Diagnostic charges: Is your mechanic gouging, or trying to help you out?
Written by Chris Dekker November 14, 2020
2020 marks my 18th year in the automotive service industry. Looking back, there are certainly workdays that I won’t forget, and this post is partially inspired by one of them. It serves as a great example of how a shop like ours would rather perform a less profitable service like a diagnosis in order to truly look after a client’s best interests.
It was 2019, and we were visited by a customer who was experiencing an intermittent starting problem with her Ford Escape. In order to correct the issue, she asked us to replace her ignition switch. Right away, we explained that while a faulty ignition switch was certainly a possibility, there were dozens of other possible explanations for her problem as well. We recommended having us diagnose the issue first, before replacing the switch. The customer declined the diagnosis, and insisted on having the ignition switch replaced. “I already know that’s what’s wrong”, we were told. At this point, we wanted to make sure the customer understood the risks of what they were asking us to do. We provided an estimate for the switch replacement (which was about a $550 repair) and explained that they’d be responsible to pay that full amount, even if the new switch did not fix their car. Growing irritated, the customer insisted, “Just replace the switch.” After one last failed attempt at talking her into a proper diagnosis, we did. And with the switch replaced, in a situation that we’ve sadly grown to expect, the car still didn’t start.
All of a sudden, I had a customer crying – absolutely sobbing – at my office counter. She completely broke down as she realized the mistake she had made. Even though I had pushed the customer three separate times to let us confirm the issue first, this was still very difficult for us. Making things even harder, we learned that the $550 for the ignition switch repair was all the money she had, and so the Ford Escape was going to have to stay broken for now. As the customer calmed down, we started to talk more about why she refused the diagnosis in the first place. We explained that the diagnosis wasn’t just a $150 “up sell”; but rather us genuinely trying to make sure that her money wasn’t wasted. How did we get to this point? Why don’t some car owners see the value in diagnostic charges?
In the eyes of some car owners, “diagnostic fee” and “diagnosis” are dirty words these days – to the point where some shops avoid these words entirely and prefer to charge for “testing” or “inspection” time. But as shops like ours demonstrate every day – including in the Ford example above – paying for an accurate diagnosis can be the best money you’ll spend. After all, it’s better to pay $150 for something than $550 for nothing! So how did we get to this point, where drivers don’t see the value in paying for a diagnosis? I can identify several main reasons:
1) Lack of consumer trust: The lady mentioned in the Ford Escape example above was a first-time customer of ours, and so a lack of trust (which is something that we usually earn over time) was a contributing factor to her refusing the diagnosis. It’s also possible she’d had a bad experience at another shop, or perhaps she just shared in the all-to-common negative view that many drivers have of automotive professionals. Her view was that her “research” of the starting issue had to be correct, and the $150 diagnostic fee was just an attempt to pad her repair bill. This general lack of trust is definitely unfounded in most cases, and it’s something we’re working to dispel at My Garage by putting our clients first and giving them more insight into how things work behind the scenes in our industry.
2) The Internet: You can imagine the frustration medical professionals must feel when dealing with a patient who has “self diagnosed” their ailment by Googling the symptoms. We’re willing to wager that the Internet gets it wrong for those people about as consistently as it does for drivers who turn to Google with their vehicle problems. The difference between the medical world and the car world, however, is that most folks are more than willing to let a doctor perform a couple tests before proceeding with a treatment! Nobody says to their doctor, “I don’t want to do the MRI; just remove my kidney.” Trying to gather information on your own before seeing a professional is nothing new; and we absolutely support people trying to solve their own issues. The trouble with information gleaned from the Internet is that most of it is purely anecdotal. While it may sound like Jim on the “Ford Escape Enthusiasts” forum is experiencing the same starting issue as you, the truth is that most vehicle problems have dozens of potential causes and yours may be totally different than his.
3) We haven’t done a good job showing drivers how complex their vehicles are: Most people have no idea how complicated their vehicle is. The computers inside a new Ford F-150 contain more lines of software code than the space shuttle, an F-35 fighter jet, and the whole Windows 10 operating system combined!
To illustrate how complex vehicles have become, let’s break down what happens when you turn your headlights in that Ford F-150:
All of this technology makes it possible to incorporate new features like automatic headlights, or auto-dimming high beams. Of course, it also makes the headlight circuit a lot more difficult to test!
Your car contains hundreds of sensors and over 1500 wires totaling more than 1.5 kilometres in length, with 20-30 computers that communicate with each other on different high speed networks. Most folks have no idea what a complicated piece of equipment they’re driving. 4) Lack of understanding in the diagnostic process: As an industry, we’ve done a bad job showing our clients just what we do when we diagnose their vehicle. A disappointingly large amount of motorists still believe we hook up some kind of magical computer that just tells us what’s wrong with their car. That “computer” they’re thinking of a is a scan tool, which is an interface that we use to communicate with the various on-board computers inside your vehicle. Using the scan tool, a well trained technician can gather information that helps in arriving at a diagnosis. However, this information is only a starting point, and the human brain takes over a lot earlier in the diagnostic process than most people realize. Completing the diagnosis usually requires access to:
Thousands of dollars worth of other testing and diagnostic equipment.
Hundreds of pages of service information, diagrams and specifications.
A skilled technician to make sense of it all.
Luckily, we’ll rent you all three of those items for a very fair price! Stay tuned to our blog where in the future, where we’ll break down some specific diagnostic examples and show you exactly what we did to pinpoint the issues.
5) Paying for a bad diagnosis at another shop: Sometimes a vehicle owner will be reluctant to pay for testing because they’ve been charged for a bad (incorrect or incomplete) diagnosis at another shop. It’s easy to understand how being charged for a diagnosis – and likely a subsequent repair – that didn’t correct your issue would cause one to lose faith in the diagnostic process. All we can do in these situations is promise the client that their experience at our shop will be different; and it will be. Pairing the most skilled technicians with a policy of uncompromising honesty in management means that our clients never spend a cent on a repair that they don’t need. Our diagnostics are also 100% guaranteed, which means that in the extremely rare event that we’re wrong (we’re human beings; it can still happen), you don’t pay.
Here’s why we recommend a diagnosis: We know better, and we care.
With 18 years of experience, I’m hardly a grizzled veteran of the automotive trade. One of our technicians, Dan, has a whopping 42 years (and counting) of experience! But that 18 years means I have already spent over forty thousand hours underneath or around a vehicle. That’s definitely more hours than your well-meaning neighbor who tinkers on cars in his spare time, or anyone who posts on the “Ford Escape Enthusiasts” forum. It’s definitely enough experience to know when a given repair doesn’t have a good shot at fixing your vehicle. On top of that, shops like ours genuinely care about our clients, and there’s no satisfaction for us in charging folks for repairs that they don’t need. Why recommending a diagnosis actually costs a shop money. In the course of the day, an automotive service shop like ours carries out different types of work, including:
Inspections and diagnostics.
Maintenance services such as fluid and filter replacements.
Repairs (replacement of worn/broken parts.)
Programming, calibrations and adjustments.
Based solely on time spent vs dollars charged to the client, repairs (parts replacements) are probably the most profitable type of work we do. (Although not nearly as profitable as 20-30 years ago when repairs were simpler and shops charged a lot more hours to complete them, mind you.) Inspections and diagnostics are our least profitable areas of work.
That means that when a client comes in asking us to replace a part, and we suggest a diagnosis instead, we’re actually trading our most profitable type of work for our least! Plus, about 80% of the time after we complete the diagnosis, we discover that the originally requested repair wasn’t needed anyway – the problem lies somewhere else.
In the Ford Escape example at the beginning, the customer originally thought that the diagnosis was our attempt to add another $150 to their $550 repair. In reality, we knew that once the issue was diagnosed, we would probably be losing the repair instead.
As this illustrates, it would be a lot easier – and more profitable – for us to throw parts at your problem. So when we recommend paying for a diagnosis, it’s not a money grab or an up-sell. It’s us taking a small hit because for our team, we’d much rather see your money go towards actually repairing your vehicle.