With repair and maintenance costs going anywhere but down, one thing you don’t need is a repair bill that’s higher than you were expecting. Sure, sometimes the problem turns out to be worse than was originally forecast, but the increase shouldn’t come as a surprise.

As a consumer of maintenance and repair services, you have protection from surprise invoices, but before we get to that, I want to stress that effective communication usually prevents those situations from escalating to threats of violence — and believe me, that happens.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have had to deal with irate customers when they are handed an invoice for payment when their problem hasn’t been rectified. And rightfully so, I wouldn’t want to pay if I wasn’t satisfied either. From my experience, communication — or the lack of it — on both sides of the service counter is usually at the root of the problem.

The most common areas that produce the “no fault found” invoice stem from the notoriously unwelcome drivability-issues complaint, or the bedeviling “intermittent fault.” These complaints are common today. Drivability issues come in many forms and may include vibrations related to engines, transmissions, drive train, or other areas. There are also rattles that drivers hear and want fixed, or intermittent electrical problems.

These types of problems can be difficult to diagnose, and harder to fix. You can help the technicians immeasurably by giving as much detail as possible when writing up the work order.

Here’s how to get the most out of your maintenance and repair dollars:

1. Provide the repair facility with as much information as you can, no matter how insignificant it seems. It’s surprising how a small piece of information will help in the diagnosis and repair of those illusive vibrations or clunks. Be very specific: if your vibration issues only materialize on a steep upward climb with a trailer, or at a specific road speed and rpm, you must relay that information. Leave nothing out.

Request a road test with the technician that will investigate your complaint. If that person isn’t available, request the shift supervisor or lead hand accompany you. Most shops will road test your vehicle with you at no charge. Remember to bring a loaded trailer with you if your problem only happens under load.

When you’re on the road test, your mission is to duplicate the problem so we can follow the diagnostic steps provided by the manufacturer.

2. Once you have decided to leave your equipment for repair, a work order will be generated outlining your issues. Before you sign it, make sure everything you told the technician — including the results of the road test — has been documented. On occasion, some service staff may not fully record all that’s needed to expedite your repair. You don’t want guys like me barking up the wrong tree at a hundred bucks an hour, do you? Review the work order, and if you feel it necessary to hand write an extra note or two on the repair order, do it. Ensure all information is correct including all contact numbers so you can be consulted when needed.

3. With our newer technology and more complex equipment, the time needed to diagnose and repair a problem is increasing, but that doesn’t mean you should give the shop Carte Blanche in solving your problem. Agree on a reasonable time frame — say, a couple of hours — to come to some conclusion on what’s needed to make the repair. Agree, too, that if a diagnosis hasn’t been made within that time, the shop must contact you before racking up any more time on the job. At that point, it’s up to you whether they continue or not.

4. If the technicians are zeroing in on the problem and you decide to continue, ask the counter person or shop foreman if there’s a particular technician that would be best suited to repair your problem. I’ve worked with mechanics that are happiest when replacing spring pins and bushings, clutches, brakes, and steering components, while frowning at electrical problems.

You might not want a “clutch guy” working on your data link failure. For this type of specialized service you may have to be patient — there’s a shortage of mechanical help these days. You may have to come back at a later date to secure the right technician.

5. Just so everyone is on the same page, insist on a repair quote before the work begins. The completed quote should provide a total dollar figure that itemizes labor, parts (including part numbers), sublet repairs, environmental fees, shop supplies, etc. If you’re a regular customer in good financial standing with the repair shop, you might be able to negotiate concessions on labor and parts costs — but the time to do it is before you sign the work order.

When you’ve come to terms on the repair costs, sign the quote and keep a copy. When the repairs to your vehicle are complete, bring the quote with you for comparison to your final invoice. If you have been billed for any unauthorized parts or repairs, the shop will have to foot the bill for those items. If the total invoice — before tax — isn’t within 10 percent of the original quote, the repair shop is responsible for the difference.

Now, isn’t that better than getting the cavalry involved for an unexpected hike in the cost of a repair? Communication and negotiation are always preferable to litigation. Good luck on your next visit to the shop

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