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The Globe and Mail

Many dealerships need to tune-up their customer service

"My car is still under warranty, but when I took it to the dealer, they gave me the run-around," started a typical e-mail.

"When was the last time they've seen you and the vehicle you bought from them?" I asked.

"When I bought it," came the reply.

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Aye. There's the rub. This is one of those situations where you have to qualify your responses with the word "technically," over and over.

Technically, any licensed mechanic can perform the proper work with approved parts on your vehicle and not void the warranty. Technically, it doesn't have to be a dealer. Technically, a vehicle you lease can be serviced somewhere other than the dealer from whom you leased it, and not have your end of lease turn-in tango affected. Technically.

Reality, of course, is something much different. With so many things impacting the competitive landscape of car selling, dealerships are turning more and more to their service departments to up their bottom line. There was a time, as right-to-repair legislation both here and in the United States battled its way through red tape, that independent mechanics couldn't even get to the information and tools they needed to fix newer cars. You know by now you are essentially driving a computer; if only the dealership had the computer programs and tools to fix the car, you had little choice but to return to them for as long as you owned your car.

Manufacturers said they were just trying to protect their intellectual property. This argument might hold more value if not for the fact that for just about every car ever made you could always purchase a repair manual. My dad used to pore over those manuals like they were porn.

So, you always have a choice. Once you purchase a vehicle, it's yours and you get to make all the decisions on its care. You can take it to the independent mechanic you've known forever. You can fix it yourself. Technically. But if something goes sideways, and you darken the door of a dealership where nobody knows your name, you're on your own. Even if they know you, you can be stranded.

I believe a customer plays a huge role in this relationship, and the opening lines of this piece indicate some people don't understand this. I believe in developing relationships with the businesses in my community. I believe car dealerships would like me to return to buy from them again, and refer my friends and relatives. In exchange, they should treat me well, not rip me off, and go to bat for me if the vehicle I purchased from them hands me a defect.

Too often that is not the case. When I go to my independent mechanic of long standing, I do not have to try to peek around the shoulder of a service advisor – the shop bouncer. I do not feel that my baby has been hauled away for mysterious tests I can't see. This was done when my sons were born, but after an exhausting labour, I cared less about that than I do about my car disappearing. With my car, I didn't just go through labour; I'm not tired.

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I'm actually a huge advocate of building a rapport with your dealer – or your mechanic. There are times you are standing over a dead or wounded car and freaking out, and you appreciate the people who can show up fast and can fix it. This is more likely to be the people you have had maintain your vehicle all along. They benefit from the bread and butter money of routine maintenance, you benefit from a relationship you can call on when stuff hits the fan belt. This is called idealism. It is not always realistic.

Unfortunately, many of those long-standing dealer relationships had the rug ripped out from under them when multitudes of dealerships were shuttered in recent years. I hear from readers who feel forced into arranged marriages with dealerships not remotely close to their homes. But the threat of warranty issues strong-arms them into these unions. I don't like the thought that my VIN is actually a ransom note.

A new study released in the United States shows the aging demographic is impacting dealerships, too. Those loyal to dealerships are more likely to be older than 50, and are not being replaced by equally loyal youngsters. Frequently, the moment a car is no longer under warranty, it is also no longer brought to the dealership service bay. Some dealerships build excellent long-term relationships with their customers. Others don't.

Could those "other" dealerships change this? Sure they could. Stop talking to people as if they're idiots, have the back of the house be as eager to please as the front of the house was at the point of sale, and stop using scare tactics to punish people who are trying to take care of their car.

If that car is staying on the road for more than 10 years, surely you'd benefit more from maintaining it for a customer for the whole 10 years, than for leaving that metallic taste of distrust in their mouths from how you've treated them for the first four.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More

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