Concerns about today's economy and the environment have driven an increasing number of people to keep an old car longer instead of buying a new one. That makes it more important than ever to find someone you can trust to fix your car when something goes wrong. But don't start your search when you already need a mechanic. Instead, establish a relationship. Bring your car in for regular service like oil changes – something you should do anyway. Although normal maintenance won't force your mechanic to flex his or her repair muscles, it will give you a chance to evaluate the shop's customer service.
Searching for a mechanic
Although some people believe that a trustworthy mechanic is as rare as a politician who loves delivering bad news, we disagree. The pressure to fix cars quickly for a low price makes shortcuts tempting, but reputable organizations pride themselves on quality service and customer satisfaction. How can you find the best shops?
Start by talking to family and friends, especially those with car knowledge. If you want more information on a recommended shop, search for online ratings for mechanics, such as the Mechanics Files submitted by listeners of the public radio show Car Talk, or read user reviews at Women-Drivers.com. Remember that one or two bad reviews don't mean a shop is terrible, nor do a few positive reviews prove that the shop always does a good job.
Dealer or independent shop?
You can find good mechanics anywhere, although dealerships usually charge more for services. Any competent mechanic can perform routine maintenance and repairs. A good independent repair shop that offers a warranty on their parts and repairs can use factory or OEM parts recommended by the carmaker – and typically saves you money. However, if you need warranty or recall repairs or have an odd problem, consider a dealership where the mechanics receive factory training from the manufacturer.
Once you've found a repair shop
Start by looking around. Is the shop neat and organized? Is the staff helpful and courteous? Do they have certified technicians and up-to-date equipment? Credentials like the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification and AAA approval don't prove that a shop never makes mistakes, but they do show that the shop meets professional standards.
Asking these questions can help you understand the shop's philosophy:
For some questions, the answer itself may not tell you as much as the way it's answered. If they dismiss your inquiry or respond with annoyance, this could indicate their attitude toward unexpected customer questions in general. Ideally, you want the shop and technicians to communicate with you and explain everything until you feel comfortable.
Testing the shop
One test requires a little car knowledge and a properly working car part. Simply tell the shop that a new or perfectly good part broke and ask them to fix it. (It may help to add some dirt or grease if it looks new.) If the shop says the part doesn't need repairs, they've either given you an honest answer or figured out you were testing them. If they offer to perform the repair, you'll want to look elsewhere for service.
Another testing technique involves presenting a faulty diagnosis and a suggested repair to the mechanic. A responsible shop will perform its own diagnostics to avoid charging you for unnecessary repairs. However, this approach could backfire if the shop trusts you and thinks they're helping by doing what you ask. If you know a car expert, you can ask them to help you come up with a common problem and an incorrect diagnosis or fix for that problem.
Getting good service is in your hands
Simply and clearly describe the problem the car has, any sounds, smells or feelings that accompany the problem and the situations in which the problem occurs. That way, the mechanics will try to determine what they should fix by diagnosing the problem themselves, instead of focusing on the part you may think is broken.
If you choose a large shop or dealership, try to speak with the technician who will work on your car instead of the person at the desk or the service manager. If you can't, submit a written description of the problem and have it attached to the file. That way, you ensure the correct information is transmitted straight to the mechanic in its original form, which can eliminate miscommunication.
After the repair
Be sure the mechanic road tests the repairs and ask to see your old parts before you pay the bill. If you get a part back that looks odd or damaged in a way you don't recognize, take it to another shop or ask a friend if it looks OK.
Finally, once the shop finishes the repair work, make sure that you keep all receipts and service records. Because even the best mechanics make mistakes occasionally, don't immediately assume the worst if the repair didn't fully fix the problem. Share your concerns with the shop and give them a chance to correct any issues. Since all responsible repair shops highly value customer satisfaction, they should make every reasonable effort to resolve the situation.
Looking for different information? Have questions or feedback? Please let us know.
Originally posted September 17, 2004.
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