Auto Dealership Service Staffers Should Act Like Lt. Columbo

With a malfunctioning vehicle, “there is a big difference – as much as $1,000 on a repair bill – between tink-tink-tink and thunk-thunk-thunk,” says Wallis Miller of Alldata.

Steve Finlay, Senior Editor

April 26, 2021

4 Min Read
Dealer - mechanic with customer
Miller says a good service writer or auto technician early on asks focused questions, such as “What’s happening?” “When does it happen?” “How often does it happen?”Getty Images

At a car dealership’s service department, a good repair job – one that’s done expeditiously and right the first time – begins with a properly completed work order.

So says Wallis Miller, a training analyst for Alldata, a software provider to the automotive service and repair industry.

“A work order is the foundation of everything that goes on in the shop,” she says at a webinar on how to create an order that benefits all parties, from the customer in for repairs to the mechanic fixing the vehicle. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence hosted her presentation.

Well-crafted work orders – which today often are digital – center on “the three C’s,” she says: concern, cause and correction.

The concern relates to why a vehicle owner goes to the shop in the first place. Often, it involves a vehicle noise that sounds wrong.

Miller says a good service writer or auto technician early on asks focused questions, such as “What’s happening?” “When does it happen?” “How often does it happen?”

That’s a crucial step, but not the only one. “Be like Columbo, and ask just one more question,” she says, referring to a 1970s TV show featuring a persistently inquisitive police detective (pictured below, left).

Peter Falk as Columbo (3) (getty).jpg

Peter Falk as Columbo (3) (getty)_2

A work order should clearly state the customer’s concern or service request. “But that’s not always easy” because most vehicle owners aren’t tech-savvy enough to detail what the problem is, Miller notes.

As an example, she says a customer may complain of excess smoke spouting from a tailpipe. The service writer should qualify that by asking:

  • “What color smoke, blue, white or black?

  • “When does it happen? On start-up, or acceleration?”

  • “How often does it happen? Always, or once in a while?”

A good way to get an accurate description of a problem is to ask the customer to fill out a symptom checklist, says Miller, a former mechanic in the U.S. Air Force and a former vocational instructor for the Sacramento, CA, school district.

Before a repair diagnosis begins, she recommends the service adviser or technician first check to see if a problem is in a database of technical service bulletins from automakers.

“Sometimes the manufacturer has diagnosed the problem already, and all you have to do is fix it,” she says, citing the scenario of an owner of a 2016 Ford F-150 with a 2.7L EcoBoost V-6 complaining about excessive white smoke spewing from the exhaust pipes when the pickup truck is started after sitting overnight in cold weather.

Checking a service bulletin on that particular issue would quickly tell the mechanic what’s wrong, eliminating the need for an extensive diagnosis.  

A perennial challenge for the service writer or technician is when a customer says a vehicle is making “a funny noise.” What’s that mean exactly in the automotive realm of NVH – noise, vibration and harshness? It could involve all sorts of things.

As Miller notes, there is a glossary of vehicle noises.

The list includes boom (a low-pitched noise often accompanied by a vibration), buzz (A low-pitched sound like a bee makes), chuckle (a repetitive low-pitched sound), hoot (a steady low-frequency tone), howl (mid-frequency range and steady) and rustling (similar to the sound of walking through leaves).

Then there is the usual list of suspects such as pinging, rattling, squeaking, squealing, ticking, whining and whistling.

“There is a big difference – as much as $1,000 on a repair bill – between tink-tink- tink and thunk-thunk-thunk,” Miller says.

A work order (a.k.a. repair order, service ticket and job card) is an important means of communication between the customer and service writer, the service writer and technician, and the technician and parts manager, she says.

As a reference point, technicians consult the work order containing the customer’s concerns and the service writer’s statements. Beyond that, technicians use their sight, hearing, smell and knowledge and experience to get the repair job done, Miller says. 

Asked during the webinar’s Q&A portion how much time it should take to create a proper work order, Miller says: “Nothing is set in stone, but a good service manager knows it is important to take time to get it right. You don’t want to spend three hours. But if you do it right, you save time later.”

Steve Finlay is a retired WardsAuto senior editor. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Subscribe to a WardsAuto newsletter today!
Get the latest automotive news delivered daily or weekly. With 5 newsletters to choose from, each curated by our Editors, you can decide what matters to you most.

You May Also Like