WASHINGTON-Getting gouged by an unscrupulous car repair facility usually ranks at or near the top of most consumers' worries. But motorists in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh may be resting a little better at night-and not because of any mass ingestion of sleeping tablets.
The Motorist Assurance Program (MAP) just launched a pilot program to acquaint consumers there with what the organization stands for, and won't tolerate.
What's making that possible in both cities is the participation of a total of 99 service shops that have agreed to follow industry repair principles set by MAP, including:
Incorporating MAP's unique approach to customer relationships into daily business;
Orienting employees on how to use MAP's industry-developed Uniform Inspection Guidelines (UIGs) for all major vehicle systems when working with customers to explain inspection results and recommendations; and
Posting MAP's Pledge to Customers and Standards of Service on shop walls and in waiting areas.
MAP is a Washington-based coalition that was created in 1992 by 40 companies involved in the repair industry and smarting from service fraud allegations originally lodged against Sears, Roebuck and Co. auto centers nationwide. Sears, in fact, became one of the charter members of MAP, when it was still known as the ``Maintenance Awareness Program.''
Currently, the organization has 113 members representing about 180,000 service bays.
Its inspection guidelines cover each major vehicle system, including: engine maintenance and performance; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; drivetrain; electrical; brakes; internal engine; and steering and suspension.
Under development for months, the pilot program was unveiled to the public during press conferences on June 6 in Indianapolis and June 10 in Pittsburgh. Participants at the respective events included MAP members; Indiana's director of consumer protection; the deputy attorney general for the western half of Pennsylvania; and presidents from the Better Business Bureaus of each city.
Prior to the launch, an extensive program was undertaken to get the 45 locations in Indianapolis and 54 in Pittsburgh-all MAP members-``up-to-speed,'' according to MAP President Larry Hecker.
The auto service centers of Sears, Pep Boys, Goodyear and Firestone are participating in both cities, plus Montgomery Ward, Midas International Corp. and Speedy Car-X in Indianapolis, and Monro Muffler and Speedy Muffler King in Pittsburgh.
In most cases, they've been following MAP standards since the beginning of the year.
Each underwent training using MAP materials. The organization also conducted ``mystery shopping'' three times over three-week intervals ``to make sure the stores were using the materials properly and adhering to MAP guidelines,'' Mr. Hecker explained.
MAP also held separate focus groups among store managers,
sales staffs and auto service technicians in both communities to help determine their knowledge of MAP methods and when they were ready for the launch.
The pilot program will continue through the summer and into fall, and eventually will be launched in Detroit, Denver, Chicago, Richmond, Va., and throughout New Jersey, the first time for an entire state.
Though only MAP members are engaged in the pilot thus far, Mr. Hecker is pitching the concept to others ``to encourage independent shops and small chains to also participate,'' at a minimal cost to cover the expense of materials.
The ``sting'' is usually the modus operandi of choice.
In most of the well-publicized cases of automotive service fraud allegations over the last few years, consumer protection and law enforcement agencies, as well as media investigators, generally have used ``rigged'' vehicles and ``mystery shoppers'' to catch shops accused of ripping off consumers.
While setting up its pilot program, MAP used its own version, for strictly educational purposes.
Individuals who had cars with known problems were hired by MAP to visit pilot stores as typical customers. They asked questions about MAP, had their vehicles inspected, then rated the shops and the personnel whom they met.
Reports were then compiled and provided to each store.
On the first visit they found store personnel familiar with MAP procedures, ``but not really tuned into them,'' Mr. Hecker said.
``But by the last visit (of three), personnel were able to explain to the customer what MAP is, what it's trying to do and demonstrate how the UIGs are actually used in inspecting vehicles.''
Getting a finer focus
Using focus groups to evaluate the efficacy of the pilot program produced some interesting results, according to Mr. Hecker.
Because they had to abide by MAP standards, technicians and sales staffs, independently of each other, both felt ``the level of professionalism has increased significantly'' among their service shops in both Indianapolis and Pitts-burgh. That was mainly because ``they had to come out and talk with the customers,'' he said.
"They had to make sure they
were cleanly dressed and able to speak in a language customers could understand-not the technical jargon they're used to using.
``It actually improved their level of communication.''
He also discovered that, based on data from a three-month period, the number of comebacks was reduced by 15-20 percent-which he said some in the industry have called ``phenomenal.''
While a ``handful'' of consumers went to the respective Better Busi-ness Bureaus (BBB) of the two cities to lodge complaints about a problem with a shop, they took advantage of a key component of the MAP program: Alternate Dispute Resolution, in which the BBB acts as mediator between the shop and customer to resolve problems.
BBB presidents reported ``all complaints were resolved amicably, the customers were really happy,'' Mr. Hecker said. ``In most cases, the situation was caused by communication problems-which we're trying to eliminate.''
The troops like it
At first some of the technicians were skeptical of MAP and concerned because they were uncomfortable talking with customers, Mr. Hecker said. They also were apprehensive about changing the way they had always done vehicle inspections.
On the other hand, during focus groups many of the sales staffs said they liked the program because it gave them an opportunity to interact with customers.
Should enrollment in MAP be strictly voluntary-or legislated?
``I personally would not like to see it mandated,'' Mr. Hecker said. ``I feel the industry should be able to develop its own program to self-police, and want to do this. It's better for them and their customers.''
However, he said some states have introduced legislation regulating auto service via a number of MAP-like requirements, such as specific standards of service and
Regulations passed last August in Pennsylvania appear to have word-for-word exerpts of MAP standards, Mr. Hecker said.
Delaware and several other states also are preparing laws that implement some recommendations of an auto repair task force report that was issued last November by the National Association of Attorneys General.
NAAG had praised MAP for its ``self-imposed'' codes of ethics and conflict resolution programs.
Improving the repair industry's image is one of MAP's goals in accrediting auto service shops.
That would ``give consumers a way to find a repair facility they trust. They can look for the MAP logo,'' according to Harold Ellis, MAP chairman and vice president of consumer affairs and training for Midas International Corp.
To be accredited, Mr. Hecker said a shop contractually agrees to abide by all of MAP's principles.
The shops also must be clean in appearance, provide a waiting area for customers, use trained technicians for inspections, and have ASE-certified techs available to answer customers' questions.
It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but Mr. Hecker said he'd like to see all repair facilities abiding by those principles. ``We feel that'll have a significant impact on improving the level of trust and confidence between the auto repair industry and motorists.''
MAP members are currently developing advertising guidelines for the industry. Those are in the first-draft stage and should be available later this year.
``A number of regulators and auto service chains we've met with around the U.S. have suggested such guidelines,'' Mr. Hecker said.
The organization also has begun revising and updating its inspection procedures, and is now working on steering and suspension.