy to sell me a “reconditioned” replacement for almost $400. He said they had only checked to see if the broken one was getting power, which was ridiculous as the radio still worked and it is a single unit.

As the Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) warning light was on, I had asked them to look at that. I was told they didn’t know why the light was on. The service guy next tried to sell me a plethora of items, including windshield wipers, all kinds of air filters, a long list. I was polite when dismissing all of it, even when they presented me with a $50 bill for doing absolutely nothing but gathering data on me for later sales and marketing come-ons.

They never even looked at my unit, and didn't have the expertise or the parts to fix it anyway. The whole mess was so cynical. Why even accept servicing for something you can’t fix? The stereo has gone bad on every Honda I have ever owned (five or six of them, including Acuras). This used to be called planned obsolescence. Rather than actually servicing their sound systems, Honda forces the driver to buy a used one—a $400 “reconditioned” part built from some other poor sap’s dead radio. It was sold twice!

By the next day, the dealer was already sending me email. One of them contained a request for feedback on the service call. Naturally, I unloaded on them and, perhaps uniquely, they gave me my $50 back. My conclusion: Popcorn and coffee don’t compensate for poor service and shoddy treatment of the owner/customers they should respect.

I helped my brother find a used original-equipment CD player for $90. This story will have a happy ending if he doesn’t break something installing it. Don’t work on cars like my brother.

Here, on video, is How to Spot a Scam Mechanic:



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