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Editor's Notebook

Paper Tiger: Tackling Image Problem Takes Real Teeth, Not Tax Boondoggle

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All I can say is: Be careful what you wish for. We’ve all heard tales of consumers being ripped off by auto repair shops. TV news shows and other media have done their watchdog best to uncover unscrupulous shops, especially during sweeps months.

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Many consumers see those hyper-hyped “Eyewitless News” exposes and automatically lump all repair shops – good and bad – together. They are indignant and outraged, and they tell others that they are indignant and outraged. And, thus, ill feelings spread.

Others breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t their shop of choice on the nightly news and remain confident that their preferred provider is fair and honest. Still, such reports place a shadow of doubt in everyone’s minds.

This “image problem” doesn’t spill over on tire dealers, some insist. After all, they say, it takes a lot more than a rent check, a Chilton manual and a box of tools to run a tire dealership. But, it is a problem for tire dealers because consumers make no differentiations – a repair shop is a repair shop.

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No one in our business needs a negative perception. Winning the trust of consumers and protecting and improving the good image of tire dealers and repair shops should be the top priority of this industry.

Thus was born the whole idea of “shop licensing.”

Some out there think licensing repair businesses will solve that negative perception problem. By holding repair shops to a “higher standard,” they feel, the fly-by-nighters and common criminals will be flushed away, and consumers will feel totally comfortable and confident in their repair choices.

Many tire dealers have gotten foursquare behind the idea. It is a noble concept. In a perfect world, it might even work.

But, we do not live and work in a perfect world.

To be succinct: The shop licensing legislative proposals being bandied about won’t clean anything up…until the proposals themselves are cleaned up. And, much of what has to be cleaned up is self-delusion and self-interest.

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Today’s vehicles are way better – and more complicated – than those of just a decade ago. Most consumers have no idea how a car works or what it really takes to keep it running. Heck, you know how much training it takes to keep your techs up to snuff. Think your customers have a handle on that?

When vehicles do need work, the bills can be pricey. Do some consumers feel “ripped off” when they get their car fixed? Sure. When the $19.99 oil change, $39.99 brake job and complementary vehicle inspection they came in for turns into a $600 credit-card buster, what consumer wouldn’t feel indignant and outraged?

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The work and charge may be completely legit, but put yourself in their shoes: How would you feel if someone took your money and you didn’t understand why?

Most times, such customer irritation is diffused with a little “consumer education.” In some situations, though, all the patient explanations in the world just won’t work. It all depends.

But, shop licensing is not going to make consumers smarter about their sleds or help them understand what a set of rotors or premium radials costs. A framed certificate is not going to end angst over a big-dollar repair bill, and it will not make complaints disappear. In fact, state-mandated licensing will likely cause an increase in complaints – if only because there would be some sort of regulatory body to complain to.

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You already have ASE and TIA certifications, not to mention training from equipment and tool suppliers and tire companies. And, there are MAP standards, the BBB and the AAA recommended-provider program. You already have a federal tax ID number and a business license or some form of tax stamp from your home state and/or county.

You have been identified, verified, certified, clarified and taxified. Do you really think licensing will help?

Yes, there are less-than-reputable shops ripping people off with fake repairs and padded bills. But, licensing isn’t going to eliminate all of them. In fact, without some serious teeth, mandated licensing will just give these dishonest shops a license to continue stealing.

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And, serious teeth must add up to more than just another state tax on small business.

The Automotive Service Association has taken point on the whole shop-licensing thing. You remember ASA; they’re the ones fighting against Right to Repair legislation.

ASA is 100% committed to bringing shop licensing to every state in the union. It proudly points out that 20 states have “some form” of shop licensing. That’s proof, in its eyes, that shop licensing must be good.

But, a closer look at the facts shows that only two states – California and Hawaii – actually have comprehensive, logical licensing systems that require an actual demonstration of competence.

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Two other states require shops to have “proper tools and equipment” (whatever that means). Two states have licensing regs only for body shops, while three address only state vehicle inspection stations.

Ten other states on ASA’s licensing list have nothing more than glorified taxes. Pay a fee. Get a slip of paper. Hang it on the wall. Consumers: Zero, state tax coffers: Millions!

ASA led recent efforts to license repair shops in Texas and tried the same thing in Ohio last year. In neither case did the proffered legislation outline specific levels of competency – training acquired and maintained and tools and equipment employed, for example – that shops must “demonstrate.”

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The failed Ohio effort even called for the creation of a licensing commission comprised of – get this – a bunch of ASA members, predominately from the collision repair sector.

Under the Texas and Ohio bills, licenses would have been required by any business that so much as touched a vehicle. Tire dealers, independent service shops, quick lubes and body shops would be covered. So, too, would parts stores that offer complementary services like free battery installs or washer-fluid top-offs for seniors. Let’s not forget companies like Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Sears and little places like Al’s Car Stereo Emporium, the corner gas station and all those travel centers on the turnpike.

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And, here is the best part: Guess which businesses were specifically exempted by ASA’s Texas and Ohio efforts. Give up? Car dealers!!!

Does anyone out there think car dealers are more competent than independent shops? I sure don’t. That’s a little like saying OE tires are more fuel-efficient than replacement tires, but I digress.

Doctors, accountants and lawyers are all licensed, ASA says, as though that was proof of licensing effectiveness. But, when has a license ever kept an innocent guy out of jail or prevented a tragic misdiagnosis? It is folly to equate even the best repair shop with the highly trained individuals to whom we trust our physical and financial lives. No offense, guys, cause I love you all, but 10 ASE certifications doesn’t trump 10 years in medical school.

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Besides all this, the real problem with current shop licensing efforts is the lack of assurances such programs offer the public. Again, other than California and Hawaii, no current licensing schemes – not even the proposals that wormed their way into the Texas and Ohio legislatures – truly require repair shops to demonstrate any level of competency.

Unless repair shop licensing proposals outline specific performance, training and equipment/tool standards, provide a fair and realistic means for businesses to demonstrate competency and create a fair and realistic system to handle consumer complaints – universally applied to ALL businesses that service consumer vehicles – shop licensing will be nothing more than a paper panacea, a comfy blankie for the foolhardy.

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Chew on this: There are about 197,000 independent repair, tire dealer, service station and quick-lube locations and another 45,000 independent body shop locations. That’s a universe of 242,000 shops. By comparison, ASA has around 20,000 members – 12,000 of them are body shops, some belonging to car dealers – which is less than 9% of the entire market. But, ASA is pressing state legislators – most of whom are car clueless – to dictate how your business will operate.

Now, in fairness, while others just complain about the aftermarket’s image problems, at least ASA is trying to do something tangible.

Many aftermarket suppliers and associations have launched consumer education efforts – well, to the degree that their marketing budgets allow. These “soft” efforts only address part of the perception issue, and only reach those consumers actively engaged in the service process. What about those not requiring a repair? What are they doing to reach all consumers?

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Most elected officials cannot think or talk unless a special interest does the thinking or talking for them. ASA recognizes that, and despite the obvious shortcomings thus far, it has been the only group to step up and do something more substantial than creating pamphlets, Web sites and “safety reminders.” If this “image problem” is to be solved by public policy, we need a “hard” way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Without realistic application, state licensing will do nothing to shake the chaff out. You deserve better, and your customers certainly deserve better. It’s time to come up with something better.

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