Some Service Writers Are After a Sale

Times Staff Writer

Question: I understand that service writers at auto service shops typically are given incentive pay figured as a percentage of the total of the service orders that they write. This is on top of their straight salary. Would this not motivate them to order maintenance and repairs that are unnecessary? I have got to wonder about this after paying for a fuel-filter change during a 30,000-mile service on my 1987 Camry. The Toyota factory representative later advised me that this was not recommended as necessary. --F.N.

Answer: Certainly, the widespread practice of dealerships and, to a lesser extent, independent garages to pay commissions to service writers, based on the amount of repair work they bill to customers, appeals to some of the worst business instincts imaginable. It is almost like the government giving defense companies contracts that pay greater profits if they incur cost overruns. Such contracts are outlawed, but apparently motorists are not as well protected.

Motorists who take their car in for service must realize that the friendly service writer that warmly greets them at the front desk all too often wants to sell service--and the more the better. The service writer is part auto diagnostician, part salesman and part psychologist.

Dealerships typically earn huge profits on their service operations. In some cases, profit margins amount to an awesome 50% of receipts, far more than car manufacturers would ever dream of making, according to experts. It means that the frugal motorist is jumping into uncharted waters and possibly shark-infested waters just to get a car fixed.

Some dealerships require that their service writers be aggressive salesmen. If a motorist comes in with a cigarette lighter that doesn't work, why not sell a tune-up? That can add more than $100 to the bill, and at a standard 10% commission that puts another $10 into the service writer's pocket.

The situation has probably gotten worse in recent years. Car manufacturers are recommending less and less regular maintenance, such as the fuel filter in the reader's question. So, dealerships are beginning to tell motorists that they should buy more service than the manufacturer recommends.

In some cases, the dealership may be right, but the potential for abuse is so vast that it should raise a lot of red flags any time a garage recommends service that is not specified in the owners' manual. You should ask why and ask the service writer to justify it. If you have guts, ask him if he earns a commission too.

You should know that it is not just the service writers who are paid commissions. The mechanics and parts-desk salesmen often earn commissions as well.

Look at the Other Side

Having been made aware of all this, you should realize that service writers can also be decent, honest people who make every effort to only recommend service or repairs that are needed. Just because they earn a commission doesn't mean they want to sell a brake job when you don't need one. After all, washing machine salesmen and stock brokers earn commissions too. Even senators get honorariums, which is probably worse than commissions.

The important factor in choosing a repair garage or dealership is to find a professionally run operation. Look for a clean, well-organized garage. The mechanics should be disciplined and clear-minded. If a service writer is pushy, beg off and find another garage.

In most cases, garages know that their success depends on building a base of loyal customers, rather than ripping off everybody who walks in the door. So, look to see that the same service writer is at your garage every time. The same applies to the mechanics. You don't want to get stuck with an outfit that turns over its work force every month.

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