There are good and bad dealers within any brand, from Acura to Volvo. Here are some tips if your dealer is less than ideal. Before we go on, though, let us set out two ground rules:
- Always be calm and courteous, even when you are not treated well.
- The service guy might just be right — we at least need to be open to that possibility.
Most car dealers are independently owned and are protected by a thick wall of franchise laws, so automakers have limited leverage. Many automakers have tried to “save money” by slashing compensation for diagnostics and having low estimates for the time it takes to do repairs, pushing dealers to cut corners on warranty work. Many dealers try to convert “break-even” warranty work into profitable customer-paid work, by pretending that the automaker will not pay for the repair (when in fact they would, even out of warranty).
Some problems, even past the usual three (or five) years, can be covered by a Federal warranty which can go up to 100,000 miles. Some service advisors don’t know, or won’t admit, that these exist. See your owner’s manual or our article for details.
Most automakers and many dealers can authorize repairs after the warranty is over, depending on the circumstances and their mood — one reason to be patient and courteous with dealer staff.
Read the warranty and maintenance sections of your owner’s manual, so that you can calmly and politely say (for example), “I thought the warranty covered spark plugs until the first recommended change interval. Would you mind if I checked the warranty in my glove compartment?”
When the service person is sure something is not covered, ask if they would mind if you called the company to see if you could get an authorization for it. Make sure your attitude conveys the message that “I’m trying to help you to get paid for this by the company” rather than “I’m going to complain about your miserly tactics.”
If a dealer tells you that it’s time for a service, check the schedule in your owner’s manual. Many dealers and independent mechanics try to service the car more often than needed. We’ve seen $800 tune-ups, done years ahead of schedule, using $50 worth of parts and less than an hour of labor, at a “recommended interval” that wasn’t even on the “severe service schedule”. Many cars also now require oil changes as far apart as once a year, using a computer to tell you when to get service — GM and Chrysler tend to have these. So beware (and see our larger maintenance-scam page). So when a dealer tells you the manufacturer demands 3,000 mile oil changes, or annual tuneups — think twice.
As for choosing the dealers, nothing beats the recommendation of a knowledgeable friend or acquaintance – except your own experience. The sales and service staff may be night and day in terms of quality and the “user experience,” so never assume that a friendly salesman in front indicates friendly and competent mechanics in back (or vice versa).
Some automakers’ customer hotlines will guide you towards a higher-ranked dealership, as well, using customer surveys and “fix it first” surveys as a guide. It’s worth traveling a bit to get better service.
Buy from dealerships with good service departments. Have your car serviced consistently at the same dealer, if you can, and buy from them if they excel. That said,
You do not have to have your car repaired by the dealer you bought it from.
There are many resources for those who are having a dispute with a dealer or a car company, including, for people who have lots of problems with a new car, lemon law replacement; each state’s lemon law information is in your owner’s manual package.
In some small claims or special civil courts, judges and lawyers are over-eager for settlements, no matter how strong your case is, because they want to save time. If you pursue a claim, you run the risk in court of losing and having to pay massive legal fees, and if you are angry, you also run the risk of a contempt of court citation. In some cases, saying you still plan to have the case heard will get a much better settlement.
Used car guides are interesting but can be inaccurate or misleading. Consider all sources, including Internet forums (though beware that people will generally only state negative opinions, there are paid “complainers” from competitors, and problems do get solved).
Research shows that some dealers have a terrible employee loyalty rate, and their mechanics may have low morale and little experience. Though many dealers do have excellent mechanics, don’t assume that the dealer is always better than the garage across the street.
- Get a copy of your complaint even if no problem is found, so you can, later on, show that a problem existed earlier. That may convince the automaker to make good after the warranty ends, or increase a lemon law settlement.
- If there is a “small accident,” see the damage in person and get everything in writing. Otherwise you have little protection against shoddy repairs.
- Get everything in writing and double-check questionable statements.
- If you bring in your car, do not accept the “I don’t hear it” or “They all do that” defense. Ask for a test drive with the manager or a mechanic. Be assertive without being aggressive or hostile.
- Treat your dealership and service advisors well. They have discretion in providing extra service. If they like you, they may also give you a better mechanic.
- Only use the recommended oil, brake fluid, and transmission fluid. These are all listed in the owner’s manual.
- If you get a bad dealer, be sure to fill out and return your survey (dealers usually do see negative surveys and who they came from). See the note at the bottom of this page.
Contacting the automaker
See your owner’s manual for addresses and phone numbers.
If you suspect your dealer has defrauded the company with false warranty claims, report it and ask them to let you know what happens.
Be polite and calm but assertive at all times. Do not take no for an answer but do not act angry or threaten them. This will make matters worse. They are often sensitive, defensive, and uninformed. If all else fails, call back and speak to someone else.
One key with out-of-warranty repairs is whether the problem existed during the warranty period! That’s a good reason to get all your complaints acknowledged by the dealer in repair forms and to keep them (and keep ’em well-organized).
Never say bad things about your dealer or anyone else unless you absolutely must. Do not subject them to the anger caused by your dealer or their employees. This will only hurt your case!
It is easy to be pegged and written off as a “bad customer.” Don’t let them put you into the loony category.
Is the problem with your car or your dealer?
If your car has lots of problems, your dealer or mechanic might be screwing it up when trying to find other problems.
If you have problems immediately after having your car serviced, it may have been the mechanic’s fault. Examples:
- stalling after a tune up
- brake noises after a brake job
- oil leak after oil change
- transmission problems after transmission servicing or fluid change. (On any car, check the antifreeze and/or oil a few days after any change.)
- find out what the problem was and fix it yourself or demand that the mechanic fix the car (may be risky).
- ask for your money back
- find another mechanic
- report the incident to your Consumer Affairs Department, Attorney General, and/or the automaker (we generally ignore the BBB which tends to close complaints at the dealer’s request, since the dealer pays their dues and you don’t).
Find out the oil you need from the manual and demand that they use it. You may need to ask them when they’re done — and have them drain and refill. Some dealers actually fill with the wrong fluids to save money.
Always use the recommended oil and trans fluid. Never take the oil change place’s or the dealer’s word for it. Look it up yourself.
When they can’t find or fix it…
When the service people cannot find problem, ask to take a drive with the mechanic or a service advisor. If they cannot solve it, ask the service advisor to escalate it; if they don’t know the term, suggest trying new steps, such as requesting support from Toyota or checking the service bulletins. You can also call the Customer Center and ask them to provide technical assistance to the dealership.
Trying another dealer often works.
You may wish to bone up on the technical service bulletins, available from Alldata. Keep in mind that if you tell them you looked up the bulletin, you will likely be marked as a crank; but if you attribute the information to “a friend with the same car,” you’ll probably be OK.
How long does it take for the dealer to order parts? The actual ordering can take seconds; if they’re not in stock, they can tap the local depot, and that can be as fast as overnight or as slow as a few days. Likewise, parts may be shipped by truck or by post from a national depot, or sent by slow boat or fast plane from another country. It used to be common for imported cars to have parts that took weeks to arrive, but that’s less common now that many “imports” are built in the United States.
Usually, parts come fairly quickly, unless there’s a major recall or warranty action. In that case, it can literally take months, especially if the automaker is prioritizing production of new cars over fixing the old ones, or if the new design has not been tested and accepted yet.
If you want to know if your dealer is lying about parts ordering times, you can get the part number and search for it at online dealerships. That can also tell you, if your car is out of warranty, how high your local dealer’s markup is. (Normally, dealers charge 20%-25% below list price, plus high shipping upcharges, for parts purchased over the Internet, but some charge two or three times list for local buyers.)
Step by Step
Even if you are in an adversarial relationship, act in a friendly, nonthreatening, non-angry, non-adversarial manner — but don’t take “no” for an answer.
When you have a problem:
- Try to resolve it through discussion with the service advisor.
- If needed, ask to speak with the service manager.
- The next step is to call the automaker, from a pay phone if you have to. Often, work suddenly becomes free or your car gets fixed days or weeks ahead of time.
- If your dealer keeps fixing the same thing over and over again, get another dealer, or ask the service manager to escalate the problem (as mentioned earlier).
- If your dealer treats you badly, lies to you, etc., get another dealer.
- If you have a continuing problem, speak to the people at your zone office (in your owner’s manual). Be polite but assertive. Do not threaten them. If they still don’t fix the car, politely begin to negotiate.
- If you are still having the same problem despite several attempts at repairs, read your lemon law guide (in your glove compartment). File an official lemon law complaint with your state if possible. This will get their attention and help your negotiation along, but chances are your problem is not serious enough to merit a legally imposed solution.
- Important: There is usually a time and mileage limit for lemon-law complaints.
- You can also try going through the manufacturer’s arbitration.
- If all else fails, look for a lawyer specializing in lemon law problems. A good specialist may cheaply and quickly negotiate your way to a good settlement. If negotiation is not their first move, they are not the right lawyer.
- Your chances of getting cash are slim to none; the norm is to give you credit towards another car. There is usually a charge per mile of use before the first lemon-type complaint.
- If all else fails, or if there is an emergency or a serious issue which cannot be resolved through normal channels, call the state department of consumer affairs or, if they are unresponsive, or if the dealer has done something truly offensive, call the state Attorney General. Do not be afraid to call your congressman or governor; some will help.
The author of Dodge Viper, Jeep’s Wagoneer, Gladiator, Comanche, and Scrambler Go-Anywhere Vehicles, and The Rise and Reinvention of Chrysler Minivans, David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.com and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org. His latest book, for kids, is Meet the Jeep.
David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form.