At the dealership, part 2: Meet your service advisors
Customers usually don’t talk to the mechanics (or technicians) who work on their cars; they talk to people dubbed “service advisors,” who seem like managers but are really just interfaces between customers, the techs, and, often, the company that made your car. (Why would they talk to the automaker? Because the service advisor is responsible for getting warranty work approved, if the dealership doesn’t have a dedicated warranty administrator. That includes extended warranties, recalls, and such.)
Whether the dealership needs to ask permission to do warranty work, and whether the company actually approves it, depends on how much the company trusts your dealership. If the company thinks your dealership is not trustworthy, practically everything requires manual approval, and the automaker demands to see any old parts, just to make sure. This caution makes sense; bad dealership owners and managers (and, in some cases, techs) realized many years ago that they could just pretend to fix cars, and get paid the same amount without having to put in hours and hours of hard work. That let them get free parts for their own cars, or to sell, as a bonus.
Selling and servicing cars for another company is a business which depends on trust; it’s very hard for the company to police every dealership, so there’s been a lot of fraud. Expensive repairs, such as replacing transmissions, usually require a call to HQ whether the automaker trusts the dealership or not, and you can bet that the parts will be seen by some “factory” guy.
If the automaker trusts your dealership, things will be easier for you. The service advisor won’t have to call in for most repairs, and will find it easier to make judgement calls, including fixing cars that are just out of warranty (or are really out of warranty, but have a Known Problem). They can also make judgements regarding whether a problem is because of something stupid you did, like drive far too quickly up that ramp which lifted up your suspension and then slammed it down, breaking your radiator and control arms along the way, or because of a design or manufacturing flaw in the car.
The good service advisors tend to be buried in paperwork and keys, because people figure out who to go to, and their friends will say “talk to Barry, nobody else.”
One hallmark of the good advisor is a good relationship with the mechanics, to the point where they knew each tech’s strengths and weaknesses personally. They might be able to pick the right tech for each job, playing to their strengths and what they like and don’t like to work on (service advisors can’t pick mechanics in every dealership, and the mechanics may get to say no).
Life can be tough for the service advisors. They often have to stand up all day, or get a little stool to sit on; many sit in tight, noisy booths with lousy (or no) heat or air conditioning. They get harassed by angry customers on one side and techs on the other, and maybe the dealership owners or managers and, if they have to deal with the company itself, might get admonished for not filling out each form exactly right. They are caught in a bind between angry customers and angry managers or company reps, dealing with slow computers and cumbersome bureaucracies; and they’re expected to know everything about every car, along with a slew of company computer codes. Generally, their pay won’t buy them a second house and a luxury car, either. It’s no surprise so many just don’t care any more. (Indeed, caring only makes their job harder.)
The service advisor is likely to control whether customers get a rental or loaner car, who gets a special customer discount, and such; they may even be able to help reduce certain costs, though this power obviously cannot be used for every customer (and is not available to all advisors, either).
Bad advisors tend to assume every problem is the customer’s fault (and make that assumption known to the customer), refusing to admit anything could be handled under warranty.
Incidentally, you may wonder why a dealer would care about whether something is handled by the warranty. They get paid either way, right? Except they don’t, really; warranty repairs often have little or no diagnostic time, and specify an exact “book time” they’ll pay the dealer for. As we said in the tech section, if they can do the repair faster, that’s great for them; but usually the book time doesn’t account for any problems along the way, or an inexperienced tech. So the dealership can actually lose money on warranty work. What’s more, the automaker may pay less than half as much per hour as the bozo who walks in off the street with their broken car.
Some dealers know that sooner or later, you’ll have an out-of-warranty problem, so they invest the extra time and effort into treating you well under warranty. Some people keep their cars for ten years, after all, and the dealer really wants to be around for those pricey repairs that come late in the car’s life. Replacing a major suspension part brings in a nice 100% to 400% profit for the parts department, along with a roughly 100% profit for the service area. That makes a 10% or 15% loyal-customer discount seem pretty small, but it’s still attractive! So is the profit on regular oil changes, which nearly always cost more at the dealer (especially with synthetic).
For the customer, it usually pays to use the same service advisor each time, so they recognize you; for the same reason, it can pay to spend more on maintenance by having it done at the dealership, instead of some quick-lube place or the corner mechanic. If you have your service done at the dealer, they might authorize a loaner car or put something under warranty when they could claim it’s not covered (or when the warranty is over, but the company would understand a customer-service extension).
As a side note, it doesn’t pay to hold the service advisor responsible for the quality of your car. They don’t make the cars, they don’t design the cars, they don’t even sell the cars. They don’t fix them, for that matter; they just try to get them fixed. So if it’s not fixed right the first time, it’s not the service advisor’s fault. On the other hand, if the dealership frequently can’t fix something the first time, maybe it’s time to shop around for one that can.
Next column: the service manager and the dealership itself. Illustrations exclusively for AutoBison by Tovansakura.
Clark Westfield grew up fixing up and driving past-their-prime American cars, including various GM and Mopar V8s. He has ghostwritten auto news for the last few years, and lives in Farmingdale, New York.