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Repairophobia: Fear of Auto Repair

If you believe all the garbage that is passed off as investigative reporting on television and in newspapers and consumer magazines these days, you would think the average motorist is being robbed at gun point every time they bring their vehicle in for maintenance or repairs. The media's obvious bias and obsession with negative reporting has painted us as a bunch of thieves and con artists who dupe unsuspecting customers into buying parts and services they do not really need.

It is all part of the public paranoia over auto repair these days. To make matters worse, the "repairophobia" that is running rampant is reinforced every time the media broadcasts or publishes a report of repair fraud or overzealous selling on the part of some automotive service center. Add to this the "grease monkey" stereotype image that is so often portrayed in commercials and it is easy to see why we receive even less respect as a profession than lawyers.

A favorite tactic used to "prove" auto repair fraud by the news media as well as consumer groups and state law enforcement agencies is the undercover sting operation. They rig a vehicle, take it to a number of unsuspecting service facilities and ask for an instant diagnosis. The odds of someone misdiagnosing the problem under these circumstances and recommending an "unnecessary" repair is virtually guaranteed (like telling a customer he needs an alignment because his front tires show heavy toe wear, even though the rigged car is in perfect alignment; or telling a customer that he needs a tune-up because his engine is misfiring, even though the rigged engine has only a single spark plug with the electrode bent shut, a situation that would never occur in real life unless somebody installed the wrong plug or damaged it). So the sting operation proves once again that repair fraud is rampant and that we cannot be trusted to give honest evaluations or to perform the appropriate repairs.

Therefore, many people are afraid to bring their vehicles in for service or needed repairs for fear that they'll be ripped-off. So they stay away. What's more, they don't maintain their vehicles like they should, they postpone needed maintenance and repairs, and when repairs are finally unavoidable or their vehicle breaks down they complain about how much it costs to get it fixed.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, some technicians believe all of this garbage, too. Repairophobia has infected the aftermarket. The ongoing assault by the media, consumer groups and law enforcement agencies has made many of us hypersensitive about "consumer rights." Consequently, the various segments of the repair industry have come together to develop and implement uniform inspection guidelines under the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP). The voluntary MAP guidelines are an effort to standardize and reevaluate many of the inspection and repair practices that have long been taken for granted. The MAP guidelines that have been approved contain procedures and policies designed to help us do our jobs better while protecting consumers from "unnecessary" repairs. It is a big step in the right direction. But there is a downside, too.

By placing so much emphasis on distinguishing repairs that are absolutely necessary from those that are merely recommended for preventative maintenance or to improve performance, we have made "selling" a dirty word. As a result, service managers are becoming gun shy about recommending additional repairs or maintenance that might be of benefit to the customer, and technicians are becoming even more reluctant to look for additional things that might need fixing. Why? Because they are all afraid their customers will see any effort to sell additional repairs or services as an attempt to rip them off.

In the past, commissions have always been a strong incentive to spark the sales of additional parts and services. But there is less emphasis on commissions today. Consumers say commissions encourage abuse. There was even talk at one time about making commission sales of automotive parts and services illegal! So some service centers and retail chains backed away from straight commissions. Take away commissions and you lessen the incentive for abuse. But you also lose the incentive that motivates many employees to look beyond the obvious. As a result, they develop tunnel vision and overlook numerous sales opportunities.

Take a brake job, for example. Why look for leaky hoses or other parts that might need replacing if all the customer wants is a set of new pads? The same logic applies to checking for marginal suspension parts, shocks, struts or other chassis parts that might need attention. Is a wheel alignment absolutely necessary when a new set of tires are sold? No, but checking alignment is a good way to make sure the customer will get maximum tread life out of his new set of tires. The point is somebody has to sell repairs and service. Often that means making recommendations that are not absolutely necessary but can be of real benefit to the customer.

Time will tell if the current trend to downplay "selling" as a result of repairophobia helps consumers more than it hurts them. It is certainly going to hurt the aftermarket in terms of missed parts and service sales. And it is going to hurt consumers too, because their vehicles may not receive the attention they should, and that can end up costing them more repair dollars in the long run.


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