DALLAS-``Somewhere along the way we had it...but lost it.'' No one in the room seemed to dispute that statement regarding ``consumer trust'' made by Larry Hecker, president of the Maintenance Awareness Program (MAP).
Run down a list of alleged automotive service scams over the past couple years. What has probably been the biggest casualty?
Many will say consumer trust, even more than some company's bottom line.
Studies have shown that motorists simply hate taking their vehicles into the shop for repairs. They lump that experience in the same category as going to the dentist-this is going to hurt, and it's going to cost you.
Mix in concern about being ripped off, and you've got tarnished trust, Mr. Hecker said.
Regaining that customer trust was the topic of a well-attended seminar held during the recent Dallas convention and trade show of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association.
The seminar was led by members of MAP, an industrywide coalition of companies and associations aimed at repairing the flagging image of the automotive repair industry.
As Mr. Hecker pointed out, many repair shops have been ``so focused on getting the job done-the car fixed and out the door-that we lost our perspective on customer trust.''
How can a shop dispel that going-to-the-dentist mentality?
By ``building trust and confidence in your shop'' and by having consumers accept greater responsibility for their cars, according to Mr. Hecker.
While he told tire dealers they need to ``educate customers to feel more comfortable with their vehicles, so (car repair) is not so much a mystery to them,'' he also encouraged handling customers in a more trustworthy and conscientious manner.
That's where MAP steps in.
Since its founding two years ago, the group has been setting the standard for vehicle maintenance by instituting uniform inspection and service guidelines for use by repair shops.
While adherence to those procedures is voluntary, companies that belong to MAP-and there are more than 100 to date-pledge to adopt the recommendations.
So far, the group has issued guidelines for automotive brake, exhaust and antilock brake systems, and is working up procedures for electrical, mechanical and heating/cooling systems. Eventually, all systems, including tires and wheels, will be covered.
Harold Ellis, director of marketing administration for Midas International Corp. and co-chairman of MAP's uniform inspection guidelines committee, explained that consumers often find themselves in a quandary: They get different opinions from two service shops, then wonder whom to believe.
Some of the confusion is rooted in plain old-fashioned overselling on the part of a shop, he said. But in many cases, the two mechanics aren't being dishonest-they simply were trained differently.
Getting customers involved in vehicle maintenance ``helps them understand what's wrong with the car so they can make an informed decision about what needs to be done,'' Mr. Ellis said.
He outlined the approach Midas has adopted for brake and exhaust service-a lengthy, two-page, touch-all-bases report that every technician must go over with the customer and fill out before any service is ever performed.
Based on the MAP guidelines, the inspection sheet leaves few doubts about what the vehicle may need, and what is recommended or suggested maintenance.
Mr. Ellis urged dealers to adopt similar practices, and called for a ``national standard'' for repairs and maintenance. That would not only allow a shop the ability to advise a customer, but ``it makes the situation manageable for a shop. The mechanic fills out a document, allowing us to check on his diagnosis. It helps us better manage our people.''
Putting together guidelines hasn't been easy, he admitted.
MAP brought together industry experts who studied each part of the brake and exhaust systems, then listed almost every conceivable condition and failure.
``It turned out to be an education for everyone,'' Mr. Ellis said, ``because no standards had ever been compiled before.''
The aim of those standards?
``The object is to try to get to the truth,'' he said, ``not to make the standard conform to what you want to sell.''
And those standards have to hold up to public, industry and regulatory scrutiny, he added.
According to Tom Placek, a MAP coordinator with more than 30 years' experience in the automotive industry, one of the chief factors leading to problems between a shop and its customers-and inevitably bringing in the fraud investigators-is a ``breakdown in communications.'' Customers often fail to understand what kind of repairs or maintenance the service shop is recommending.
MAP's guidelines, he told TIRE BUSINESS, help keep the communication lines with the customer open in order to ``give them the answers they need-on their level.''
Mr. Placek said MAP's work has been ``embraced'' by the Auto Repair Task Force of the National Association of Attorneys General which, like MAP, was formed in response to the Sears, Roebuck and Co. automotive service fraud scandal of two years ago.
A MAP committee headed by former Ohio Attorney General Anthony Celebrezze has, for example, worked with regulatory agencies including California's Bureau of Automotive Repair, which initiated that state's Sears probe.
Terry Snook, an independent Midas dealer with four Dallas locations, told tire dealers the MAP inspection standards have worked well for his shops and greatly reduced misdiagnoses.
Other advantages, he noted, are that they provide information from a customer interview and vehicle inspection, as well as documentation-especially helpful in the event of some sort of investigation.
Acceptance of a similarly styled, all-inclusive inspection sheet will be greeted with resistance from some shop personnel, Mr. Snook warned. ``They'll complain that (inspections) will take a lot more time.''
Yet when used properly, it will make believers out of the doubters, and be a ``powerfully persuasive tool,'' he said.
Mr. Ellis, in fact, has had to produce Midas' inspection reports for fraud investigators.
``In several instances, it really saved the situation for our company,'' he said. ``It added to the credibility of the technician. Otherwise, it would have been the customer's word against ours.''
And while some owners may gloat when another shop gets caught in a sting operation, ``In the long run,'' Mr. Snook added, ``none of us prospers from a competitor ending up on the 6 o'clock news.''
———————————————————————————————————-MAP pledge to customers
The Maintenance Awareness Program's mission and purpose includes
strengthening the relationship between the motorist and the
automotive service and repair industry. The group's aim is to produce
programs that will benefit consumers and service providers, including
the development, promotion and implementation of uniform inspection
guidelines, service and preventive maintenance programs.
In turn, MAP members pledge the following to customers:
Recommendations will be clearly explained to the auto service
customer, who will be told whether the recommendation is based on
system failure, improved system performance or preventive maintenance
according to accepted industry standards;
Personnel will be properly trained and qualified to identify and
perform an accurate inspection and/or service of vehicle systems;
A written estimate will be provided and no work will be performed
without prior authorization; and
All work will be backed by a written limited warranty.