Any mechanic who has seen a check engine light knows that it could indicate anything from a simple repair to a complex diagnostic issue. As a technician, service advisor, and service manager with over 23 years of experience, the one thing that I found most difficult to communicate and sell to customers was diagnostic time.
To make matters worse, customers often compare the service they receive at a quality shop with the deceiving convenience of parts stores. These stores use a handheld code puller to pull the code and sell parts on the spot, based on a code without performing any diagnosis. Customers who then install the part and feel they have resolved the issue may ask, “Who needs a technician?” Don’t you wish it was that easy! It would take a lot of the cost and stress out of auto repair. Diagnosing computer-controlled vehicles can be costly for the consumer as well as the shop. Here’s some advice on how to communicate this value to your customers.
 
Let’s start with a breakdown of what diagnosing a check engine light on a computer-controlled vehicle looks like at a quality repair facility:
 
1) Trained Service Advisor: This is your point-person for the interaction. A repair order will need to be written, the vehicle properly identified, and the problem effectively communicated to the technician. The repair order is a legally binding agreement written by a service advisor who is trained in the best customer service practices. An untrained advisor is likely to miscommunicate some part of the process that can lead to mistrust, repairs taking longer than expected, or charges that weren’t properly communicated. A trained service advisor is a professional; having someone on staff at the caliber needed to ensure clarity and communicate expectations to both parties comes at a cost.
 
2) Trained (Ideally ASE Certified) Technician: If you were sick, would you want a medical student or an inexperienced doctor diagnosing your health issue?  Proper automotive professional training and quality equipment is expensive.  Professional auto technicians undergo formal education, continuous ongoing training, and purchase their own professional quality tools.  These costs and time commitments are comparable to those incurred by someone who has a more traditional college degree.
 
3) Good Quality Computer Diagnostic Tool (Scan Tool): This tool is used to interface with your vehicle’s computer system. It is capable of “pulling a code,” but “pulling a code” is only a starting point. These scan tools range from basic code readers to advanced computer diagnostic computers. Advanced scan tools range upwards of $25,000. The shop generally incurs this cost as well as the cost of training the staff to properly use the advanced functions of this tool. This tool in NO WAY tells you what is wrong with the vehicle. It provides data for the technician to interpret in order to get started with diagnosing the problem. The technician must use his knowledge to trace down and diagnose the issue with the vehicle.
 
All of these things are very costly. Let’s take a look at what happens at a parts store (or with an inexperienced, untrained mechanic).  You get your “code pulled” and the code points to a problem in the O2 bank 1 sensor 2. The parts store sells you an O2 sensor and the cost of this sensor is generally $90-$300, depending on the sensor. The sensor is installed and the check-engine light is still on (electronic parts are generally NOT returnable). Why is the check engine light still on??? The code said it was the O2 sensor.
 
Experienced mechanics know that an O2 sensor reads the amount of O2 in the exhaust system, which is an indication of the air/fuel mixture. The goal of the sensor is to help the engine run as efficiently as possible and also to produce as few emissions as possible. The code is actually an indication of a problem with the ratio of air and fuel and is telling you that sensor readings are out of range. This problem could be an indication of a failing O2 sensor; but it could also be a problem with another related system. There is no guessing in these situations, you need a professional scan tool AND a trained technician to completely diagnose and repair the problem. After all, you wouldn’t get an MRI without having a doctor to interpret the results.  
 
When a patient goes to the doctor, the doctor doesn’t tell him or her what’s wrong for free. Nor does the patient ask a pharmacist to diagnose the medical condition. Parts stores or inexperienced mechanics shouldn’t diagnose a computer-controlled vehicle. In providing a professional diagnosis, a quality shop will have invested in the staff and tools needed to save time, frustration, and, in the long run, money.  All of these things are costly and necessary for a fair customer-to-shop interaction.  Quality shops who build long lasting relationships with clients help them understand why paying a diagnostic charge is fair and necessary.  
 
Jill Trotta is an ASE-certified technician and consultant and an automotive professional on RepairPal’s Automotive Professionals Team. She has over 23 years of experience in the automotive industry as a technician, service advisor, parts manager, and service manager. She has both dealership and independent repair experience. Jill is passionate about changing the face of automotive repair through education and creating a culture of fairness for both the consumers and business owners.