Contributing Author: Craig Fitzgerald
For quite a few years, I spent time writing copy and sharing content with the folks at Car Talk, the NPR radio show featuring brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi. They were a couple of Cambridge, Massachusetts, grease monkeys who dispensed as much hilarity as they did car advice on their nationally syndicated show. But their most important contribution to both car owners and mechanics was their ability to root out the problem a car owner was having, using nothing but the telephone.
In one of their episodes, they consulted the “Ford Motor Company Official List of Car Noises,” including all manner of noises that your car may produce when it’s not working properly, including clunks, thumps, clinks, clanks, and whizzes. Over 25 years on the air, hardly a week went by when the brothers didn’t hear from a puzzled car owner who performed their own version of what sound was coming from the engine or front suspension.
It was amazing to hear these two brothers hone in on exactly what the issue might be, just by hearing an interpretation of the noise, with a little background information on the driving conditions under which it occurred. It was a study in the art of good communication, where one party tries their best to get their point across and the other one intently listens to best understand.
Expressing your problem and getting someone to understand it is paramount to getting your automotive problems solved. We’ve got some tips on how to get this done.
Know Who You’re Talking To
Perhaps the biggest challenge when you’re communicating with the people who are going to fix your car is that you’re often not communicating with the person who’s actually going to fix it.
An auto mechanic is skilled in fixing your car, whether it’s replacing a fuel injector or rebuilding a transmission. They’re paid – often by the job – to fix cars, not communicate with the end user.
The person you’re going to speak with at either the service department of an automotive dealership or anything other than the smallest independent shop is a Service Advisor. They’re a go-between that speaks to a customer, understands their problem, recommends other services, and then communicates that information to the mechanic that actually does the work.
In the best case, they’ve listened to your issue and transcribed the problem in clear terms that the service tech can understand. In the worst case, it’s a game of telephone where your problem gets communicated as something else entirely.
Before you visit a shop, if you’re going to be speaking with a service advisor and not the service tech directly, make sure you can clearly explain what’s going on so that everyone involved is on the same page.
You Have a Camera. Use It.
All of us are walking around with sophisticated, good-quality audio, video, and photography equipment in our front pockets. Your phone can be your most important tool when communicating with a service advisor.
Photos: You and Your Mechanic’s Best Friend
Photos can certainly help drivers and service advisors understand what’s going on with a vehicle. “I’m a visual learner, so pictures really do help,” says Jay Condrick, who runs Boston Mobile Tire. He uses photos of his own to communicate with his customers. “The hardest situation I deal with is a flat tire on an all-wheel-drive vehicle,” he says. All-wheel drive vehicles are especially sensitive to the tread depth at all four corners. If a tire needs to be replaced and the other tire on that axle is sufficiently worn, you need to replace the second tire at the same time in order to avoid damaging the center differential.
To help customers measure their tread depth and determine which size tires they need, Jay sends screenshots of informative material from his website to help both him and his customer determine whether they need just one tire, or it’s time to replace all four.
Film Weird Noises and Strange Behavior
Your phone’s video camera can also be a huge help when trying to explain an issue. Intermittent flashing lights and weird sounds are the banes of a mechanic’s existence because they tend to magically go away when the vehicle rolls into the shop, only to return the second the customer picks the car up.
If you can safely record a video – or even better: have a passenger do it for you – then you can be sure that the service tech knows what to look for. My own daughter sent me a video of the headlights suddenly turning off in her Jeep, and it helped me determine that there was a broken wire on one side, causing her headlights to flicker. Five minutes later, I’d repaired it and it’s been working great ever since.
How to Avoid Gender Bias
Women have a dim view of the automotive repair experience, and it’s not without reason. AutoMD.com did a study of 2,400 car owners to see what they thought about their repair shop/service center experience. Women overwhelmingly hated the idea of bringing their car to a shop. Only 16 percent of consumers surveyed had a positive view of their experience and most women suggested that they’d rather go to the dentist than get their car fixed.
For both men and women in the survey, the main issue was feeling overcharged, often because an estimate didn’t match up with the actual invoice. “Not knowing what the job will cost” was their number one challenge in the repair process. Interestingly, shops have been aggressively trying to offer better customer service with things like free cappuccino, bottled water, and loaner cars, but the survey suggested that the percentage of women who wanted better customer service (6%) or speedier repairs (8%) was dwarfed by the percentage of women who wanted to know exactly what a job would cost up front (83%). There’s good reason for this particular concern among women, as research has shown that women are more likely to be overcharged for repairs.
Knowledge Is Power
In order to avoid that negative experience, it’s important to understand exactly what the estimate entails. If you’re going in for a specific service, ask what else is involved in making that repair. For example, if your car needs a timing belt at 75,000 miles, it can get into a lot more than just the timing belt. If it requires removing a water pump, there’s little sense in putting a water pump with that many miles back on the car, so the two jobs are often done together.
Most shops are going to adequately explain that, but for your own peace of mind, always ask about it to help avoid any surprises. Once you know what the recommended repair is, you can also use online resources like AAA to get an idea of what it should reasonably cost. Simply showing that you have done your own homework can affect the quote you receive.
Interestingly, Jay Condrick has also noticed some distinct gender differences in the information that he gets from his customers. When he sends screenshots of how to read a sidewall to his female customers, “they’ll respond with just what I need. When I send it to a guy, they usually reply ‘It’s an F-150.’ I actually find that women are much easier to coach through the process of finding the correct tire information and sending back proper pictures of the sidewall or the tire placard inside the door,” he says. “Guys tend to either guess or ‘yeah yeah’ me too often.”
Know What a Check Engine Light Means
Most of us have experienced an illuminated Check Engine light. They can be scary, but understanding what the light is telling you can help you to communicate with your service advisor or mechanic.
The first thing to notice is whether the Check Engine light is steady or flashing. A steady Check Engine light is generally warning you that one of the car’s many sensors has picked up an issue that should be looked at, but It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to immediately pull off the highway. If the vehicle seems to be running fine, you can usually bring the car to a shop at your earliest convenience with a steady Check Engine light.
If the light is flashing, though, that typically means something serious is happening, and that you should visit a shop as soon as possible. For example, if an ignition coil isn’t performing properly, it can cause unburnt fuel to collect in the combustion chamber, and exit through the exhaust system. Drive it too much without having the vehicle serviced, and you can damage the catalytic converter (a much more expensive repair) in addition to the original problem.
Chrysler vehicles from 1996 until deep into the 2000s had a built-in code reader to help you understand why the Check Engine light was illuminated. With the vehicle off, cycle the key to the “RUN” position three times then leave it there, and the odometer reading would be replaced with a “P” followed by a three- or four-digit code. A quick Google search for the code will tell you exactly what the problem is.
Help Get the Process Started With a Code Reader
Most other vehicles don’t have this handy feature or have weird Morse Code-style flashes on the ABS light that don’t tell you much. Have no fear, though. If you have a Check Engine light, you can go to any decent auto parts store and the counter people will read the code using a digital code scanner.
Better yet, check with your local library. Libraries like the Norwood Library in Norwood, Massachusetts, have a “Library of Things” that allow you to check out an OBD-II Code Reader the same way you would a book or a video.
With that information in hand, it makes it a lot easier to communicate with your mechanic. “My Check Engine light is on,” is a lot less specific than saying “I have a P0442 code.” That can be the difference between a trip to the shop, and the service advisor telling you to try tightening your fuel cap to make the code go away.
All of this is going to help you foster better communication with your service provider. There’s a lot you don’t know about how your car works, but if you can describe the sounds, smells, or feel of what you’re experiencing, you’ve gone a long way toward a positive repair experience.
Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.