By Michael Clark

Congratulations! You’ve run the sales department gauntlet of fabric protectors, extended warranties and floor mats, and you’re ready to turn the key to your new conveyance for the agreed-to lease term or the thrills of long-term ownership. And while Joe Showroom is always ready to help you and the other 300 prospects he’s expecting, there is a far more important relationship that needs to be established: with the service department. Whether it’s oil changes or overhauls, these tips will elicit smiles from service writers and managers alike, instead of thoughts of telling you to go forth and multiply yourself.

Before you even buy: do some recon work at the dealerships of makes you’re considering. Arrange for an oil change, or other basic, low dollar service to gauge how you’re treated. The service department is a major revenue stream for dealerships. With vehicles becoming increasingly reliable, service departments are quickly realizing that image, and attitude, equal survival.

Meet and greet: most vehicle sales reps will give you the nickel tour of the dealership operations. If you’re accepting delivery of a new vehicle, try to do it within the operating hours of the service department. Make sure it isn’t first thing in the morning, the busiest time for vehicle drop-offs. This should give you a chance to put names to the faces. Ask pointed questions of the service department staff as to any special recommendations for maintaining your specific vehicle. They’ll be impressed that you asked.

Create a service schedule: most service departments have enacted regular follow-ups with customers for regular maintenance. (Some larger dealer groups employ their own call centres.) It sure beats having to decipher the charts in your owner’s manual. If your dealer has not yet become as pro-active, ask the service manager or service writer to help devise a proper maintenance regimen.

Negotiate transportation: the days of ample loaner vehicles at a dealership are long gone. You can try negotiating a loaner into your deal with Joe Showroom. (Good luck with that.) Shuttle services are the usual get-to-work avenue, though usually not on time. Car rental companies are often used for loaner requests. If you can’t get it for free, negotiate a reduced cost. If your vehicle is laid up for an extended period, ie. new engine under warranty, fight for a free loaner.

Its all in the details: the common misconception amongst vehicle owners is that the service department will be able to throw on a piece of equipment that will magically diagnose your car’s ailments for a quick remedy. Remember, it’s a service department, not Madame Tarot’s Psychic Hut of Auto Repair. You don’t need to be a mechanic: simply detail your vehicle’s problem as best you can. Think of all the parameters that affect the problem. Is the vehicle hot or cold when it occurs? What type of driving? (City, highway.) How often does the problem occur? Sounds and smells that may mean nothing to you can be the primary problem indicator to a seasoned service veteran. You can never provide too much information.

Butter them up: everyone likes to know they’re doing a good job. Whether it’s comment cards or a well-worded letter, it’s the type of thing that can make your name, and your vehicle, a welcome presence in the service bay. I haven’t found a mechanic yet who enjoys working on a dirty engine. A can of engine shampoo and a high pressure car wash hose will make you a favourite. (Try not to soak the electrical bits too much.) Make the vehicle as accessible as possible for service. For example, if you have an issue with faulty backup lights, take all your stinky hockey equipment out of the trunk first. In the winter, run it through a nearby car wash before you drop it off at the dealer. (No one likes undercarriage slush in their hair.)

And most importantly, donuts: as weird as this may sound, let me relay a little story of when I had a lot of moxy and little credit. I would show up at a lube shop, first thing in the morning, with a dozen of Tim Horton’s finest. On average, I would net an hour’s worth of free services, such as belt tightening, fluid top-ups, even a tire rotation on one occasion. Don’t be too obvious about it: you want to stay unique in this regard. And you want to keep your service department out of fat pants.

The little things you do while your vehicle is under warranty can certainly help your pocketbook when the transmission hatches in year eight.

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