I'm very familiar with the rust of which you speak. I'm in the middle of Wisconsin, the road salt capital of the world, and my daily driver is one of the last '88 Grand Caravans in the state. Any chance you can find me another rust-free one with 15" wheels? Has to be an '88 though.
I'm not familiar with the shops you mentioned but I can offer some observations that may or may not hold water. With franchise operations, an owner far removed from the action is out to make a buck, which is to be expected, but he is not involved with the complaints from customers and has no idea what the word on the street is saying about the reputation of his business. He could have only the best in mind for his customers, but that doesn't always get passed down to the local shop managers or employees. A local, family-owned independent shop will usually be a better choice when it comes to handling complaints or problems that could hurt their reputation. An owner also has more leeway in granting concessions that customers really don't deserve but will increase their satisfaction and make them a future customer.
You can also have a somewhat ruthless corporation that has very strict guidelines, and the shop managers may want to handle a problem with your best interest in mind, but they're bound by those guidelines. That is similar to the warranty guidelines dealerships have to follow.
I worked for my cousin part-time for 30 years in his tv repair shop. All of his customers were repeat customers in a little community of 2000 people, and he was always busy. I also helped out for a shop in my extended community of over 100,000 people where I learned what to watch out for from the county's biggest crook. He went out-of-business due to lack of repeat customers and a terrible reputation. In fact, his favorite quote was "I have to rip people off as much as possible the first time because they aren't coming back the second time". That is the guy who makes the news and who is responsible for the bad reputation of all service industries. We still have one extremely reputable tv repair shop in my city but I'm sure he feels some repercussions related to that crooked shop. You get the same thing from the sting tv shows where they try to turn honest people into crooks. They never show the honest people or divulge the extenuating circumstances.
Car repair shops suffer from one of the same things as tv repair shops. Product owners know very little about how those products work so they have no choice but to take the mechanics' word for what is needed. Mechanics also speak their own language and are not good at communicating with car owners. That's why there's often a service writer in the middle to do the translating.
Related to my tv shop story, (there really was a reason for telling it), we have plenty of franchise shops that do exhaust system service and brake repair but none that handle the big stuff like transmissions. This is one of those assumptions where I might be wrong, but my feeling is the shop's reputation and willingness to solve complaints is much less important in really large cities because for every angry customer and the negative word-of-mouth advertising they spread, there's dozens of new customers walking through the door. In a smaller city like mine, they would run out of work just like that tv shop owner did, thank goodness. Even with those national chain stores, they're hurting for lack of business and have to resort to "not-quite deceptive advertising" to get people in the door. I used to work as the suspension and alignment specialist at a very nice family-owned new-car dealership right across the road from a popular franchise muffler shop, and I was always amazed at the estimates people brought in from them when they were looking for a second opinion. We typically turned a $600.00 estimate into a $200.00 brake job. There's no denying you would have left the other place with a safe brake system, but most of the parts they insisted had to be replaced for the "lifetime" warranty on just the $20.00 set of brake pads to take affect, were not needed. It's common for a mechanic to want to replace questionable parts to avoid future or continued problems, but you can take that preventive care way too far to refer to it as being in the customers' long term "best interest".
In that case, I didn't necessarily provide the best value just because I was at a dealership, but I could tell when too many unneeded parts were being sold. A little two or three-man independent shop probably could have done the work even less expensively, but by that time people were so happy that we could save them a lot of money, even when their car wasn't the brand we sold. For that matter, we have at least three other new-car dealerships that also have stellar reputations. We used to have one dealership known throughout numerous surrounding counties, (five miles from my house), as a crook. He has since bought up at least three other dealerships, and according to some of my former students, all of them have let some mechanics go because they have no work. It doesn't take long for angry people to share notes and avoid those places.
FINALLY, that brings me to my point of value. You must understand that just like when we run from one doctor to another, each mechanic is going to have to start from scratch listening to your chain of events, and incorporate the vehicle's history into his diagnosis and recommendations, so you don't want to run to every shop in town, but start with recommendations from friends, (if you have any :) ), and coworkers for shops they've used and were happy with. Visit a few of those before you take the truck there and ask what course of action they recommend. If someone says they can install a rebuilt transmission next week, be skeptical, because they have no way of knowing yet if that's what it needs. You want someone who says they will diagnose it and see what the best course of action is. They should be able to give you a worst-case, ball park estimate.
Be aware that rebuilding, and even repairing an automatic transmission is a high-level specialty, and most shops and definitely most mechanics will not attempt it. They will get a used transmission from a salvage yard or a rebuilt one from that transmission specialty shop, and install it for you. This is where it's usually a better value to go right to the rebuilder. You're dealing with one business, not two, and if there's a problem, no one can try to put the blame on the other one.
Those specialty shops very often will have a dozen people working in one area, all rebuilding the same model transmission at the same time, then they put them in inventory and do the same thing another day with a different model. There's much less chance of forgetting a little part, and if they've run into a problem repeatedly in the past, they will know to watch out for that. The advantage is you will get a like-new transmission with any updated parts that are available. The disadvantage is the cost is determined by what it typically takes to rebuild that model, and your old transmission might not need all of those parts or services. Because of the mass production though, their cost is almost always lower per unit than if they removed and rebuilt just one transmission at a time. Being able to put those transmission in inventory, and knowing they're going to sell them soon is an advantage of being in a large city. It's not practical to do that in little cities. They'll never have the right one in stock and ready to install.
If the employees are all wearing company shirts, the owner cares about his image and most likely, his reputation. He's more likely to make things right if a problem occurs. If they offer free loaner cars, they're trying to help their customers with that convenience, but obviously it's not free. The cost of maintaining and insuring those cars is built into the repair bills whether you use one or not. Many offer free towing if you have the work done by them. Part of their business expense is in running that tow truck. Since they have that cost anyway, you might as well use their service, but if you can get the truck there yourself, you may be able to negotiate a few bucks off the bill.
If you see a shop with too many empty bays AND people smoking or sucking down sodas outside, there's a reason they're not busy, and those people are likely being paid on commission. That's part of what's wrong with the franchise shop across from the dealer I worked for. It's one thing to incentivize employees to find additional things the car needs, like overlooked safety items in the steering system, but when the pay consists totally of commissions, you can be pretty sure you'll be sold some questionable parts or services. Don't fault one or two mechanics for taking a break outside, especially after finishing a particularly grueling and miserable job, but you shouldn't see everyone out there all the time. They're just waiting for the next sucker to drive in, (unless it's close to quitting time). If you see an employee drinking a beer on company time, don't even think about stopping there.
When employees are paid at least mostly by the hour, there is less incentive to rush a complicated job or to sell unneeded products. When they're all caught up with customer work, the manager will typically keep them busy cleaning the shop or repairing equipment. Auto repair shops are by nature a messy environment, but you can get an idea of what's going on in the manager's or owner's head by what's going on in the shop.
If everyone is busy under a car when you walk in, they can't be expected to stop in the middle of a procedure and lose their train of thought, but you deserve to be greeted cheerfully, and with an apology that they'll be right there. You'd want them to keep the same concentration on your truck too so they don't overlook an important detail.
Look around the shop to see if each mechanic has his own tool box on wheels. Professionals are real protective of that huge investment. If everyone shares hand tools provided by the shop owner, there is going to be less respect for them. Just like with welfare, there's little respect for something you don't work for. Experienced and professional mechanics aren't going to want to share tools and wait for the one they need now. A lot of franchise places hire young and inexperienced mechanics. They can get them with lower wages but those guys haven't built up their specialty tool inventory yet. The more experienced guys will diagnose your vehicle faster, they'll fix it faster with the right tools, but you'll pay more per hour for their experience. More dollars per hour times fewer hours is the better alternative when you factor in that the job is more likely to be completed without complications, and if there is a problem, the experienced fellow will figure out the solution faster.
You should never, ever hear a boss yell at any employee, even if they deserve to be fired. Someone with that mentality or lack of self-control may treat customers the same way, even when that customer isn't there. Bosses and employees should be interacting in a professional and respectful manner, just like in any other profession. It's in shops like that where you can expect your truck to receive the same professional attention. If an employee quietly offers to do a little something extra for you that is going to cost the business money, be concerned. It's one thing to offer to check your tires or replace a light bulb, but if they offer to sneak some new brake pads on while no one is looking, they aren't being honest with their boss. What else aren't they being honest about, and how do you really know they did what they said they would? It's fine to ask for little extras, and any mechanic should be happy to oblige, as long as he isn't doing anything unethical, illegal, or against company policy.
I have mixed feelings about the Better Business Bureau. They track customer complaints about business but no one runs down there when they're really happy or were well-cared for. Every business is going to have complaints. Some will be legitimate, but a lot of them are from people with unreasonable expectations. We all have stories to that effect. If you investigate two similar business and one has two dozen complaints over ten years and one has 30 complaints this month, it's obvious which one to avoid.
Through all this I kept mentioning "the guys", but that's just because the stereotypical mechanic is a guy. Two of my top students were girls, and the guys had a lot of respect for them and their abilities. If you see a girl in a shop, it's one thing to pick on coworkers in fun, but you should see the same professional and respectful interaction. If someone says, "don't worry; we won't let her work on your truck", I'd ask "why not?" If it turns out it's just because she's new to the field and inexperienced, just like everyone else who started at some point, a better way to say it is, "don't worry; I'm putting my most experienced people on your truck. Being a former instructor, I'd even pay a little extra to have the girl help. Given the nature of one girl and one guy, I suspect the girl would tend to show more respect toward my vehicle, would probably try to do a more conscientious job, and for sure would ask for help when appropriate.
Sorry for going on so long. If I touched on anything of value that needs clarification, or if you have more questions, I'll be back tomorrow.
Tuesday, January 14th, 2014 AT 2:17 AM