Mirror Image

Jan. 1, 2020
Does the motoring public have a distorted view of our industry? It's time we face the mirror and see if the consumers' view of us is a reflection of ourselves.

Go ahead — take a look in the industry’s metaphorical mirror. What image do you see? Do you think outsiders see the same image that you do? Is their perception your reality or do they have an entirely different opinion of who you are?

We all know that some gallant efforts have been made in the aftermarket community to help clean up our image to the outside world, but until now, we haven’t been too sure if our efforts are helping us see eye-to-eye with the people this industry is ultimately here to serve: consumers.

As a supplement to our State of the Industry address, we questioned everyday consumers about their perceptions of the automotive aftermarket. We asked them to tell us how they felt about the way we present ourselves, how they are treated, whom they trust, the most important reasons in choosing a facility or parts store and their satisfaction level. Some results may surprise you. Others may confuse you. Either way, it’s time we get down to the bottom of our industry image and find out, once and for all, if we are all looking in the same mirror or if our view is completely distorted.

A matter of priorities

When asked which repair shop attribute was “very important” in a consumer’s list of priorities, customer service took the cake with 84 percent; price was also very important to 75 percent of our respondents. Speed of repair and friendliness ranked high and cleanliness was of the least concern.

From the DIYers’ perspective, customer service also ranked extremely high, followed by price and the fast delivery of parts. Maybe, in the case of the aftermarket, the term cleanliness in the adage “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” should be substituted with “Friendliness.” It seems as if a smile can go miles in this business.

Lauren Fix, an industry renowned automotive expert and television personality, talked to us about customer service. “More repair facilities have already stepped up the atmosphere with nicer waiting rooms and fresh coffee for their customers, but it’s the people’s mindset that has to change — the people who are face to face with the customer.”

She continues, “In my opinion, I think that as an industry, we are really trying to make a change, but once it filters down to the consumer, something gets lost.”

She adds that she still gets the occasional, “Honey, let me show you what’s wrong” when she visits a new place because they assume she doesn’t understand the problem. She also says she knows many women who are still hesitant to take their vehicle in for repair because they don’t want to get ripped off. This type of talk is what got our industry in a rut in the first place.

One survey respondent had a very simple request: “I just want a guy who will correctly diagnose my problem. I don’t want anybody taking advantage of my lack of knowledge.” It seems people just want a little guidance without being talked down to.

A trustworthy relationship

Trust is perhaps the most valuable element in a business relationship — what the undesirable strive for, what the honest cling to. “Instilling trust is extremely important in this industry,” says Rich White, vice president of marketing and member relations for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). “Because there is such a high level of sophistication in today’s cars, a simple explanation from a technician on a topic consumers already don’t really understand isn’t going to help. In these cases, trust is big.”

So who do consumers trust more with their cars, their second most expensive possession? More than half of our respondents said they trusted independent repair shops over dealerships (52 percent vs. 41 percent). But that gap may soon be narrowing, since some of the folks we spoke with say dealers have been making a greater effort to reach out to them.

A 27-year-old communications manager from Minneapolis says, “I think dealers are doing more. It seems I’m more respected there as a person and as a woman. They seem more helpful and less condescending than the independents I’ve had experience with and are more aware of trying to keep the customer coming back to them.”

One person said that her dealer actually has people come to her house for certain service now whereas just a few years ago, “the service was horrid” at the same place.

Those respondents who preferred dealerships ranked certification, training and reputation as their top reasons; those who trusted independent repair shops more than dealerships listed customer service, personal relationship with the staff, cost and reputation as strong indicators of their decision.

A cause for concern

One would think that trust and knowledge would be positively correlated, i.e. if you trust Person X more than Person Y, you’d probably think that Person X is more knowledgeable than Person Y. Not so, says the study.

One gentleman, who doesn’t go to the dealer, says, “I think the dealer could probably fix a more difficult problem. They should be able to fix every single problem you have wrong with your car because that is what they do.” And that thinking is exactly why a positive correlation between trust and knowledge doesn’t exist.

What does exist is a perception among the motoring public that car dealerships are the more knowledgeable of the two. Forty-four percent rated the service staff at the repair shop as “extremely knowledgeable,” whereas 59 percent rated the service staff at the dealership the same way. That means the majority of consumers assume the dealer is more aware of the complexities of the vehicles they are servicing.

Keeping the media informed

The industry seeks an admirable goal of perpetuating proper vehicle maintenance, and it appears we have been making headway.

Lauren Fix, along with other automotive experts, has been on regional and national news shows across the country — including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the NBC “Today” program, “The View,” CNN, Fox, “The Early Show” and National Public Radio — preaching preventative maintenance and proper car care.

Yet, despite industry efforts, some negative media and sensationalism still makes its way to consumers. An article entitled, “The eight auto maintenance myths” featured on Netscape’s home page Saturday, Jan. 8, suggests that basic vehicle servicing is becoming a thing of the past.

One quote reads, “Just say no — or at the very least, compare what they’re trying to sell with what your owner’s manual recommends — and you can avoid hundreds of dollars in unnecessary maintenance.” The author is a well-known automotive writer. Though his article has some legitimacy, one could argue that the angle used did our industry a disservice, suggesting that every shop a motorist visits will try and pitch “routine” maintenance.

“Anytime there is sensational information, it will take us backward. The media like to dwell on those kind of negative aspects,” says White. “But this article justifies the reason the industry needs the Car Care Council — a credible third-party source hammering away at creating positive, accurate information to help counter the sensational, negative misinformation that has forever been out there.”

Steve Ford, Fix’s co-host on “Talk2DIY Automotive” and an automotive expert himself, says, “It’s well known that since the early ’90s, we started marketing new cars with 100,000-mile service intervals for spark plugs and extended life coolants, which is great, but it feeds into a tendency for people who already neglect their cars and question the value of maintenance.”

He believes that motorists and the media in general are a number of years behind the industry. “I think there is an increasing respect for the level of training and the demands on technicians to deal with a vehicle’s complexity,” but he goes on to say, “We need to increase communication to bring the motoring public up to speed in education and awareness.”

Car care awareness

In an effort to gauge people’s awareness of our industry’s Be Car Care Aware campaign and National Car Care Month, we asked participants if they’ve heard of the campaign or know when Car Care Month is.

Of our respondents, 96 percent had not heard of the campaign and 81 percent of our respondents answered, “I don’t know,” when asked to identify National Car Care Month (April). The remaining percentage made guesses yet April wasn’t among them, which may be a sign that we as an industry need to continue increasing our efforts.

But AAIA’s White says he wouldn’t expect consumers to have heard of Be Car Care Aware since that slug is not used when they pitch consumer media. Instead, he says they focus simply on educating the media about vehicle maintenance and safety. White continues, “Our success will not be measured by the level of awareness of the campaign but on the behavior of consumers. We want people to be better informed so that it results in more maintenance.”

He does not expect this to happen overnight. “The media interest in the campaign’s message increases more every year — it’s really catching on. We can’t expect to change misperception overnight. We have years and years of negative images in the auto repair profession and most of it is unjustified so it’ll take time. The good news is that the industry is really doing something about it now. Education is the key — there is no alternative. It’s education on three levels — consumers, media and service professionals (be it at the counter or in the bays).”

White says the Car Care Council will continue its consumer outreach, noting that the organization has numerous customizable resources available for retailers and technicians to use during Car Care Month and year-round.

Mike Kamal, executive director for the Independent Auto Parts Association and co-president of the newly formed Automotive Distribution Network says, “We are definitely committed to sponsoring Car Care Month. We very much believe in it and want to support it.” Kamal told us that they plan to hold 50 events across the country to help build consumer awareness. He says this effort ties nicely into their other focus, called “OE Automotive Service Professionals” — a program designed with the shop owner in mind.

“What we have learned over many years is that many of the shop owners were technicians that wanted to run their own business. Too many of them still think like techs, focusing mostly on buying the parts and fixing a car right. They don’t always spend enough time focused on appearance and marketing.”

The overall plan is to help technicians learn how to better approach consumers and educate them.

Last year, Wal-Mart announced its support of National Car Care Month with endcaps and signage, but this year, expect no mention from the retail giant. Willie Boozer, Wal-Mart’s automotive marketing manager, says the company was criticized for not being an AAIA member and, when asked to pay a membership fee, declined participation in this year’s Car Care Month.

Shattering the truth

Do consumers grudgingly see auto repair as a necessary evil despite anything they’re told, or should repair shops and auto parts chains do a better job of imparting the actual value of parts and services?

A resounding 83 percent of respondents who take their vehicle in for repair said they were either satisfied or extremely satisfied the last time they took their vehicle to a repair shop; 86 percent gave these same ratings to the dealership. DIYers, on the other hand, seem much less content with the counterstaff at auto parts stores even though 60 percent said they were greeted immediately upon entering. Obviously, friendliness doesn’t equate to happiness.

A large portion of the DIYers we interviewed — 28 percent — were only somewhat satisfied with their last experience, 24 percent were neutral and 10 percent were unhappy. Only a few folks responded as to why, but the answers included attitude, lack of knowledge and no customer service.

As far as accessibility goes, a solid majority of respondents seeking repairs stated it was easy to get an appointment and there was a person available at the other line when they phoned about repairs. Additionally, between 80 and 90 percent were greeted immediately when they walked into a repair shop or dealership.

So, does this mean we are making progress? “We’ve made strides,” says Fix, “but I still hear a lot of bad things from consumers where they feel as if they are being talked down to.”

She explains that consumers respond well to educated explanations, so it would be beneficial to train the counterperson or representative, providing them with a background of service and brands and how they differ in more ways than price.

Of our respondents, 36 percent think they pay too much for service. Perhaps consumers do not fully understand the myriad of driving forces behind the cost of an item, and their lack of knowledge causes them to perceive prices as unfairly high.

A report entitled “Consumer Perceptions of Price (Un)Fairness” in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests consumers have a tendency to underestimate factors such as inflation and vendor costs, while instead dwelling on such preconceived notions as past prices of the same item and competitors’ pricing, a battle made more difficult by discount stores dabbling in the automotive aftermarket.

“Consumers are inclined to believe that the selling price of a good or service is substantially higher than its fair price,” the report states.

Ford has his own ideas for combating the pricing war. He suggests that technicians print helpful information on the back of a work order, including the vocabulary of service and the “what, why and how” of the repair performed.

“The guy who has been driving for 40 years and the kid that’s been driving for two share the same gap in regards to vehicle maintenance,” he says, attributing this to the acceleration of technology in vehicles today.

“We have to inspire them to understand why they need to do something, how it benefits the automobile and what maintenance and repair is ‘today,’” he adds. 

Regardless of studies, polls and exhaustive research, human emotion is fickle and complicated. Though it appears that people seem somewhat satisfied with the industry and are a little more in tune, the overall consumer perception remains difficult to pinpoint.

According to those we polled, a resounding 49 percent of respondents pegged their overall perception of the automotive repair industry as a “rip off,” “overpriced” or “untrustworthy.”

Only 38 percent said we’re doing OK. So, what gives? Are these the same people who said they were satisfied with their last appointment; that they think we are accessible; that there is someone to talk to when they phone?

Sure, some issues need improvement, but overall, the impression was that the industry is making progress. Did someone just shatter a mirror and bring us seven years of bad luck?

This report included responses from 142 consumers. We used both an opt-in list and a consumer panel; respondents completed a detailed online questionnaire. Three types of consumers were evaluated — those who frequent dealers, those who frequent independent repair shops and those who do the work themselves. Out of our base, 44 percent took their car to a repair shop, 35 percent frequented the dealer and 21 percent performed their own maintenance.

Breakdown of participants

52% male48% female

Consumer's frequency of visits

Repair shop:

Every one to two months   14%   

Every three months   22%

Every four months   20%

Every six months   24%

Once a year or less   20%


Every one to two months   2%

Every three months   10%

Every four months   15%

Every six months   21%

Once a year or less   52%

Parts store:

Every one to two months   55%

Every three months   10%

Every four months   14%

Every six months   14%

Once a year or less   7%

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