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The automotive diagnostic dilema

This piece relates to the ongoing problem facing repair shops.
12 THE DIAGNOSTIC DILEMMA. By Pedro Talavera. 10/4/05.

The issue.

As I get older and wiser (hopefully) I have noticed something very disturbing in our industry.
The reluctance of shops to charge for diagnostic properly or just plain give it away (some times apparently). And also the reluctance of customers to want to pay for diagnostic.
Here I will try to see why shops do this.
Why customers refuse to pay or think it should be free.
What shops need to do to charge properly and avoid scaring customers away to dealers.
Many shops are closing because they refuse to charge accordingly, then they can't afford to run the shop in a professional way.

I wanted to write this article to debunk some of the most hard to die myths in our trade
There's nothing more difficult for a tech than diagnosing electrical problems on a car, especially when they are "intermittent". Electrical problems can be very elusive and complex in nature, the tech has to have a very intelligent mind and a go-geter disposition to tackle them.
Today cars are very sophisticated machines and they require sophisticated diagnostics.
Here's a list of some of the most common complaints a shop might encounter.

These are some of the popular complaint we techs hear:

• Cranks but does not start. Very common.
• Starts and dies (stalls) soon after.
• Long crank time.
• Misfire. Rough idle.
• Low power.
• Hesitates.
• Jerking, bucking.
• Sudden stall, no more start.

As you can see the list of problems that can happen to a car is pretty long. Techs have to keep up dating their knowledge base in order to be able to diagnose the many makes and models that come their way.
There is a large amount of cars coming with theft deterrent systems that will make a "no-start" diagnostic even more difficult. This systems will interfere with the operation of the starting and ignition system when triggered.

Do we have enough time to do it right?

The time allotted by most estimating books is what most shops use to determine what a repair should take and hence what the charge should be. Those are estimates; some times you can take longer some times a little bit less. When you are doing diagnostic on a vehicle you perform many different tests. The technician will map a diagnostic plan depending on many things. Every tech/shop has its unique procedure. Here are some of the steps a trained tech will take to come to a diagnostic conclusion in an efficient way.

• Talk to customer to obtain the most information about the complaint, procure records of previous repairs.
• Drive vehicle to confirm complaint.
• Check databases to look for recalls, bulletins etc.
• Visual inspection of suspected areas.
• Wiggle tests (of connections).
• Connect scanner to obtain codes and or inspect data stream.
• Access places for information on that particular problem, places like Alldata, Mitchell, Identifix, OEM Webb page and the iATN database are usually used for this.
• Check condition of the battery and alternator.
• Perform a compression test.
• Perform a leak down test.
• Perform a vacuum test.
• Perform a cooling system pressure test.
• Perform a smoke test.
• Perform fuel pressure, quantity, and quality tests.
• Check fuel injectors fuel spray pattern.
• Perform an emission test (4 or 5 gas analyzer).
• Examine the ignition patterns on a special tool called scope.
• Check exhaust pressure.
• Check for grounds and power to components related with fault. Like relays modules etc.
• Dynamometer test.
• Talk to other techs or tech lines if problem is a tuff one. Some times there can be many people involved in the repair of a single vehicle. (Something most customers are unaware of).
• Etc.

As you can see diagnosing a car is not an easy thing today, on the contrary. To properly repair a vehicle, a shop must be equipped not only with very sophisticated and expensive equipment but also with very intelligent trained and expert techs and information systems.

Depending on many things you probably won't have to perform all of these tests to solve the problem. But you will for sure have to use at least five or six of them.

The cost

The estimating books usually allow about from half an hour to some times an hour or more per item. When you do the math you can easily come to about tree to six hours of diagnostic time (that's when all goes well). Let's say you charge $70 @ hour. That is $210.to about $420. These amounts are what shops should be charging for diagnostic. But aren't.
One of the reasons they can't are the shops themselves, they have allowed customers to think many wrong things about our trade. They have indeed help root the myths that in turn hurt them. Things like: "I can tell you what's wrong with your car just by listening to it"... Really? I will love to see that myself and at the same time what the accuracy percentage is doing this procedure. That kind of talk does impress some people but all the ecstasy goes away real quick when the tech that promised to fix the car just using his/her ears fails to fix the car quickly and with out replacing unneeded parts.

I have seen many shops that charge about $70 for diagnostic. What they do is they connect a scanner, collect the codes and then with out doing a real (complete) diagnostic offer the customer to replace all the parts on the code list (I've seen dealers do this too). This is the wrong way to do this. First, the diagnostic has not being done completely. Second it is dishonest. Not to mention is an incompetent way to fix cars.
Any way, this way the customer ends up spending more money and maybe even not get the car fixed at all.
Of course this is just a hook to get the customer to the shop, making them think they can have their car diagnosed for that amount (or even for "free"). When in reality the majority of the times the repair bill will be a big and nasty surprise that won't even come close to the expense of the original diagnostic. Why? Why can't you take the time to explain how things really work, you know customers are not stupid. I've seen shops do this, and I say you can make money in this trade being honest with your customers. Not by stealing from the customer or giving away your time. Customers are getting very smart lately; they will see what you're doing.

Ok, that's what I want to say. Customers don't think shops deserve to charge these amounts not to mention more, for diagnostic time. Why". I really don't know. It seems that they don't realize that the diagnostic is actually the hardest part of the whole deal. A car that blew a fuse could be repaired by just repairing a burned wire and the fuse. The materials used to fix this probably won't pass the $20 mark. But to find the exact problem the tech had to do a lot of checking (sometimes this could take more than one day). So that's where the cost is. Without diagnosing the car properly you have only another option, replace parts until you "fix" the car if ever. The car mentioned here is a good example of this. You can replace all the parts you want on this car, but until you find the wire that's shorting to ground you will never fix it.
I have seen this many times. People try to fix their own cars themselves, they get different opinions by friends and friend -mechanics as to what the solution could be, and then they go to their local parts supplier, there they may get some more help from unqualified people, and get those parts hoping that will fix the car. For a while there were some parts suppliers doing "diagnostic" with code readers for their customers for free. Of course the intention was the sell of parts. This is the same, is an incomplete diagnostic.
A lot of times an electrical situation will cause what are called "ghost codes", these are codes that are triggered by some problem but are not related directly to the problem. Another thing to worry about.

Do doctors have it easier? You decide...

Just like a doctor will do. He/she does some tests like blood, urine etc. then he/she tells you to come back another time to see what the results are, and then just then he/she will recommend a procedure or medicine depending on what he/she saw on those test results. Some times they need to do more tests before they make a recommendation.
A doctor can't tell you to take a drug or to recommend you an operation you just by looking at you or talking to you over the phone.
Doctors (hospitals) don't hesitate to charge for every test they perform, and why should they? They have many expenses, equipment, personnel, locale, etc. so why people expect us to do so?
The difference here is that techs usually do all of the tests themselves and at their shops not at hired laboratories..

To me doctors are in a better position than we are, they specialize on what they do.Foot doctor, eye doctor, heart doctor... we techs are expected to work on all systems all years all brands if possible. When you see the situation you can certainly understand how much more we have to study to keep up. Doctors only have one model to worry about, well maybe the ones that work for NASA have more models... (ET"S). It will be good if we could do that, specialize and be able to make money doing that. In the real world is not like that. Now if we were paid like doctors, or at least half of what they make we could.
Don't get me wrong, I like doctors and what they do for us, they deserve to be paid well, but we too deserve to be appreciated and remunerated correctly.

Some patience please...

One of the problems I encounter when doing diagnostics is the lack of time and patience customers have. The mistake some shops make is allowing the customer to pass their problems to them. Yes we have a duty if you will, to serve our fellow human, but when that is taken to the extreme of making it an obligation then things get out of hand. Our obligation as service providers is to, keep our appointment, and perform the repairs in a professional and safe way. Customers need to understand that to properly fix cars we need time to do it correctly. Rushing a job in our trade is a very risky move for both the customer and the service provider.
Making anyone work under pressure is a mistake, especially when your service provider is expected to perform without flaw and safely. Will you place pressure on someone performing an open-heart operation on you or a relative? Then why will you do it on some one in charge of making your car reliable and safe.
How about rushing the mechanics that work on planes, will you feel safe flying on a plane where the tech rushed because you had to get to your destination on time?

One thing I have been doing when the customer tells me that they can't leave the car because they need it, (as if they could use it when is broken... ) is for them to rent a car so I can work on theirs until I find the problem. Surprisingly it seems that they hadn't thought about this. I try to suggest this in a very polite way so I don't offend them. You know what? They love the suggestion and even ask me for a rental company that I can recommend. When you are in a stressful situation you can loose your perception on things and a pretty simple situation can become a huge problem. That's when the need for a good suggestion comes handy. No one likes to work with some one breathing on your back, but you can usually solve this problem by keeping a cool head. In this case you also serve as a counselor to your customer.

I have seen techs complaint about the time they have to "waste" doing diagnostic, they did this they did that... why? The problem here is miscommunication with the customer. All diagnostic procedures should be kept open. That means that you don't give an exact price until you finish it. Since you don't know what the problem is then you can't give an accurate estimate or price before hand. Every car is different, they have had a different maintenance schedule, used different gas, has been repaired by different techs etc. You go step by step. Do not rush or let your boss or customer rush you, period. You need to be firm on this. This will save you a lot of aggravation. You are a professional technician aren't you? Then you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity by everyone.

A word about OEM and aftermarket parts.

Ok let me clear something before we go on. OEM: parts that come on the car from the factory. You can still buy this kind from the dealer and some suppliers. Aftermarket: these are the parts that are not manufactured by the car manufacturer part supplier. They are sold by many part outlets.

And here are the other two myths I wanted to point out to you.

"Why do I need more diagnostic after you kept my car for two days and I have paid all this money"? "Shouldn't you know by now what's wrong with my car"?

We need more time because the problem is either complex or it didn't show to us while in our care.

Can you tell me over the phone what is wrong with my car and exactly how much it will cost'?
Ladies and gentleman, this should be very easy to understand but obviously some people have trouble digesting this. So here I will explain it to you.

No one can tell you, or should I say, should tell you a price with out first checking the car's condition first. Even after some repairs are done cars sometimes develop other symptoms that the customer probably didn't noticed before

Do dealers have the best tech?

No, there are many independent shops that have the same or better techs than the dealers.

Do dealers guearantee their diagnostic?

I don't know for sure, but I have many customers tell than they don't some times.

How much dealers charge for diagnostic?

It depends on what brand the car is, the geographic area, and what they are checking.Ussually dealers charge more than the average shop, some independent shops charge more than some dealers.

Understanding the procedure of car diagnostics.

There's a lot of confusion on the meaning of some terms relating to checking a car when it is behaving badly. I know there's confusion because the way people talk to me when requesting repairs on their cars. Often they don't know what to request. Also they do not know how to assist the mechanic on the process of inspecting the car. Here I offer an explanation to some of these terms as they are in the dictionary and will also give some personal input about them. I hope this will help you when requesting service from your shop. When you understand these terms fully it will be easier for you to handle your diagnostic dilemmas.

• Diagnostic: To ascertain the cause of a disease or malfunction by studying symptoms; to determine the nature or cause as of malfunction or problem by means of examination and analysis. A proper diagnostic involves many steps in a vehicle.
• Analysis: The study of a complex or compound object (car) to discover and identify its parts. Certainly cars are very complex objects.
• Examination: To inspect or observe very carefully.
• Estimate: An estimate it's an evaluation of a car problem with out going very deep to calculate the job size and price. An estimate is not a diagnostic. It will tell you more or less how much you should expect to spend. An estimate can change, a diagnostic should be accurate. An estimate can be given at distance like over the phone for example.
• Evaluation: To determine the value of; to appraise carefully.
• Inspection: A critical examination or careful viewing.
• Look at the car, check it out: It means the mechanic will take a quick superficial look to get an idea of what could be wrong. There's usually no charge for this since there are no tools used. Of course the mechanic has to be with the car to do this. The mechanic should refrain from giving any recommendations before performing a complete diagnostic.

What's needed.

Cars have become very sophisticated pieces of engineering. We as diagnosticians have had to either go back to school or keep getting updated to be able to diagnose these beasts properly. Usually we take at least 2 to 6 classes every year to stay updated. Some people may take more.
Some customers understand this, but many don't. They, it seems, think the knowledge and equipment needed to perform an accurate estimate then tell you exactly what the car will need comes for free and easily to us techs and shops. So we shouldn't charge for it or we should give it away cheap. That's not the case at all.
People say: "Well you need to know what's wrong so you can fix it" Yes, we know, but the time we take to check your car is valuable. The car broke while in your possession, the miles are put there by you, plain and simple, it is your car, you are responsible for its expenses not us. So when the time comes to see what's wrong with it you are the one that need to take care of it.
The average tech doesn't know how to diagnose cars properly (they think they do), so the few that do usually work for the best shops or own their own shop (or a mobile shop), those shops usually charge accordingly but many still don't. This will give you an idea of which shops will be a better shop when needing the services of a qualified diagnostician. No tech that appreciates him/her self will prefer to work for the worst shops in town, because they know the pay there will be low. And this doesn't mean you need to take your car to a dealer (unless that's what you want), there are always some independent shops that have the same or better service practices, diagnosing abilities and techs as any dealer.

Difficulties in diagnosing a vehicle.

There are many things that make the job of diagnosing a car properly and accurately very difficult.
There are many systems each requiring special tools and training. The way manufacturers design some cars sometimes don't really help us. They can make changes that to a tech may seem unnecessary. There are always new tools to be adquired,usually by the tech. Sometime to diagnose a car there may be two or more techs working on it at once, and the charge to the customer may not reflect this.

Is free really free?

Some businesses need to give free estimates because of the nature of their business. Companies like house painting, landscaping, home cleaning etc, they all benefit from doing free estimates. The competition there is fierce (yes in ours is also very fierce), but also the expense to offer free estimates is minimum compared to what we in our industry have to invest in order to be able to give competent and accurate diagnostics. Also the people working as estimators on those companies work for commission, so you will probably get pressure to sign a contract right then.

I get many calls from customers wanting me to come to their house (I have a mobile shop business) and spend from one to three hours or more and tell them what's wrong with their car. And yes they wanted free. I wish they could read this article so I don't have to explain why we charge what we do. Most of the time they don't want to hear about it or still after my explanation they still insist the diagnostic should be free. Some shops will give a free estimate (not diagnostic) but that is because you are bringing the car to them. When you hire a mobile tech they come to your place and save you lots of time and also the towing fees (which are getting really high). Remember, an estimate is not a diagnostic.
So I tell them "You want me to give you an "estimate"?
Ok, it could be any of 30 different parts, and the cost anything from $100 to $2000 more or less, or would you prefer me to diagnose the car properly and tell you exactly what the problem is and the cost? (I always tell them that for this, we will need to bring the car to the shop for a better analysis) I still don't know the exact reason some shops don't charge properly but they will soon find them selves forced to close doors.

The myths.

Here are some of the myths that are still haunting our industry.

"Why can't a tech just connect the "machine" ("The computer") and tell me exactly what's wrong (in ten minutes or less)"?...The dealer can.

We live in a society of "fast", fast food, fast everything. Sorry to tell you fast doesn't apply to diagnosing cars. At least not in my shop.
With all respect, if we were psychics we will probably not even need the "machine" wouldn't we? People expect the machine to be more intelligent than the techs. This is a mistake. The machine or scanner as its properly called is a good starting point in many diagnostics. But it won't tell the tech the complete story. It is a guide used to get us closer to the problem. To get to the root of the problem we usually have to do more tests and use many other "machines" and use information systems (books, internet info, and programs). This takes time. Also the tech performing the tests has to be experienced.
I think the media is to blame partly for this strange way of thinking that a computer is all it takes to diagnose a car properly.
Remember the show Batman? I remember the computer they used to have down in the cavern, it looked very sophisticated for the time but to me it was as stupid as the questions asked to it. Some people it seems think computers think and reason. Computers can only do what we design them to. They can not do more that that. They don't think or reason. So expecting a computer to do so is actually very naοve. They work with calculations that's all; they just do these calculations at a very fast speed, much faster than we humans. That is all the benefit. Doing calculations that any regular human couldn't do and much faster. Remember your pocket calculator? It helped you do mathematical chores, but you couldn't ask it to solve a problem for you. The machine assisted you, that's all; you had to do the problem solving yourself. The same with cars. The machine assists the tech. I don't think machines will ever be able to fully diagnose a car. The computer the dealer use can be found in many of the independent shops. And no, the computer they use in the dealer can't tell the technician either exactly what's wrong with the vehicle. Not yet.

"I could fix the car myself, but I don't have the tools"

Yes indeed, you don't and I do. (Not to mention experience and knowledge) As a matter of fact $100.000 worth of them. So I am entitled to charge not only for my knowledge, experience but also my expensive equipment. People, the days of the do it your selfers are in danger of extinction. You will be able to do less as time goes by. Some times we techs have trouble diagnosing cars and affording the very expensive tools. Imagine some one that works on their car sometimes trying to repair these technical marvels and buying a $10.000 scanner. Leave it to us the experts.

Why shops don't charge properly for diagnostic.

This is a tough question.
I have worked in many repair shops over my 28-year experience working on cars.
I will say that only 5% of the independent shops charge properly for diagnostic. Now why is this?
I have noticed that the main reason is that they honestly know they shouldn't be doing diagnostic and they feel that they shouldn't charge for it. Yes, most shops don't have the special techs and equipment needed to properly diagnose a car. But they do it anyways, to their own harm (and the customer's).
The few shops that do charge properly usually will do a much better job of accurately and timely diagnosing your car because they probably have the best techs, sometimes just replacing one part and in some cases non at all to fix the car. This to me is the real way to save.

Some shops (and dealers) will trick the customer with a low or free estimate to then jack the price of the repair bill or sell unneeded work in order to compensate for this. Some even tell you they have "free" towing.
Remember, free is not real. In business that word means, buy something from me and I will give you something.

What is the right price for a diagnostic?

Another tough question. That depends in what kind of car, year etc. Then what the symptom the car is showing. If we techs were to charge for the real time we spend checking cars, people will probably faint. The reason we don't is that, we don't want customers to run. But also because the industry has been staying behind in the way we do things. Cars have become much more complex and we haven't raised the charges accordingly.
If we follow the recommendations on many estimating guides, and taking in consideration that we usually take an average time of 3 hours to diagnose a car properly. Then we will have to charge $210 if we charged $70 per hour. Now many dealers and some independents shops charge a minimum of about $80 to do diagnostic. It sounds cheap.
Is there a catch? You bet there is. If you do the math you can easily see the problem. Unless their techs are working for free (and some are) you can't help but suspect there's something fishy there. And there is. Shops that charge a low fixed amount for diagnostic are probably just tricking you to come in. Then they will try to make up for the loss somehow somewhere else on the bill.
There are some industries that oddly do charge accordingly for their services. As an example I will mention the small engine repair industry is doing a much better job, at least locally, to charge for their services. The two local shops around me charge around $75 @ hour. I said oddly because the equipment they service is not as complex or expensive as the machines we techs work on. Also the tools they need to work are less expensive and less numerous. Taking that in consideration we should be charging around $100 to $200 @ hour don't you agree?
So the right price to charge for diagnostic is up to every shop. I think that with out overcharging you should charge accordingly so you can make the proper profit. Customers will sooner or later see which shop is better, the cheap one or the one charging properly and doing good work.

The cost of it all.

Many people are ignorant of what it really cost to run a shop. The expense techs must endure is no funny business at all.
The average tech expends an average $100.000. To be able to work on the many different systems on today's vehicles. And they are always "investing" on more stuff. Techs have to train to keep up with technology changes. This is expensive also. Very few shops and shop owners pay for this training.
The shop also has very high costs of its own.
A shop that works on both Import and Domestics can easily spend anything from $500.000. to what ever the industry makes them have to get.
Then there is information systems and training, both for the management and workers.

Should we specialize?

Should we specialize or just stop doing diagnostic and let someone else offer this? Yes it will be a good idea because you will save a lot of money in equipment and training. I think specializing is a good idea, but it is a delicate decision. When you specialize you loose a lot of customers. Yes you get better at what you do, and the expenses are a little bit less. But it doesn't work well in all geographic areas. Doctors are not expected to work on all parts in humans are they? But mechanics are expected to be experts at everything, especially by shop owners.
Now let's look at some of the franchised shops, they used to specialize, some did tires only, some mufflers, some glass only etc. Then some when things got slow started expanding their services. But they were not trained to do those things. So they had to go back to their regular services. They couldn't afford to pay the good techs and also it was hard to find a good one. The problem is complicated. Business are opened not just to provide a service, they need to make money, Period. So a business has to see what makes it more profitable, otherwise it can end up closing doors.
The problem with diagnostic is that customers expect shops that do general repairs to offer it. But the problem is bigger, if a shop doesn't charge accordingly it can't pay its techs properly. So techs go away or just stay away from shops that don't pay. Also they won't be able to equip the shop with the machines to perform diagnostic correctly. You see what's going on?
So some shops still try to offer a service that's expected even tough they are not ready to do so.


There are some things many customers don't know. When a tech does a diagnostic he/she need all the information about the car. That includes previous repairs. Some times customers forget to disclose this information making things harder for the tech. It is possible, no one is perfect, that the previous tech made a mistake, or that a part replaced, even new, could be bad. So the tech needs to know these things so they can get to the root of the problem quicker.

The solution

If shops charged properly for diagnostic they could pay techs properly then they will attract good competent techs that were capable of doing diagnostic properly. They could have the proper machines and the training to do the diagnostic correctly. But customers have to appreciate and be able to understand the whole thing. They have to be willing to pay for diagnostic with out thinking shops are ripping them off. If you want a good service you have to pay for it.
What will you prefer a shop that charges properly and gives you the car fixed or some one that charges a low diagnostic or gives it "free" but keeps the car for weeks and when they give it back it is not fixed properly?
The solution involves shops charging properly for their time doing diagnostic; don't be afraid to charge for your hard work.
I think $100.00 an hour will a good starting point. That will allow shops to pay techs properly, buy good equipment and train the techs properly and for free. There are some shops charging this already, why can't you charge this? Is it because you know you shouldn't? Then think hard about what you need to do to offer good quality diagnostic to your customers then you will be able to charge accordingly. Or just don't offer diagnostic at all and avoid all the complications related to it.

Be a smart customer.

Techs are not the only ones that need to have intelligence.
Customers need to educate themselves. There are lots of resources in the net about our industry.
I have always said: The best customers are the smart ones.

And it will keep changing

As you can see our industry has endured many changes in the past years. You as a consumer need to stay educated about this. I t will be for your own benefit.
I hope this information has helped you in some way.

There are a percentage of techs that still think that ASE certification is not needed. Think about this...

Pedro Talavera. Master ASE. iATN member. Owner of Certified Mobile Tech (CMT) of Miami.

(786) 344-9571, (305) 248-1957. Last updated 1/24/07

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