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I’m on a road trip.  On a road trip, it’s important to have a car.  So when the “Check [engine picture]” light went on somewhere north of Los Angeles, I studied it with particular interest.

It was about half a square inch, lit with a bright amber in a steady, easily spotted way.  The engine appeared to be drawn from the side, as if the illustrator was jogging along side the vehicle with his sketch pad.  I personally have rarely seen an engine from this point of view—mostly, I get an overhead glimpse when checking the oil, and occasionally a claustrophobic underneath view.

But I soon realized that it wasn’t the light itself that was important, it was the engine itself I was supposed to check.  Oh dear.  That’s a little trickier.

The first significant stop on the road trip was in Berkeley for a conference.  So, when Susie and I arrived in town, I called the nearest dealership, Broadway Volkswagen of Oakland, to find out if I could bring my car in.

At this point, let me tell you how much I despise having to do anything related to the business of automobiles.  In all my many years of automobile interactions—selling, buying, repairing, towing, ticketing, parking, cleaning, maintaining—the only part of an automobile that I find enjoyable is driving.  Everything else is a rip off, a chance for money to be sucked out of your wallet into that of some cheating cur.

I will admit that I have occasionally met fair, honest mechanics.  They are a minority.  And overall, I find that I have at least 20 bad experiences for every one good one.

So I was going into the repair expecting the worst.  But I got it.

First of all, I asked if Oakland (Broadway) Volkswagen offered shuttle service to the Berkeley campus of the University of California.  The woman said yes, they did.  Remember this; it’s important later.

Then, even though I called Thursday morning, I was told I couldn’t bring my car in any time that day.  The woman suggested Monday.  I asked if I could bring it in Friday, the next day.  She said, yes, we have appointments available between 7 and 10 on Friday.

Question one: Why wouldn’t she offer Friday, if there was an appointment available then?  I believe people usually want their cars fixed sooner rather than later.  Similarly, if I call a doctor and ask for an appointment, the assumption is usually made that I am sick and would like to be well soon, so they offer the next available appointment.  Or if I call for a hair cut, the barber will usually assume that my hair is long already, and offer the next appointment.  I think Oakland Volkswagen should offer the next available appointment instead of the following week.

I set the appointment for 7 a.m.  I am asked to provide my name, make, model, year, phone number (I think) and what the problem seems to be.

Next day, I show up at 7:05.  There are several people ahead of me.  No one is asked if they have appointments.  No one with an appointment is given priority.  When I give my name, the person does not have any of my information already entered. 

Question two: What is the point of their making appointments and asking for personal information, if that information isn’t given to the person checking people in?  It would be annoying to be asked the type of problem for, say, their internal statistics on types of service calls (and there are better ways to get that metric).  But to ask for names and numbers and to set times, and then not bother to use any of that when people arrive, is a waste of time for everyone.

When it’s my turn, Oakland Volkswagen’s service representative Dave [Name withheld] assists me.  In addition to telling the service guy, Dave, about my check [Engine pictogram] problem, I mention that the passenger door’s rubber strip has fallen off.  Dave says quickly something close to “Oh, you’d do better to take that to a body shop; we’d overcharge you for that, and they could do an equally good job”

Question three: What kind of a company admits that they overcharge for a service? If a store charges more for a product or service, they should be able to justify that to the customer. Some good reasons: “we’re convenient.” “we stand behind our work.” “we’re fashionable.” “we’re better.”  But to simply say: “we cost more” is imbecilic.  If you cost more than your competitors for no good reason, lower your price! Otherwise, tell your customer why they ought to pay more.

Anyway, Dave says he’ll call me as soon as the problem is diagnosed.

I go to the shuttle counter.  The shuttle starts running at 7:30—but only around Oakland, not to Berkeley.  Service to Berkeley doesn’t start until 8:30 a.m., and ends at 3:30, not 5 p.m.

Question four: Why would the woman let me make an appointment at 7 a.m., after I’ve specifically asked if the shuttle runs to UC Berkeley, if the shuttle doesn’t start until 8:30?  She should have warned me when I asked for 7; even better, she could have offered me a later appointment in the first place and explained why.

I ask her if there’s alternative transportation.  She says she doesn’t know.  But the fellow standing next to me at the counter says I could easily take the #51 bus, which stops half a block away and runs directly, if ploddingly, back to campus. I go to the stop, which can be seen from the door of the dealership, and the #51 is the only bus to stop at it.

Question five: Shouldn’t the person who is responsible for co-ordinating the arrival of people at the dealership, know where the nearest bus to the business runs? I would think it’s a common occurrence for people to arrive at, or leave, the dealership without a car. I also think that UC Berkeley is a fairly significant landmark, and that Oakland Volkswagen probably sees a significant number of its students.

I head back to campus and get there in time to attend the conference.  At 2 p.m., Dave calls and leaves a message.  He has diagnosed the problem with my car.  It is, he says, a burnt out “throttle body” and a burnt-out “ECM.”  One, he doesn’t know which, failed and took the other with it.  To replace both will cost $1400.  To get the parts in stock will take until Tuesday.

Question six: I brought in my car at 7:05.  The diagnosis was complete at 2 p.m.  That’s seven hours.  Yet I was charged $125, about an hour’s labor.  Why so long? What were they doing the other six hours?

I called Dave back, and told him about my transitory schedule, but said I would be in Portland on Tuesday.  I asked if he could call a dealership in Portland and set up a repair there for me.  He said no, all that he could do was give me a list of dealerships in the area and that I would have to call them myself. He did, however, point out that he would give me the part numbers so I could ask them specifically for the right things.

Question seven: Why, given that I just paid $125 for essentially no resolution, couldn’t Oakland Volkwagen’s service department have called a dealership up in Portland and set up the repair for me?  I would be ensured that the dealership knew the exact problem, the Portland dealership would know more accurately what had been done already in Oakland because the information didn’t travel through an unknowledgable middle man (me), and I would be impressed with Volkwagen’s seamless coverage of their customer.  Oakland would be out the cost of Dave’s time (10 minutes?) and a long distance phone call.

In fact, Dave gave me three part numbers—the third part is a throttle body gasket, which Dave said they would automatically need to replace if they replaced the other two.  He said the service desk there would know this.  I did call a Portland dealer. And I asked them if they had parts in stock or if they could order them by Tuesday.  And as an experiment, I only mentioned to the throttle body and the ECM, not the gasket.  The service desk fellow I talked to never asked me about if I also needed a gasket and never mentioned having one in stock.  Again, this is why it would make sense for Dave to be the caller; he would be much more likely to set up the right repair with the right parts because he would know what to ask.

In any case, I asked Dave about a shuttle, and he transferred me to the shuttle desk.

The desk asks me if I’ve filled out a shuttle return form, which I had done.  I’m on campus, but they say they have to send a shuttle to the address I’ve listed, which is the hotel.  They say it will be there in as much as 30 minutes.  I leave the conference and go back to the hotel to wait. I arrive at the hotel 15 minutes later.  I then wait another 40 minutes.  I call.  They say the car is in traffic and will be there soon.  Ten minutes after that, the car arrives.  Quick math: That’s 65 minutes after I was told it would be no more than 30 minutes.  That’s also an entire conference session I could have gone to.  I was the only passenger in the shuttle.

Question eight: With cell phones and GPS, why couldn’t I have been told more accurately when the shuttle was going to get there? In fact, if I had known that the shuttle would be 65 minutes, I could have decided to take the bus, saving them fuel and time, saving me time, and avoiding frustration.  Instead, they either didn’t know, or lied.

So, the final situation is that I paid $125 to be told that I needed a $1400 repair, that they couldn’t do.  I was first given incomplete information, then no information, then wrong information. I was told to my face that they overcharge for basic repairs.  My time was wasted on the initial call giving information that wasn’t used, and at the end of the process waiting for a shuttle that was 35 minutes late.  And at the end, I was left to fend for myself.  Oakland Volkswagen, you’ve certainly given me fodder for a blog rant.

And the sad part is, I consider this no worse than any usual car-related interaction.



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