|Wednesday, March 23, 2005
14:41 - At the mercy of the High Priests
I am not a gearhead.
I know, I know—it's my own fault, and it's only going to end up costing me a ton of money. Never has that been more vividly illustrated to me than it has been this past week.
It all started THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO—wait, sorry. A little ATHF "Ghost of Christmas Past" slipped in there. I'll try again:
It all started about two weeks ago when I got a courtesy note from the VW dealer, Bob Lewis Volkswagen/Suzuki/Hyundai/Gateway/Starbucks, notifying me that I was about due for my 80,000 mile service, which is one of their big-time milestones with a huge checklist of checks and flushes and refills that covers two columns of a complete sheet of paper. Since my odometer spookily read about 79,495 at that moment, I figured I'd sign 'er up.
I took it in and met my service advisor, an amiable and funny lady whose name I won't mention here because of the possibility that it would comprise "protecting the innocent". (I'll call her "Becky" here, for no reason.) I told her what the service I needed was, pointed out a couple of concerns (1. the rear center seatbelt had seized up and couldn't be pulled out anymore; and 2. the clutch is nearing the age when it might be in need of replacement), as well as the fact that I'm going to be driving this car to Alaska this August, and therefore would very much like to have it in full working order before starting the 5000-odd-mile odyssey. (That clutch still feels fine, but I'd rather not have it go out without warning between Whitehorse and Haines Junction.) She immediately beamed—Why, I have family up there! I just got back from there myself!—and we chatted about the Alaska Highway for a few minutes, getting distracted by the development of a well and truly pleasant rapport. She gave me an estimate for the base service ($500), and recommended a couple of premium services above and beyond that took it to $700—she suggested them as part of her promise to get the car gone over with a fine-toothed comb in preparation for the road trip, and while I realize it's her job to upsell, I wasn't about to start nit-picking and psychoanalyzing at that stage. Though in retrospect perhaps I should have.
Later that day they called me up to tell me the prognosis. I needed $500 extra of work done, to replace an oil pump something-or-other and dipstick, and to fix a coolant sensor and something else. (Being not a gearhead, I can only absorb about 30% of the vocabulary in one of these situations, you see.) "Fine," I said. A little disappointing, but I told myself I should have expected some repairs above and beyond the basic service. It's happened before.
"Also the clutch does need replacing," she went on, "which is $1500, which includes a new clutch plate and bearing and stalk and resurfacing of the flywheel. And the front brakes are at 15%; that's $600 to replace the pads and the rotors. Also the rear middle seat belt will be about $350, but we're going to try to get VW to help out with that. Also the rear shocks aren't responding very well, but that's not very important—the big things are the brakes and the clutch."
...Okay. This was a little less encouraging. I knew that I could get the clutch done elsewhere for about half that, and the brakes for about two-thirds that. I told her to go ahead with the previously agreed-upon repairs, but that I'd take care of the brakes and clutch myself, and we'd wait and see what the deal with the seatbelt was.
I picked up the car with the prescribed services having been done, according to the checklist they handed me. As I paid the $1300 bill (eyeing the figures with a little bit of suspicion, trying to square the total of all the parts/labor line items with the lump estimates I'd been given), I noticed that on the checklist, all forty or fifty check boxes had been marked off with the same little check mark, the same ballpoint pen. It's pretty obvious what had happened: the tech in charge of filling it out had simply marked them all off after the fact, at one sitting. By itself that's not worrisome (I might have done the same thing), but I filed it away for later reference.
I drove the car back to work, after noticing that although they'd washed the car, they hadn't hosed the gunk and the clean-smudges off my front wheel covers—and they were supposed to have rotated my tires. Now, either they did, and then put the same wheel covers back on the same corners... or they didn't rotate the wheels at all. How am I supposed to know? This is where I started to wonder whether not knowing anything about cars is all it's cracked up to be.
Oh yes, and that seatbelt: they'd fixed it, for free. VW had covered it under warranty. Now, while the belt itself was shiny and new-looking, it didn't retract all the way against the seat anymore, the way it used to. Now it sort of hung limply in space. Free as it was, it looked like a half-assed job to me, only further deepening my mistrust for warranty repair: where's the incentive for the service department to do any more than the bare minimum it takes to get the customer out of line so he stops taking up valuable paying service time?
Upon arrival back at work, I called up Midas to schedule a brake service. "Sure," the guy told me. "Bring it in first thing tomorrow." So I did. Now, this is a Midas location that has given my roommate free welding work and lots of excellent service; it came highly recommended. And besides, hell, Midas is all about brakes, right? It's their main thing. I figure if there's any place that can do my Jetta's brakes better than the VW dealer, it's them. Right?
The guy at Midas who took my information certainly seemed honest enough. He expressed enthusiasm about my Jetta and its brakes, which he described as being of some kind of fascinating German design that Mercedes and BMW and Opel and Saab and VW use, where the rotors wear down along with the pads, giving you a better braking feel but requiring your rotors to be replaced along with the pads pretty much all the time. A second guy did the free inspection while I waited, then handed me the estimate: $499. Okay: sounds reasonable. Let's—
...But wait. What's this?
The estimate included new pads; it included new rotors. "And," the second guy said, "your brake fluid is dirty. You need a brake fluid system flush. $60."
Let me remind you that I'd just picked up the car from its 80K service at Bob Lewis. Among those forty or fifty checkboxes, I was sure that "brake fluid system flush" was in there. I stared at the sheet; I stared at the guy. I pointed out that the car had just come back from having its brake fluid flushed. "Well, the fluid is dirty," he said, looking me straight in the eyes. I okayed the service and caught a ride back to work.
A quick check revealed that yes, the 80K service did indeed include a brake fluid system flush. So now I'm wondering: what else did Bob Lewis claim they were going to do to my car, charge me for, and not do after all?
I called up Becky at Bob Lewis and explained the situation to her. She was shocked... horrified, even. She had no idea what even to say to me, and after all that chatting we'd done, my having to come back to her with a complaint was really unbearable—I could hear in her voice that she was taking this matter quite personally. I've worked in service before, and I know how it's even more difficult to work with a complaining customer with whom you'd been getting along well; a whole lot more psychological factors come into play, you're under a whole lot more pressure, and so on. Becky sounded like she was on the verge of tears as she told me as firmly as she could that the guy who'd worked on my car was their most senior technician, she'd trust him to work on her mother's car, Midas must be pulling some kind of snow-job on me, et cetera, et cetera.
Now, here's where things really started to get sticky. No, I confirmed, I hadn't actually seen the dirty brake fluid. I'd only taken the Midas guy's word for it. But I felt I had a number of bits of circumstantial evidence on my side, evidence which implicated that Bob Lewis hadn't exactly done an exemplary job. The half-assed swinging seatbelt. The all-in-one-sitting check marks on the checklist. The fact that my A/C button no longer lit up when I pushed it in, whereas I was pretty sure it had been fine when I'd sent the car into service (but it's winter, so how would I know? It's been months since the A/C has been on. But they had the A/C on when I got the car back, otherwise I'd never have noticed that the button was pushed in but not lit up.) The unwashed, unrotated wheel covers. The fact that Midas had noticed, in passing, that my rear shocks were in fact leaking, not just "not responding very well" as Bob Lewis had told me. Each of these things might have a perfectly innocuous explanation. But taken as a whole, it doesn't leave me with a huge amount of confidence in Bob Lewis' service techs' infallibility.
Yet Becky remained adamant that it was Midas who was snowing me. "I don't know these guys you went to," she sniffed, "and I don't know what kind of training or expertise they claim to have..." I thought this was kind of poor pool on her part. This is Midas, right? They have to have a reputation as an authority on brakes, and purveyors of trustworthy service, otherwise they wouldn't be in business.
She offered to give me a service credit for the cost of the Midas brake fluid system flush, though, in what seemed like an honest effort to keep my business, and that was fine with me. My interest, after all, is primarily in making sure my car will get me to Fairbanks and back, not to recoup sixty bucks. I want to be sure that if Bob Lewis has techs who are skipping service steps, they realize that some customers might in fact be discovering the corners they're cutting, by (perhaps) immediately afterwards having a third party check their work. Because—and this is the point of this whole diatribe right here—what chance does the average car owner, like me, have of being assured that the service they're paying for is actually being performed? How do I know the brake fluid got flushed properly? For that matter, how do I know the wheels got rotated? How do I know the oil pump/dipstick thing got replaced? How do I know the brake pads were actually at 15%? How do I know anything about the status of any of the components I don't see on a regular basis? Becky offered to let me stand in the service bay and watch the mechanic at work; but a) of course he'd be more careful if someone were watching him, even if said someone were just shuffling his feet and looking clueless and uncomfortable; and b) what would I be able to usefully observe? The guy could perform any kind of prestidigitation he wants: "Look! I'm flushing the brake fluid! See me flushing the brake fluid? Or maybe I'm just pouring water down the side of the engine block; how would you know anyway?"
But I had one more card to play. I'd been reading through the service brochure while in the Midas waiting room while they performed the free inspection, and I'd noticed that the brake fluid was checked with a test strip similar to litmus paper. The result color spectrum ranged from a light beige to a medium blue to a dark bluish-purple. So I called up Midas (still that same day, not an hour after I drove the car back from Midas, after having smelled the metallic smell wafting out of the holes in the hubcap and verifying that it smelled sort of differently metallic than it had smelled before—the only way I can verify that they did, in fact, replace my brake rotors, since they didn't give me the old ones or anything—I'm taking it just as much on faith as I took the check boxes on Bob Lewis' checklist) and asked them if it would be all right if I came by and picked up the test strip they'd used to verify my fluid. "Sure," they said.
I dropped in and acted as showily nonchalant as possible. Whooo, here's a customer who knows about test strips! We can't BS this guy! was the impression I was hoping to inspire in them; but just as likely, while I was on my way over, the guy took a test strip and dunked it in a jug of used brake fluid to hand to me. How was I supposed to know? Either way, the strip was still wet and showed deep bluish-purple, just a hair lighter than the worst possible color on the result spectrum. "This might happen if the Bob Lewis tech had just swapped out the fluid in the reservoir, and not actually flushed out all the lines," he told me. "Mechanics often try to get away with that." Sounded reasonable enough. Sounded like he was trying to be as helpful and honest as possible, even to provide an alibi for the Bob Lewis mechanic, like a professional courtesy or something (or honor among thieves). But isn't it just as likely that the Midas guy is simply putting on a good show of his own? Once he'd put that initial estimate in front of me with "flush dirty brake fluid" on it, and I'd told him that the car had just come back from its 80K service the day before, he couldn't very well just retract it and say, "Well, shoot, you got me. I was trying to sucker an extra $60 out of you, but you're right, you don't need a brake fluid system flush. Sorry about that." Right? He had to stick to his story. Even if that meant falsifying a test strip to show me, and making up further charges against the Bob Lewis service department, to make sure that whatever wrath I dispensed, it would be toward Bob Lewis and not Midas. In the end, I have no frickin' idea.
Who's lying to me? Someone is. But the only evidence I have is circumstantial. Even the test strip is inconclusive. I took it to Bob Lewis this morning and showed it to Becky; she sneered at it and said, "Well, that's a nice little scam they've got going." And what could I say? What could I say?
But she gave me the credit against future service (she may have realized she'd overplayed her hand with the sneer, and didn't dwell on it when I asked her what she meant); they discovered that the seatbelt was missing a redesigned clip which they had to order from the factory, though they didn't volunteer a reason why they hadn't noticed this the first time around. The A/C light started working again, just as mysteriously as it had stopped working.
And now I'm left with a big hole in my wallet, a car in allegedly better repair than it was a week ago (though aside from stuff like the seatbelt, which wasn't fixed properly, I have no way of verifying this), and what can only be described as no net gain in automotive mechanical expertise. Oh, sure, I know a little bit more about how brake fluid is tested and how German auto companies build brake systems. But none of this information is of any actual use to me. I can't use it as leverage to intimidate mechanics into not trying to grift me. I can't use it to ensure that the job gets done right. it doesn't help me get a complete seatbelt repair kit under warranty from Volkswagen. It just makes me leave a nice lady at the service counter stammering and in tears, and myself wondering whether I can trust Midas to do my clutch service when the time for that comes, or to install new shocks without telling me that oh, by the way, my forward overhead bearing manifold cam filters are worn out and need to be replaced for $300, please sign here. How do I know? Maybe they are worn out. Maybe they don't exist. What position is the average non-gearhead customer in to say one way or the other?
That's the irritating thing about this aspect of modern life. These days, the average customer is clueless enough about the innards of his or her car that a Midas or a Bob Lewis can potentially get away with playing off that customer's trust and essentially make off with free money in exchange for a good story and some appropriately esoteric abbreviations on an invoice. The customer has no recourse, no defense. In fact, cars these days are such black boxes that they're becoming more mysterious, more the premise of High Priests of Technology, than even computers. When your computer doesn't work, it doesn't work; you can either get to your favorite websites or you can't. It doesn't make a weird pinging or knocking sound that you have to describe to some amused grease monkey. It doesn't need to be serviced every ten thousand clicks and have its monitor resurfaced and its hard drive preventatively swapped out. A computer is more like the seatbelt in my Jetta: if there's a problem, you can see it. It either works or it doesn't. Even a clueless customer can point out that it doesn't work, and when it gets fixed, there's no way not to know that it's indeed been fixed—a tech can't fake it. But cars have a lot more of the other kind of technology: the kind that the customer can't see, the kind that gets serviced only at the recommendation of the techno-gurus, the people you have to just trust on faith, the people in a position to take complete advantage of you because you have no way to check their work or even know that they did anything they said they'd do. All you know is that you've paid a bunch of money.
In an ideal world, that right there should be enough. But this isn't one, and it isn't enough.
UPDATE: I've received some excellent advice and some great stories in response to this, but no take quite as interesting as this by Tim G.:
I use a similar story in my Political Communication course when talking about media bias (short version: quickie oil lube "replaced" a part that I later found out my car didn't have). I use it to illustrate why market choices by consumers might not lead to high quality or unbiased news. Basically, there are at least three types of consumer goods:
Inspection goods: consumer can tell the quality before purchase (think rotten fruit)
Experience goods: consumer can't tell quality before purchase, but can after (think clothing that falls apart)
and (most relevant to this discussion) credence goods, which consumers can't tell the quality of even after purchase (car repairs, anesthetic surgery). The point for my lecture (similar to what you discuss in your post) is that because we as individuals have been dependent on the news media to tell us what we don't know, it has tended to be a credence good. As Rumsfeld points out, it's the unknown unknowns that get you. I argue that this means news choices will often be determined by somewhat irrelevant factors about news that tend to be experience or inspection goods (example 1: choosing based on the best story that everyone is covering, which permits cross-comparison; example 2: choosing based on factors you can inspect directly, like the quality of their set, demeanor of their anchor, or increasingly, the degree to which you are entertained). Blogs have shaken this up by providing independent peer-to-peer expertise which makes traditional news into far more of an experience good, as Dan Rather found out.
Anyway, some of this was written up by John McManus in an article in Communication Research [McManus, John. 1992. “What Kind of Commodity is News?” Communication Research. Pages 787-805.]
I promise my intent wasn't originally to tie this in with Rumsfeld or Rather... but how can I resist?