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Pay To Play - Doctor visits and mechanic diagnostics - are they the same thing?


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Pay to Play

Playing the diagnostic game in the auto repair business isn’t for everyone. Some repair shops don’t want to deal with any of those heavy-hitter type of diagnostic problems. They would rather deal with the simple, basic, and easy-to-fix problems that make quick money and take little effort on their part. Anything that’s going to take time to figure out they’ll send down the road to a shop that will work on those type of problems. I’m one of those shops that everybody sends their headaches to. It has its draw backs for sure, but the reward for me is getting in there, finding the problem, and doing what seems impossible to others.

One of the major issues with being more of a specialty diagnostic shop is how the customer perceives what a mechanic can or cannot do. Most of the time they’ve already spent their limit at the guess-at-it-until-ya-get-it shops and aren’t keen on spending any amount of money on diagnostic time. Which, as in most of these heavy-hitter type diagnostic cases, is the majority of the work needed to be done. I hear it all the time from folks who still believe all mechanics are alike and price is their only concern. “I’ve already spent “X” amount of money and it’s still broke. Why should I spend more money just for YOU to look at the car?”

It must be a bit unnerving to some, forking over their cash just to have their car “looked” at. Although, they don’t seem to think twice about it when they pull the check book out at the reception desk after their doctor “looked” at them. Whether they feel any better at the time they’re writing the check or not because they’re confident that a quick stop at the pharmacy to pick up that prescription will fix them right up; good as new. However, paying a professional mechanic to do his or her “looking” is simply out of the question.

The way I see it, “Ya gotta pay to play” folks. Wherever this idea that a mechanic can walk out to the parking lot, wave his magical ratchet over the left rear tail light and all will be in working order is totally absurd. I mean seriously, the car has one service light, but hundreds and hundreds of reasons why it might be on. A battery drain can come from anywhere, a shorted fuse can be caused by all kinds of things, and as far as intermittent problems well, the possibilities are endless. Not to mention when some jackleg gets under the dash and starts adding their version of electrical wizardry to the problem.

Some people just can’t make the connection between a doctor’s office visit and a mechanic’s diagnostic time. They’re stuck on this “look” thing. For that small number of people out there who don’t see the similarities between a doctor visit and automotive diagnostics, it’s not likely you’re going to change their mind about it any time soon.

The last example of the “ain’t playin’ the diagnostic game” told me that he would only let me work on the car if I could guarantee it wouldn’t cost more than $400.00 bucks. I told him, “I’d like to say that it wouldn’t cost more than that, but what happens if I get in there and find the part alone costs $500.00 dollars, then what?” His answer, “Then I’d forget about fixing it, and I’d pay you for your time. How much do ya think that would be?” I smiled and answered as I pointed to the diagnostic fee on the wall, “The diagnostic fee, just what I’ve been explaining to you all along. Ya gotta pay to play the game, and that’s the diagnostic fee. Otherwise, I don’t play.”

He still didn’t get it. I then told him, “You want me to guess at how much it will cost when I haven’t a clue what’s wrong. At this point I don’t even know what color the car is let alone the extent of your problem. Furthermore, you’ve had somebody work on it before. They’ve wired around some sort of switch you mentioned to me earlier about, and obviously I’ll have to undo all of that to determine the exact problem. Does that make sense now?” As if to show how my lack of intelligence about his car was quite obvious to him, he answered sternly, “It’s dark blue.” Not another word was spoken. I’m completely flabbergasted. Looks like the two of us are not going to play, because he’s not willing to pay. Instead of going any further, I figured it was time to throw the towel in on this one and call it a stalemate. All this transpired about the same time he thanked me for talking with him and was heading out the door to find the next guy who would “look” at his car.

Seriously, what’s free these days? If ya wanna play, ya gotta pay. Simple as that. I doubt if you went into the doctor’s office and said you weren’t going to pay for his time, the doctor would tell you to get lost or at least want to know why you didn’t want to pay for his services. I’m sure if you told him, “I ain’t payin’ ya just to look at me. I’m only going to pay you to fix me.” The doctor might think you’re just a bit touched and in need of a different kind of doctor. But, as it is... mechanics diagnosing a tough problem have to deal with the “I ain’t payin’ ya to look at it” game nearly every day.

Maybe in the future, all this will change. It has to. Cars are getting even more complicated and have amassed huge networks of electronics and mechanical parts that shouldn’t be left to the untrained and stab-at-it-until-ya-get-it type of repairs. Like a doctor, a professional mechanic might have a pretty good idea of what is ailing a car, but testing and diagnosing it is the game we all have to play to sort out the real tough problems and not just make assumptions. You want professional service… Pay to play, then the game is on.

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Gonzo: Very true. A diagnostic in the doctors office or at your local mechanic should be any different when it comes to paying for it. But they still try to find reasons why it shouldn't be and I think you cleared it up a bit!

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Nice Gonzo, two weeks in a row stories that I preach on a daily basis and am so fed up with.. But, I not only have to preach to the customer the other "mechanics" and owner as well. People say just find another job, but I deal with several other shops in the area and they are the same sending work to me after they have emptied the customers pocket trying to fix the problem. I also use the doctor analogy for " appointments ", you always get "what is it going to cost, how long will it take, can I make an appointment then"? well no I don't know what is wrong, once I do If parts are needed I have to order them, I don't know how long that will take to get the part here, then I don't know how smoothly the part replacement and programming if needed will go. So no. I then use all the same doctor analogies, asking them how many times have you made an appt for say 8:00 am at the doctors and you end up getting out of there at 10 or so because other patients took longer than expected? Same thing with cars I can not make an appointment, so If they ask again which they always do, I say sure I will give you an appointment. What day can you leave you car with me all day? That will be your appointment. Mechanics at the shop say that I am not the norm, well what I do should be the norm if you want to fix cars for a living. If you hired someone to paint a room in your house and they do an awesome job , masking everything off , filling holes, using drop clothes, etc. The next time you hire someone else to do it, they come in just throw paint up on the wall unevenly spread paint , drips, paint on the ceiling, trim work, and on the floors , would you accept well that guy was not the norm? No ! The "not the norm " needs to become the Norm! So until the not norm becomes the norm the good mechanic will suffer, things need to be changed, public awareness of what our job is really about, laws put into place on who can work on cars such as being certified etc. Every other profession such as plumbers, electricians, hvac, DOCTORS, taxi drivers, computer repair, etc... must be licensed or certified . A few of those jobs are wrapped up in our job , but there is no standard law in fact there are really no laws at all where I live , as long as you can say " I am a mechanic " you are. I will stop my rant here before I ruin my weekend LOL .. have a Great weekend everyone !

Edited by skm
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Gonzo, a lot of issues we face today can be summed up in your article. I hope I don't throw a wrench into this conversation, but until the shops raises the bar, understand the how much they really need to stay in business and make a real stand to charge what they are worth, the public's view of us will continue.


Shop owners and mechanics are perhaps the hardest working people on the planet! They torture themselves at times to get the job done. But, for the most part we do not get compensated for it.


Bottom line, if mechanics and shops owners want to play the game of automotive service and repairs, then they also need to get paid.


As usual Gonzo, a keen awareness of the life of the typical repair shop. I tip my hat to you!

....it's all clear to me now....its dark blue....

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I just read Joe's latest printed article in Ratchet Wrench... funny how we both think alike. It played off of exactly what I wrote in this article. Nice article Joe. Well done.

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This is the result of industry self inflicted wounds from decades of self abuse. Shops competing on the basis of lowest price or free diagnosis while carrying on like a bunch of prostitutes. Doctors have never and would never compete on the basis of lowest price. And lawyers...don't get me started. The formula forward is simple: act like a pro, look like a pro, get credentialed like a pro and demand to get paid like a pro. We know and do everything plumbers, electricians and carpenters do. Yet we accept lower pay? Knuckle Heads!

We need a national association of automotive professionals to serve as the filtering body for those who want to work in this profession in any state. I would accept a professional tier system of apprentice, journeymen and masters. And states would do well to require it. Yes by law! The technology is too complex, the investment too high and the risk too great to allow the "hole in the wall gang" to continue to operate. In my state (Florida) you have to have a license to cut hair or do manicures. Ooooh!, dangerous cutting instruments involved. But if you want rent a hole and put brakes on someones family car for money, all you need is a business license, but no credentials or evidence of training needed. And, at least in Florida, that's just OK.

We have potential customers going to dealerships and despising the experience. They go there because they think it's their only reliable option. It's like a wild dog returning to his own vomit for a meal. At least it's a reliable food source. Either we as independent shop owners take hold of our collective futures as professionals or we will be over run by dealerships who have much more capital. So like wise, if you want to be a part of this fraternity of automotive service professionals, you'll have to pay to play.

Who is going to fix the 360 degree radar, collision controlled, auto braking, gps guided, antiskid, stability controlled, fully networked auto pilot system car of the future? It better be you and me. And get ready for the Jetsons, because next they're going to leave to ground.

Edited by natsurgeon
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Great article. Often times I have to remind myself that the reason the customer is here in my shop is because they can't fix or diagnose their car themselves. They are here because they lack the knowledge or ability. So why in the world should we give it away for free. How many years of experience, class room hours, studying, and test taking have gone into my guys being able to diagnose cars quickly and efficiently? And to just give it away!?! I think back to my first year in business and how many cars I diagnosed for free. I later 'upped' my game by charging for diagnostics, but waiving it if the customer approved the repair. Now? You pay for daig, regardless of if you do the repair or not. And we get approval for diag, even if we worked on it last week, with the understanding that if it was our fault, they would not be responsible for the fee. Too many times I've heard "ever since you worked on my car", only to find out after diagnosing the car for free, that it had nothing to do with the work we performed the week before. Not anymore!!!

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  • Have you checked out Joe's Latest Blog?

      It always amazes me when I hear about a technician who quits one repair shop to go work at another shop for less money. I know you have heard of this too, and you’ve probably asked yourself, “Can this be true? And Why?” The answer rests within the culture of the company. More specifically, the boss, manager, or a toxic work environment literally pushed the technician out the door.
      While money and benefits tend to attract people to a company, it won’t keep them there. When a technician begins to look over the fence for greener grass, that is usually a sign that something is wrong within the workplace. It also means that his or her heart is probably already gone. If the issue is not resolved, no amount of money will keep that technician for the long term. The heart is always the first to leave. The last thing that leaves is the technician’s toolbox.
      Shop owners: Focus more on employee retention than acquisition. This is not to say that you should not be constantly recruiting. You should. What it does means is that once you hire someone, your job isn’t over, that’s when it begins. Get to know your technicians. Build strong relationships. Have frequent one-on-ones. Engage in meaningful conversation. Find what truly motivates your technicians. You may be surprised that while money is a motivator, it’s usually not the prime motivator.
      One last thing; the cost of technician turnover can be financially devastating. It also affects shop morale. Do all you can to create a workplace where technicians feel they are respected, recognized, and know that their work contributes to the overall success of the company. This will lead to improved morale and team spirit. Remember, when you see a technician’s toolbox rolling out of the bay on its way to another shop, the heart was most likely gone long before that.
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