Few topics in the automotive repair business are as controversial and confrontational as the fee for a diagnosis. Should a customer have to pay for the time the mechanic spends figuring out what is wrong with a vehicle or only for the repairs he or she actually makes? These days, don't technicians just plug the car into a computer to figure out what's wrong?
Everyone, from consumers to advice columnists, have a strong opinion on this topic. But what’s missing is a technician’s point of view on the subject, so here goes …
A customer dropped his vehicle off at our shop last week. He wanted us to find out why his power seat would not move forward. We removed the side panel and tested the wiring and electronic motor circuits. A few more pinpoint tests led us to the problem—a faulty seat switch, which, with parts and labor, totaled nearly $170. The customer declined the repairs and asked us to reassemble the seat.
When we handed over the bill for the diagnostic charge, he refused to pay, saying, “You just told me that my seat was broken. I already knew that.” In his mind, we hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know, so he didn’t understand why he should be charged for anything when no repair was actually performed.
The manager of the service department where I am employed once said something to me that best clarifies and sums up our position—“We sell service.” Because service is not really a tangible item, it often doesn’t appear to have intrinsic value. But anyone who has experienced bad service knows how crucial good service can be.
Sometimes it’s difficult for a customer to understand the value of a technician’s time. At a grocery store, a pound of prosciutto ham and a gallon of milk have inherent tangible value that’s reflected in the price. You pay money and you get to take it home. But service in itself isn’t something you can take home—it isn’t something you can hold in your hands. But let’s say you are in therapy. After an appointment, you would never refuse to pay because you didn’t get the results you were looking for. We pay experts for their time, training, and the skills they have acquired—no results are guaranteed.
Many customers balk at paying diagnostics fees, especially when it comes to trouble codes. Often customers think that the simple reading of a trouble code (which takes less than five minutes) completes the repair process, when actually, it’s just the beginning. For example, the P0503 code, which indicates a malfunctioning vehicle speed sensor, has forty-one steps spanning eleven pages in a shop manual after the code has been set. Examining those forty-one steps takes time and expertise to examine—shouldn’t the technician be paid for that time?
Ultimately, it really is less expensive to pay a qualified technician for a proper diagnosis than it is to replace components based on a hunch of what might be wrong. They may have dirty fingernails, but some senior master automobile technicians actually have as much training as medical professionals—why should their time matter any less?