Giammalvo Files
Mark Giammalvo

Mark Giammalvo specializes in driveability diagnostics at his family business, Sam Giammalvo's Auto Sales & Service, Inc. in New Bedford, MA.   

Mark, who has been with the business for over 20 years, is an ASE  Master Technician and Parts Specialist. He also holds the ASE L1 certification, and has an associates degree in business management.
Mark is also a writer for Motor Age Magazine and is the past secretary of the Alliance of Automotive Service Professionals, (AASP).
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(Printed in the Journal of The Alliance of Automotive Service Providers, AASP) 

  (I wish to again thank all the customers that have expressed appreciation  for my recent articles.  It has proven to be a conduit for me to voice and share my personal thoughts on automotive and other issues).


In the Feb. 98 issue of Motor Service, (an automotive service industry journal), I read an article by nationally known automotive writer, Greg McConiga. Although the article was interesting, the subject matter was disheartening.  Greg had just had a conversation with another shop owner. As they gabbed, the conversation changed to the hot topic of charging for diagnostic time. This subject isn't really that new. Let's talk a little history here: Twenty years or so ago, you didn't hear much as far as diagnostic time goes. Back then, prior to electronics in cars, automotive technicians could tell you why a car wouldn't start or why it stalled out, in a relatively short period of time. There weren't many possibilities because there weren't many factors. Today, with the average vehicle having three or more onboard computers and several miles of wiring, the art of automotive diagnosis and repair has taken on a life of its own. Nowadays, a technician often spends a large amount of time just trying to duplicate the problem let alone find the cause. Due to the intermittent nature of electronics, often a car is brought in with a complaint but the symptoms never manifest themselves during the test drive. In this industry, I have discovered, that in order to repair a problem on a vehicle, the problem has to be both abnormal and reproducible. If it's not reproducible, what do you do then? Replace a part on a hunch? And if so, which part? That's enough history for now, back to the story at hand. 
    The shop owner that Greg was talking to did not believe in charging for diagnostic time. To quote the article, the shop owner stated: 

"What's the point in having a bunch of test equipment, or competent service technicians?  How many parts can you hang on a car, in lieu of doing diagnostics?A customer doesn't understand a hundred-dollar bill for diagnostic time, but does understand that the car needed a part.  Hiring seasoned technicians means that I've got to pay a bunch of money in wages, and having a bunch of equipment means more expense as well.  How many parts can you hang on a car for what it costs you to buy and finance a $35,000 tester or pay a good tech a living wage and benefits? I make more money hiring an eight Eor ten-dollar an hour guy and just have him hang parts until the problem goes away." 

He continued: 

"The customer is happier (with parts instead of labor), the car is fixed (albeit with a few more parts than might otherwise have been needed), I don't have the big overhead that an experienced man or expensive tester costs me and I can explain hanging parts easier than I can explain a diagnostic charge!  Plus, at least the customer gets the benefit of a new part, even if it doesn't fix the car! With diagnostic time there is no perceived benefit."  

Greg commented in his article by stating: 

 "What's scary about this conversation is that this guy's day job puts him in shops all over the region (absentee owner)  and he says that he's arrived at this conclusion by watching financially successful shops operate.  And he was dead serious about it.  I've always said that it was an unfortunate fact that a shop owner knows he can make more money with a poor to mediocre technician than with a good tech. The career path in this business is backwards if incompetence is rewarded and competence is considered excess overhead.  Imagine being middle aged, with $100,000 invested in tools and equipment finding out that while you thought you were becoming more and more marketable as you became more and more capable, in fact you are becoming less and less marketable.  Instead of being considered an asset, you are seen as a liability.  In every other business, trade and profession in the world, as you gain knowledge and experience you are considered more valuable with increased experience."  

    I, like Greg, just don't agree with this shop owner's philosophy. It's a shame that a shop owner can be financially successful and have this view point. I agree that it's hard to explain to a customer that you have to charge for the technician's time in testing components on the car to find the problem. But, after all, the shop has to pay the technician to test sensors, wiring and computers until the problem is found. Should we ask the technician to diagnose and test the car for free? How would he then put food on his table? 
    "Shotgunning" is automotive parlance for guessing at a solution by installing part after part until the problem is found. That's not professional work! How does this shop owner explain that to the customer? Oh, Mr. Jones, we found your problem. You needed a Mass Air Flow Sensor, an Oxygen Sensor, a Throttle Position Sensor, a Coolant Temperature Sensor and a Computer. Would a doctor replace a lung on a hunch in lieu of a strong battery of tests to prove its failure? I think not. Maybe this shop owner is profiting because of all the extra parts he is selling. If you ask me, it would be wiser and more economical to test the circuit and find the problem at the cost of a few hours of labor rather than replacing $500.00 worth of parts and then stumbling across the real problem. We still are convinced that testing, not guessing, is the correct avenue of proper automotive repair. Time is hard to explain because it is something that the customer cannot "feel" or "touch" The customer cannot see the value of the time unless he actually watches the technician through the whole process of testing and the use of all our specialized diagnostic equipment. Consider the Technical Hotline service we use. We use this service if we encounter a car with a very unusual problem. This service allows us to discuss vehicle specific problems with some of the smartest automotive repair people in the country. They receive calls from technicians like us in every state and create a database of "fixes" based on the calls they receive. The price of speaking with them has considerable value. Their fee? $3.50 per minute. That's right, $210.00 per hour. 
    Perhaps there is a way to place value on a technician's smarts and time. A good friend and long time customer, Harold Johnson, recently shared a saying with me that is now hanging in my office: "Like an attorney, a technician's time and advice are his stock in trade." 




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