The Service Advisor . . .

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Selling you a car is just a prelude to selling you service. Not that there’s anything wrong with selling service – assuming you need it. But if you don’t, the mark-up is 100 percent.

That beats hell out of the 2-3 percent profit dealers make on the typical new car sale.

It’s why there’s often a salesman in the service department – the service advisor. Many people have no idea that the guy writing up their repair ticket often works on commission – that he makes money selling you the service he advises. It’s not just a conflict of interest – it’s usually an undisclosed one. You know the salesman – the guy who sold you your car – is there to make a buck off the deal.

It’s an above-board adversarial relationship. You are on your guard.

When it comes to service, you let it down.

Because the interest in selling you service isn’t disclosed. “Service advisor” has a different ring to it than service salesman. It is disingenuous lingo, designed to put you at ease by conflating one thing with another thing. It’s almost as much an affront to honest lingo as – and I am not making this up – the practice (apparently spreading) of referring to prison inmates as guests and clients.

Yes, really. And why not? We “contribute” to Social Security, too.

At any rate the first thing to know is that the service advisor may have a financial interest in selling you service. The second thing to find out is whether the service he’s recommending is actually necessary.

This is both hard – and easy.

Hard, because the service advisor working on commission is a trained expert at selling – and most of us are easy meat for his Dark Arts. Which consist, primarily, in selling fear. That the car has some major problem – or will, if it’s not  . . . serviced. Soon.

That you are treading on thin ice, running all kind of risk.

So glad you came in today!

Women are the stereotypical marks – but also men, who in general have become just as in the dark about how cars work and may be even more vulnerable to the Fear Sell since they feel pressured to at least pretend to understand how cars work:

Well, Mr. Smith it looks like your Duntov cam is wearing out; I wouldn’t drive the car if I were you . . . we can get you in this afternoon; shouldn’t cost more than about $400 (the car hip will get the joke).

Mr. Smith nods – and signs the work order.

One of the common ruses in play today is to offer a “free” inspection when a car is brought in for some very basic thing such as a tire rotation or oil change. It is usually marketed (just the right word) as a “10 point” or “20 point” or something similarly impressive-sounding inspection – and the inevitable demerit points your car receives are invariably couched in terms of it being a saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety issue. That word has a hypnotic effect on most people today. It suspends rational judgment, silences questioning.

The service advisor then advises various services – which are not free.

Often these are necessary services, just not right now. For example, the brake pads are worn, but aren’t worn out – or even close. They have 30 percent of their wear material left, which for most drivers means another year or even two of driving before it becomes necessary to replace the pads. But the service advisor will advise changing them now.


For saaaaaaaaaaafety!

Lots of people are suckers for this.

Here’s another:

All cars need their oil and other fluids/filters changed every so often. But how often, exactly? The service advisor may advise having them changed much sooner than is actually necessary. This is very easily done because many people do not grok that fluid/filter changeout intervals today are often twice or even three times what they were in the past. For example, it is common to go 5,000 or even 10,000 miles in between oil changes vs. the 3,000 miles that was typical back in the ’80s.

Given the cost of some of the oil/fluids in use today (many synthetics, which are required by more and more new cars, cost $10 or more per quart and most cars need at least 4-5 quarts) changing before it’s necessary can add up to a lot of money literally poured down the drain.

Premature tune-ups are another classic upsell. Most modern cars don’t need anything in the way of a tune-up (including spark plugs) for 100,000 miles or more.

Another one is the bogus “70,000 mile service” – sometimes recommended by the dealer but not specified by the manufacturer.

And that’s how we get to the easy part. The way you dodge the bullshit bullet.

First, never trust. Always verify. If the service advisor advises a brake job that you don’t think you need – the car seemed to be braking just fine when you brought it in for the tire rotation – ask to see the supposedly worn out brake pads and if you have any doubt about anything you’re being told, just say no – and get a second opinion.

If the car was running and driving (and braking) just fine when you brought it in for the tire rotation, it probably is fine.

Second, your car – every car – came with an owner’s manual which contains a factory recommended service schedule; it lists everything your car needs to have done in terms of routine and major service, according to specific mileage and time intervals. This is what you go by. Not the “recommendations” of the service advisor/salesman when they run counter to what the factory says.  Whatever he advises you do, check it against what the manual tells you to do.

Then do that.

And skip those “free” inspections. They tend to cost too much.

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. My advice is to find a good independent garage and use them, Stay away from the dealer except for warranty work. The hourly rate most dealerships charge is way out of line. The Firestone, Goodyear and other such places aren’t much better than the dealership. If you lived in my and Eric’s area we could point you in the direction of good repair shops that don’t take advantage of a non-car guy and do professional work. They work in shops that don’t cost millions of dollars, but do excellent work.

    • Amen, Tony!

      Not everyone has a Reed’s Garage just down the road… which is sad on multiple levels. The dealership chain store is a gaudy, multi-million dollar enterprise, as you say. And because of that, even if they mean well, the pressure to maximize the revenue stream is serious.

      How go the projects? Stop by sometime! I know I am a recluse – and a worse one since Jill left.

  2. My town has two “oh, what a feeling!” (use a search engine for the slogan, if needed) dealerships.
    I have used both for oil and filter changes from time to time. Mainly because they always use a new oil drain plug washer with the service, while charging a reasonable price.

    Once, dealership #1, (along with the oil and filter change), gave me a free multiple point safety inspection printout that indicated that I had water in my cooling system. Oh, the horrors! The service advisor informed me of this with a concerned and grave face, as if my car had been diagnosed with stage IV terminal cancer. I paid for the oil and filter change and drove home telling myself that I must have given the service advisor the impression of a vegetable that had freshly fallen off the turnip truck (read: a complete mark).

    A few years and a few oil and filter changes later, I drove to dealership #2 for an oil and filter change. While I was waiting for the task to be completed, I was approached by a service advisor. He informed me that the mechanic had noticed some oil spotting around the head gasket. He went on to inform me that I could have the head gasket and water pump replaced for eight hundred seventy-five dollars and it would only take a couple of additional hours. I declined the service.

    At home, I popped the hood an looked for the oil leak around the head gasket. It appeared that there was a drop of oil under one of the cylinder head bolts, which could have been easily achieved by swabbing a drop of oil in that area. Long story short, no head gasket problem in the real world.

    A few months later, at dealership #2, I brought the same car in for another oil and filter change. This time, there was a service advisor who checked out the state of the car’s body before it was driven to the mechanic’s area for liability purposes.

    No additional service concerns were indicated on the free multiple point inspection. When I paid the oil and filter change bill, the service advisor took me aside, looked at me, and then said “Never sell your car.” (It was a sixteen year old 4Runner with 67,000 miles I had purchased new and treated well).

    I can’t help but wonder if this service advisor is still employed by dealership #2. He was honest with me, but I fear he may have wound up being too honest for the dealer service department.

  3. I had to remind a “service advisor” who recommended timing belt service on my Subaru Outback (which is a totally legit and necessary service at 105K miles; because once that belt breaks, your engine is toast) that my Outback came not with the 2.5 L H4 which has a belt, but the 3.6 L H6 which uses a chain that is never changed and is self-adjusting.

  4. Very informative Eric. I can only go to the dealer for recall work now, and even then, I don’t like them having my car. Maybe I’ll take my chances on the recalls…

    Some experiences: There was oil on the alternator, they said some gasket needed to be replaced. Car was a new used car so I told them to do it. Two years later they say there is oil on the alternator, because the power steering line is leaking. Turns out that was the actual problem. So I spent money two years earlier fixing a non-existent problem. Learned my lesson over time, and only took my car to the dealership for recalls. But since I like to consolidate service, I asked them to inspect the car and put the summer tires on. After I reject the offer to replace my power steering and brake fluid, the guy tells me my summer tires have bubbles in them, and proceeds to explain the great deals he has on tires right now. I tell him to put the winter tires back on to pass inspection. I get my car home and my car’s radio antenna is gone. WTF would that need to be taken off for? Was it a joke? Was it theft?

    I got it back and got the tires put on elsewhere, no bubbles, no problem. These people are frauds. Didn’t know the advisors were commission-based but looking back at the fear sales tactics it certainly makes sense. They’ve made enough off me, I finally found a good independent shop.

    • Thanks, Brandon!

      As in so many areas of life, it’s about due diligence and caveat emptor. With car repairs, finding a competent and honest mechanic is almost as important as being careful about which car you buy. Word of mouth – asking people you know whose judgment you respect – whether they know a good one is a good place to start.

      And it’s best to look before you need one!

    • “I can only go to the dealer for recall work now, and even then, I don’t like them having my car. Maybe I’ll take my chances on the recalls…”

      Yep. Fusion door latch recall fix resulted in passenger side door rattling and the plastic trim pieces on both doors having their hooks broken off. Fortunately, they are not super obvious since they are inset behind the door handles. We found one on the floor, one in our driveway. I complained, they offered to correct it, I told them I would rather have the rattle than have them touch my car again. For now I am storing the parts and doing without. If and when I get motivated I will open the door and fix it and put the trim pieces back with a trim screw.

      Like prep for surgery, you should always put a big label on the part which is giving you a problem. Maybe stripped bolts are the result of the guys rhyming “Righty, Tighty, Lefty, Loosie” but not knowing which is right and left. Kind of like a 2 year old reciting the alphabet without knowing what an alphabet is. Chevy dealer years ago had a brand new car for a full day and “fixed” the door that was not broken. We saw the mechanic putting the door panel back on when we went to pick up the car. My wife needed the car the next day and when we went to pick it up she gave the service manager what-for. Really funny since his mic to the shop’s PA system was hot. At least it was not like the Fusion story and that door was still OK, as it was when we took it in to have the opposite door repaired.

      I remember an incident where that same Chevy, with 18,000 miles on it, went to that major retailer which is now basically a real estate company (begins and ends with “s”) to have the tires rotated and balanced. They assured same wife that car needed ball joints. She called me at work and I told her to head for the exits. I dropped the car off at a local alignment shop the next day and asked him to check out the front end. About noon he called and asked if I was having some sort of a problem with the car since he couldn’t find anything wrong. No charge. You can bet that as long as we lived in Huntsville, Joe got all my jobs involving alignment and running gear. He was a farm boy from Mississippi and as honest as the day is long.

      Funny side note: probably 20 years later, Joe having died, I was talking to some folks in Gulf Shores, Alabama, 370 miles away, and we got discussing mechanics. I praised Joe, and one of the men in the group pointed at a lady in the room and said “That’s his daughter.” She was really touched and pleased to hear my story. Like they say, small world.

  5. Sweet jesus I hate this.

    The two worst in my area are Firestone and Goodyear.

    Goodyear would give me a litany for a ’94 Camry I once owned. It was 15 years old, had 200K+ on it. I’d listen to the dude and then tell him I’m not spending one more nickel than I have to on this geriatric car. It dies, I’ll toast to it’s service and buy another.

    Goodyear also screwed up my VSS set point on a Forerunner I owned when the did this check when I bought tires. Left the OBD socket cover off. Made me nuts.

    Firestone sent me over the edge. I made an appointment for my wife’s maxima. I show up, and they tell me they are super busy, and it’ll be 1.5 hours or so. We had a discussion about what exactly an appointment meant, then I left it while I got a haircut. As I was sitting in the barber chair, dude came up and pulled my car into the bay. Awesome. Finished at the barber, it was still in the bay, so I headed off to grab lunch.

    I take my time eating, walk back, and the damn thing is still in the bay, about 18″ off the deck. And there’s no tires appear to be happening. So I go in and sit, watch the mechanic futz around under the hood, and stew. I finally lost it, went to the counter and said as busy as they were, maybe they’d catch up if they did what I was PAYING THEM to do, and put my tires on instead of poking around where the tires aren’t.

    He gave me some boilerplate about the free saaaaaaftey check. Had to counsel them again that I want tires. Luckily, they learned, and were sufficiently contrite and don’t do that any longer.

    • Hi Pat,


      Another thing that’s become common is to deny the customer access to the “work area” – for saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety, of course. I understand it is probably for liability reasons (event that is sketchy) but the point is you aren’t allowed to see what they are doing to your car.

      • Eric, this is the thing I hate most about the chain garages / main dealers…. they dont let you see whats happening to your car!!! Know I probably dont know much but love seeing whats inside / happening to the car…. the worst are main dealers where you cant even TALK to the guy who is servicing your car – and as you say the guy at the desk is a salesmen who may well be selling anything. He would have no clue about any question you ask and would simply tell you he will go ask the technician….. to which he would go and come back with an incomplete answer….. which you will then send him back….. and so it goes on….

        • Morning, Nasir!

          Yup. I am grateful I learned how to wrench and so can do most of my own repair work – and the repair work I can’t do, my friend Tim can do! He owns a shop locally and doesn’t give a flip whether I hang out in the back all damned day if I want to!

          • Including Duntov cam. Good memories there. Arkus would wonder why it lasted over 10K since the cams I used begged to be run hard. Idling:Romp on me…..please.

  6. The way to prolong the life of a vehicle: keep it out of the hands of dealerships/shops. Had oil changed at
    dealership during warranty period – result, wrong viscosity oil used, overfilling, and over torqued drain bolt. Woman acquaintance went to same dealership for oil change and latter discovered there was NO oil in the engine.

    Maintained my original owner 1978 CamaroZ28 for 35 years and sold it with original engine – including
    Duntov cam :).

    • Including Duntov cam. Good memories there. Arkus would wonder why it lasted over 10K since the cams I used begged to be run hard. Idling:Romp on me…..please.

  7. And, they always seem to be wearing white lab coats and brandishing aluminum clipboards…very doctor-like. Yes, in a sense they are physicians…proctologists for the most part.

  8. …the service advisor working on commission is a trained expert at selling – and most of us are easy meat for his Dark Arts. Which consist, primarily, in selling fear. That the car has some major problem – or will, if it’s not . . . serviced. Soon.

    That you are treading on thin ice, running all kind of risk.

    To which my response would be something along the lines of “so … you’re admitting to me that you’re selling me a car of inferior engineering that requires maintenance in excess of even the manufacturer’s own specifications for such. How very kind of you. I’ll pass, thank you – on both the service AND the car.”

    Just imagine their shock if you were to demand to get a look at a service warranty package before you even bought the car…

  9. Great commentary. So true. We bought a 2 yr old Mazda 3 from the local dealership and got a bunch of free service thrown in. Wife takes car in for oil change this month and i get a call from her that rear brake pads are worn out. She puts the “service advisor” on the line and he says ” rear pads are at 2mm so you need to replace the rear pads and discs.” 12,000 mi and need to replace pads and discs?? Yeah, right. I told him to put it back together and we would “think about it”. My 17 old and I start to remove wheels and lug nuts are insanely tight. 1 ft long wrench with my 200lbs on end and i still have to jump to loosen the lugnuts. I estimate >200lbft of torque. Spec is 85-105. Nice start. I measure friction material on pads with caliper. 3.75 to 4mm left on all four pads. Liars. Just moved to area, so still learning about where to take vehicles.

    • Thanks, Joe!

      I want to be clear that I’m not impugning dealer service with a broad brush; just advising caution and that people understand how these operations work.

      • Eric, agreed. Neither am I. Just frustrated that the first dealer service contact in 10+ years and they try to rip off my wife.

  10. Man you’re so right – my wife is the main driver of my car and now I mostly send her to have most basic stuff done. Every time, something is wrong and must “immediately” be fixed for safety, and theres always a great risk she will break down on the way home….. The guy is always nice enough to be able to fix it that day, and will charge a fairly hefty amount…. Always this has not even been an issue (one item has been there for 2 years now without issue). Now when my wife goes she just has the guy call me when hes done and tell me whats wrong, to which I thank him and tell him ill get back to him….

    The mechanic I use for real work is a great guy, ex BMW, with every qualification they have (including the highest for working on the Rolls). The reason he left was he didnt like the way BMW worked with regards to pushing stuff onto clients, and working in a very mechanistic way with a real push for driving the bill up and keeping costs down.Now, the on his own the guys shop is one of Surreys best independent BMW specialist, wait is over 3 weeks just to get an appointment, but totally worth the wait for a proper job….


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