It’s a jungle out there: auto dealer service departments

Recently, Artificially Sweetened had an issue with her 2008 Toyota Sienna. She placed her trust in a large, local Toyota dealer to perform the service. Under the circumstances, it seemed like the best place to get what she needed, but in the end, it turned out to be the worst.

I’ll keep you in suspense no longer. The dealer is David Maus Toyota in Sanford, Florida.

I will report the facts here. While they mostly speak for themselves, I’ll offer some opinions, too, which I’ll clearly note are just that: my opinion and my opinion only.  I’ll also provide some links to various corroborative sources for those who want to dig further into the seamy world of auto dealer service departments.

Prologue

Having a 16 year-old daughter who is a new driver, Artificially Sweetened’s 2008 Sienna was suitably imperiled. It was only a matter of time before “it” happened, and we fervently hoped that when it did, it would not involve personal injuries. “It” turned out to be a rogue oak tree that suddenly jumped into #2 Daughter’s path while she was backing up. A large, scarred, protruding stump from a limb that had been removed was at the perfect height to take out the large rear window on the hatch. The Sienna was no match for the majestic old oak, which won the battle limbs down. Naturally, Daughter proclaimed that it was the tree’s fault.

Daughter had borrowed the car to transport her to and from work at a local pizzeria — only because AS was sick, suffering from a persistent and debilitating sinus infection. Otherwise, she could have ridden her bike to work— Oh, wait! No, no she couldn’t, for in yet another act of carelessness Daughter had ridden her bike to work and had forgotten to lock it. Predictably, it was stolen. Guess who has run out of options and now has to walk to work?

Anyway, AS called her insurance company’s claims department, who in turn recommended Safelite AutoGlass®, with whom AS made an appointment for the following week. This incident happened on a Saturday night, which is when everything weird seems to hit the fan in this family.

Aside from the hole where the rear window used to be, the only other issue I could detect with the minivan was that there was a small dent in the upper right of the hatch, which opened and closed normally, so based on the age of the vehicle, I recommended that the glass be replaced and to hell with the dent.

After the Safelite tech replaced the rear window, the hatch would not open. He spent a while with AS poring over owner’s manuals, etc., and could not find a fuse or anything easy. It was, of course, significant that it had worked before he replaced the window, and he felt responsible. However, with nothing left to do within his capabilities, we decided to appeal to the manager of the Safelite branch to reimburse AS for any repairs necessitated as a consequence of their technician’s actions. The manager seemed agreeable and asked for a written estimate from a reputable service facility in order to further pursue our claim.

That’s where my bum advice got us into trouble.

“Take it to a Toyota dealer,” I said. “They’ll have more credibility with Safelite, and we’re just asking for an estimate, so they won’t screw anything up.”

I was looking for a canonical representation from a dealer’s service department — a baseline service estimate we could provide to Safelite from a trusted source in support of our reimbursement request. I made all the wrong assumptions, forgetting half of what I knew and everything I had imagined about large dealer service departments through my personal dealings with them over 47 years of auto ownership. I ignored advice from auto publications and Consumer Reports. I dismissed the horror stories I’ve seen published on-line. I didn’t even consider that 36 years ago I had been involved in a consulting gig at a large Chevy dealer in Indiana, where I learned a lot of their tricks from behind the scenes. Yeah, I was a schmuck for telling AS that the dealer would be her best bet. This one is on me.

To compound AS’s agony — which she didn’t need, given the seriousness of her aforementioned sinus infection — I agreed with her proposal that she have the dealer perform the 120,000 mile  recommended interval service on her Sienna. Again, I forgot all the caveats and ignored all the sirens and red flashing lights that should have engaged my characteristic cynicism. These routine service visits are big money makers for dealers’ service departments, depending upon how much extra crap they can throw in and how much of the work they can avoid doing. Still, I figured a couple extra bucks would be the net negative impact. I was wrong. Way wrong.

Taking It In

So AS dropped off the car with a driveway service sales agent (my title). This service department employee, commonly called a “service adviser” is only capable of giving you “advice” that will increase service department profit. That’s what they’re there for. They’re the front-line salespeople for the service department.  They’re not mechanics and they have only limited knowledge of what makes cars tick. But what they do have is orders to generate ever higher bills for customers by selling service, some of which is unnecessary. Oh, they’ll use every trick in the book to sell you stuff, hanging on the word “safety” a lot. Women are particularly vulnerable targets. If you’re a mother with children, that “safety” thing gets pulled out every other sentence by the driveway sales person. What kind of lousy mother would ever want to endanger her kids? Let’s give the “adviser” the benefit of the doubt and do the “safe thing” for just a few extra bucks, right? Yeah, sure. Those bucks add up. There are even training videos about “selling-up” in the service drive. Yeah, it’s a jungle out there, and you have to watch out for snakes at every turn. And the rats aren’t far behind.

There are lots of ways to make money on “recommended service”. I won’t go into all of them here. (I will provide links to some useful information in that connection at the end of this article.) What starts out as a flat rate for an interval service will wind up costing double that amount if you’re not careful what you’re committing to. Furthermore, dealer service departments not only charge more for parts than independent shops, but many also charge service customers substantially more than their own dealer parts department charges retail customers at the parts window. That way, the parts department still gets its profit and the service department gets an additional piece of the pie.

Being overcharged for a so-called flat-rate interval service is exactly what happened with AS. She started out just wanting to have the rear hatch diagnosed, then figured that as long as the car would be in for service, she’d get an oil change and whatever else the factory recommended at her mileage level. She was unaware of the difference between factory recommended service (which is what you need to abide by to stay in warranty) and dealer recommended service (which is what the dealer wants you to buy into in order to juice up his bottom line). The driveway sales agent flashed her a laminated card showing her what she would get and told her it would wind up costing approximately $500 when all was said and done (or not done). After a cursory inspection of the card, she agreed to it. Remember, she was sick, in a hurry, stressed out, and vulnerable.

The wolves smelled blood. No way would they recommend the minimum service, even though it would include lots of unnecessary and gratuitous add-ons even at the base price. They went right for the throat. AS didn’t stand a chance.

It is interesting to note at this point that during my follow-up conversation with the service director, which I’ll cover later, he asked me the question, “If you’re so knowledgeable, why did you let [AS] take the car in herself?” Translation: “What kind of man are you, throwing your girlfriend to the wolves while watching from a safe distance?” After thanking him for the insult, I told him that AS had insisted on handling it herself, and that she felt that she would be getting the factory recommended service from a dealer she could trust. Both were faulty assumptions. What she would get was a dealer sell-up screw job and an expensive lesson. Moreover, the service director’s sarcastic question to me was a tacit admission of guilt. He knew it. I knew it. And he knew I knew it, the smug prick. Alas, AS had agreed to it, I did nothing to stop her, and now he was rubbing my nose in it.

I’ll analyze AS’s interval service experience at David Maus Toyota below versus what should have happened per the factory recommendation. I’ll take the information from the actual service invoice. I’m not embellishing anything here — believe it or not — but I’ll highlight certain items for emphasis. The basic rate for the “dealer recommended” interval service was $307.26, which was bad enough considering which services it did and did not include, and the driveway “sell-up” job netted the dealer another $160 in pure profit.

Details of the Screw Job

Here’s what was written up for the 120,000 mile service:

PERFORMED “C” SERVICE INTERVAL MILEAGE SERVICE – 30K – 60K – 90K – 120K
CSERV OIL AND FILTER CHANGE – REPLACE AIR
FILTER – ROTATE TIRES – FUEL INJECTION SYS
SERVICETHROTTLE BODY SERVICEINTAKE SYSTEM
SERVICEFUEL SYS CLEANERENGINE OIL SYS 
TREATMENTBRAKE SYS FLUIDBATT TERM SERVICE

2933 CPT $307.26

We must assume that “CPT” means “complete”.  It wasn’t, as we’ll see later. The items highlighted in red are gratuitous, high profit dealer add-ons not included anywhere in the factory service recommendations. Modern cars using modern fuels containing detergents do not require routine fuel injection or throttle body service. I’m not sure just what “intake system service” is, but it isn’t anything recommended by the factory as a standard periodic maintenance item (as you’ll see when I list the factory service recommendations below). If the fuel injection system is working and the car is not running roughly, these gratuitous add-ons don’t even make the slightest bit of sense. Brake system fluid? Well, if you’re leaking brake fluid, you have a bigger problem than would be solved by topping off the reservoir. But who the hell knows what “BRAKE SYS FLUID” really means — complete flush and refill? And “BATTERY TERM SERVICE” — a wire brush to clean off corrosion was the old way to do that when batteries weren’t sealed and leaked acid. Today’s no-maintenance batteries are just that — you don’t ever have to dick with the terminals except when you replace the damn battery.

When I later discussed the deviation from factory recommendations with the defensively pre-emptive service director, he said there were factory recommendations and there were dealer recommendations, the latter of which take into account the region, climate, etc. Bullshit! He even defended the additives (FUEL SYS CLEANER, ENGINE OIL SYS TREATMENT) as not being snake oil but rather the “same as those used by NASCAR.” (I wondered whether these were the additives that Michael Waltrip was busted for using in his competition engine. I doubted it, as NASCAR had accused Waltrip of using additives that actually enhanced his car’s performance. Any connection with NASCAR is merely a result of the additive manufacturer’s advertising and promotion budget.)

OK, but how did they take what appears to be an overcharged bunch of stuff for $300 and pump it up to almost $500? I mean, a $300 oil change is bad enough, but to add insult to injury, they charged double for many items, to wit:

FM620 PREM FUEL INJECTION SERVICE $26.72 — so now, not only were we subjected to an unneeded fuel injection service, but also we received the “premium” version of it for a bunch of extra bucks. Verily, the last I knew, when EFI service was all the rage, a tech at a quickie neighborhood lube joint would hang a bottle of stuff under the hood, leave the engine running, and walk away while the bottle emptied. WTF is premium EFI service? He uses a gold-plated hanger? WTF? Bring out the Preparation-H!

But wait! There’s more! We also got charged for A102 PREM THROTTLE BODY SERVICE ($12.75) and F640 PREM INTAKE SYSTEM SERVICE ($23.07). I’ll give you premium, already! In the head, I’ll give you! More Prep-H.

And now, the additives. I thought that according to the write-up and the invoice description above, they should have been included in the $307.26 oil change — I mean 120,000 mile interval service — but apparently, this was another “oversight” on my part. I guess I don’t know what  “complete” means. “Complete” apparently means it needs extra stuff at extra cost to do the same thing. Yeah, right! Maybe they thought that extra additives were necessary because there are dealer recommendations that differ from factory recommendations and then, there are premium dealer recommendations that start with the preamble, “Bend over! We won’t stick it in too far.” We, being naive everyday non-dealer idiots just wouldn’t understand why these esoteric things are necessary, so they don’t need to be explained — just trust your esteemed service adviser. Cars are just so complicated and they can turn out to be unsafe if they don’t get the right additives. Bullshit! Perhaps they were charging us for premium snake oil (from the finest farm raised cobras in India) when they added pure profit, double billed F610 Z-TECH ADD ($19.40) and C500 OIL CONDITIONER ($14.50). Oil conditioner? I could send my oil to a gym to get it in condition cheaper that pouring this worthless crap into my oil pan. I’ll give you NASCAR, already, schmucko!

Next we have 2 BK101 BRAKE SYSTEM FLUSH @$6.31 ($12.62). Oh, so they claim that they did flush and refill both redundant brake systems. The dealer mantra here is “safety”. The key word in my commentary is “claim”. Who the hell knows whether this was actually done? Do you expect me to trust a dealer who would screw me at every turn? Of course I question whether the work was actually done. After all, they had a female customer. What could she possibly know? Assuming that the work actually was done, the logic is that without this all-important non-factory recommended flush, your car cannot stop. And the children will be killed. Right. The children again. And once again, there is no such factory recommendation as part of the 120,000 mile service.

Here’s a real winner of an add-on: B303 PREM BATT SERVICE ($10.53). If I wasn’t crying so hard, I’d be laughing my ass off at this one. You want your car to start reliably? Better maintain that no-maintenance battery in the best way possible! God forbid you should be out with the children in — you know — that  part of town with a car that won’t start! You’ll be robbed and raped, and the kids will be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Better take no chances with the kids’ lives. Get the premium battery service for your no-maintenance battery for just a few bucks more! Yeah, this one is complete lunacy! Pure profit. Hell, I have to wonder what you get with the unnecessary premium battery service that doesn’t come with the unnecessary standard battery service. Scented Vaseline on the terminals? Perhaps they can use it to advantage when I shove those terminals where the sun don’t shine! Just kidding, of course. They’d sacrifice one of their less productive line mechanics to receive that rectal implant, no doubt.

More double billing follows. They charged extra for oil, oil filter, and air filter!!!!  You’d think that a $300 oil change would at the very least include those things. All indications are that they were part of the $307.26 on the first line item. But no. Apparently, you have to pay separately for the oil and filters the $307.26 is supposed to include. At David Maus Toyota, the oil is an optional extra when you go in for an oil change. This makes no sense whatsoever, and it is yet another damn insult, besides.

041-YZZA1 REPLACEABLE ELEMENT ($8.10). This is an oil filter.

17801-0H010 ELEMENT SUB-ASSY, AI ($28.00) This is an air filter. It was supposed to be part of the $307.26 basic interval service, too.

And of course, the oil:

OIL2 MOBIL 5W20 BULK ($13.50)

Yeah, there’s labor involved, but anyone who has been around cars for any length of time knows how long an oil change takes, and it ain’t very long.  Add another minute or so to replace the air filter. The labor was undoubtedly included in the CPT amount of $307.26 at least once. If they could get away with double-charging “premium labor,” I’m sure they would. That one might be the straw that broke some otherwise docile camel’s back, so they avoid it. Too obvious? In view of all the double charging made glaringly obvious above, perhaps not.

The one extra item I would have agreed to pay for in retrospect that was listed as an add-on on that invoice was a  90430-12031 drain plug gasket ($2.00). Did they actually replace it? God only knows. You can get these at the parts window for a buck, so there’s that good old service department markup of an already marked-up part rearing its ugly head again. But for two bucks, I won’t argue.

AS would wind up paying for all these things when she picked up her car. If I had been there to argue about them categorically before paying the bill, I have to wonder whether they would have kept the keys to the Sienna until we paid the full, inflated amount. I do not trust them to do otherwise. But in fairness to them, AS agreed to all the add-ons in advance in the driveway because she made the mistake of trusting David Maus Toyota and accepting their recommendations. Nevertheless, any semblance of trust I might have had in David Maus Toyota’s service department has eroded to nil in the wake of this egregious and dastardly screw job; what is left as my lasting image is pure greed, deception, and retrospective arrogance for the sake of dealership bottom line.

Compare the Above with Factory Recommendations

Now, what do the Toyota factory service recommendations say should have been done? My comments appear after each item, quoting verbatim from the Toyota documents. Items in red weren’t done.

At 120,000 miles or 144 months:

  • Replace cabin air filter – I see no indication that this was done. Missed opportunity to double-charge, David Maus!
  • Replace engine air filter  Presumably done, although I didn’t check to see for sure.
  • Replace engine oil and oil filter — Pretty sure this was done. Hell, we paid twice for it.
  • Replace spark plugs Not done. Never suggested. My conjecture is that spark plug replacement is labor intensive, thus not a money maker for the dealer. In fact, I brought this up to the service director in my follow-up conversation. He “didn’t know” why his people didn’t perform the service. He said that it is true that because of the heavy labor commitment he doesn’t make as much money replacing plugs, but his people do spark plug replacements all the time. This is the one routine maintenance item that high mileage engines need today — spark plug replacement at 100,000 – 120,000 mile intervals. It is essential to keep the car running smoothly. None of the high-profit crap with which they bombarded us can make up for the rough running that will be caused by spark plugs at the end of their lives.
  • Rotate tires — Presumably done, but I don’t know for sure. If there was to be a next time, I’d chalk the damn tires to keep them honest (relatively speaking).
  • Visually inspect brake linings/drums and brake pads/discs – This is easy to do while rotating tires, if indeed tires were rotated. However, there was no indication anywhere on the invoice that this was ever done — or even part of the “dealer recommended” service for 120,000 miles. Talk about safety! This should be part of any decent — dare I say “David Maus World Class” — inspection, and it should be reported on the invoice, giving percentages of remaining life. We know we have an issue with rotor scoring, but this was never reported back to us. Therefore, we must conclude that this safety oriented inspection was not performed, thus imperiling safety of the children the dealership seems so worried about..
  • Inspect the followingThese might have been performed under the “complimentary David Maus World Class Inspection — a $49.95 value”, but who knows? If you read further, you’ll find that there was indeed a glaring error (literally) that the so-called World Class Inspection missed, if it, too, was in fact actually performed, whatever “it” is.
    • Automatic transmission fluid
    • Ball joints and dust covers
    • Brake lines and hoses
    • Drive belts
    • Drive shaft boots
    • Engine coolant
    • Exhaust pipes and mountings
    • Front differential oil
    • Fuel lines and connections, fuel tank band and fuel tank vapor vent system hoses
    • Fuel tank cap gasket
    • Radiator and condenser
    • Steering gear box
    • Steering linkage and boots

Do you see additives listed anywhere? How about EFI service? Throttle body service? Air intake system service? Hell, no! Those items are big gravy for quickie oil change shops and dealer service departments, but they’re not required or recommended by the manufacturer.

On the other hand, spark plug replacement is required by the factory, not only as a well advised periodic service, but also to comply with the terms of the Emissions Control Warranty.

So, AS essentially got an oil change along with an air filter for her $500. But that’s not the end of the screwing.

Compounding the Felony

Back to the inoperable rear door issue, which was what originally put us on the path toward dealer depredation. While the car was still in the shop receiving its snake oil treatment AS received a call from a service department employee at David Maus Toyota giving her a verbal estimate of $1,100 to fix the door lock. The technician who called her told her that the diagnosis implicated the body ECU, which is little more than a passive fuse block in the front driver’s side that would have to be replaced in order for the door lock’s function to be restored. (But what would a mere woman know about that?) He added that the part was on back order and he didn’t know when he could get it.

That whole situation was annoying as hell. How did he conclude that it was the ECU? Lots of red flags went up on that one. They really stepped over the line with this diagnosis, and as you’ll see later, my intuition turned out to be accurate.

AS and I discussed it, concluding that we didn’t want to just automatically throw $1,100 into a 2008 car. However, AS was severely hampered by the inability to operate her rear hatch, so I would take it elsewhere to get another diagnosis. Furthermore, we were reasonably confident that Safelite wouldn’t be feeling so generous as to write a check for over a grand, particularly since the ECU is all the way up at the front of the cockpit, an area untouched by the glass technician. Nevertheless, we waited for a written estimate before we would made any decisions. And we waited. And we waited.

What Written Estimate?

AS went to pick up her car on her way to the doctor’s office for treatment of the sinus infection. Thus hurried, she did something nobody should ever do — paid the bill without looking at it. The total was $610.41, which included all the things I referred to above (some charged twice) plus a $116 diagnostic fee for the rear door issue, which was the main reason for AS bring the car to David Maus in the first place. She had agreed to everything including this fee in advance, so I suppose there was no reason for her to question the bill at check-out time, anyway. Little did we know at the time that the information that was given to her verbally was a bogus diagnosis. We certainly had our suspicions, though.

When she drove off, AS noticed that the “CHECK ENGINE” warning light was illuminated, as it had been before she brought the car to David Maus. During the initial slam-bam, thank you ma’am driveway screw job, she had forgotten to mention it to the service writer. However, the complimentary “David Maus World Class Inspection” they’re so proud of should have caught that, right? Yeah, sure. A $49.95 value? I submit that the inspection — if actually done — must have been performed by a blind, deaf, and dumb technician and was worth exactly what we paid for it — bupkis

AS was angry about that and called the service department. A receptionist answered the phone and then someone who identified himself as “service manager” called her back, telling her to bring the car back in. (In the dealership game, everyone has an inflated title, so they appear to be authoritative. Some of these are merely elevated senior grease monkeys designed to keep customers under control and keep them from bitching to the service director and general manager. One should be cynical about who is a real manager and who is a titular manager who carries little more weight than a line mechanic.) The idea that enough people had worked on the car that someone would have seen the “CHECK ENGINE” light and some point, but never reported it and never even suggested diagnosis incensed AS. She gave the so-called manager who called her a dose of Grade A Over the Top hysterical ranting — which, of course, rolled off him like water off a duck’s back — because that’s what he’s there to absorb as a corporal on the front lines protecting the brass, brass balls and all.

Once she hung up on the so-called manager, she had time while waiting for the doctor, so she reviewed the bill. It struck her right off the bat that nowhere to be found was the written estimate for the rear door — the main reason for her taking the car to David Maus in the first place! Nowhere! However, they sure as hell hadn’t passed up the opportunity to charge the $116 for the diagnosis. It was at that point that AS decided to turn the matter completely over to me for resolution.

My Plan of Attack

The first thing I decided was to demand a written estimate for the rear hatch lock (as you recall, David Maus wanted $1,100 for body ECU replacement per their verbal estimate). Then, I would take the Sienna to an independent shop where, without apprising tat shop at all about the estimate from David Maus or even letting on that anyone else had looked at the lock, I would request that they diagnose the problem. I wasn’t worried about what we would do if the diagnosis agreed with David Maus’, because my intuition convinced me that they wouldn’t. I turned out to be right about that, as you’ll see below.

My first step, though, would be to give David Maus a chance to explain when went on. I arranged for a meeting with the real service director at David Maus Toyota, Mike Gutcheon. Game on.

A funny thing happen when I arrived at David Maus Toyota for that meeting. A “greeter” approached me in the parking lot after I had barely set my feet on the pavement. Knowing what that was all about, I pointed to my car and returned his greeting with, “Leave the damn license plate on it! I’m just here to meet with the service director.” He said, “OK”, and wandered away to seek the next victim.

I screwed up the meeting by not dwelling on the double-charging, but I turned out to be too preoccupied with getting the written estimate to take the service director to task very much on the double billing and gratuitous add-ons. He uttered glibly preemptive responses to any items I questioned, anyway. He was worthless. He represents yet another line of defense keeping me from the general manager (Maus himself) and Toyota USA, so his job in this situation was to shut  me up. This combative behavior served only to further fan the flames. If I needed to get anything rectified, I’d have to pursue it elsewhere. There are many options: Florida State Attorney General (the lovely Pam Bondi — hottest state attorney general in the world), Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Summary Claims Court, private law suits, etc. I’m angry enough to use all of those channels to reduce AS’s bill to a $29.95 oil change from its present $610.41. I kicked myself for not obtaining resolution in that meeting with the service director, but he’s had a lot of practice heading disgruntled customers off at the proverbial pass.

Before I could take this thing further beyond the dealer, however, I needed the written estimate, so I got the service director to agree to providing it after he researched the case. (Of course I knew that he had done the appropriate research before I got there so he could have his bullshit story ready for me. I can only hope that a couple of things I threw at him had knocked him off balance.)

He also offered an appeasement: he would replace the spark plugs for the cost of the parts only. I told him that I would consider doing the plugs there after all the other issues were hashed out. In my mind, though, my distrust kept playing the scenario where they don’t replace the plugs but charge me for new ones. Even if I demand to see the old plugs, who’s to say that they’re the ones that came from AS’s Toyota? And how much would the cost of the parts be inflated above what I could pay for them at the David Maus parts window? That’s how deeply my distrust went at that point. Furthermore, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Damned right, I would sooner sleep in a snake pit than gave these bastards any more of an opportunity to screw me.

The service director conveniently forgot about the offer later on when he shut off communication completely, so I didn’t have to worry about it turning into another dealer screw job.

I’m tired of typing, so I’ll reproduce the letter I recently sent to Mr. David Maus about this experience. As I expect it to go into the shredder in the worst case, or in the best case, I receive a check for $116, a hand-wave on all the other issues, and a promise to do better in the future, I’m not holding my breath. Instead, I’ll be working on those other channels I mentioned above.

Artificially Sweetened has stated that she will never buy another Toyota because of this foul experience with David Maus Toyota. When she was originally in the market for a minivan, she narrowed the choices down to the Sienna and the Honda Odyssey. She now says that the next minivan will be an Odyssey, unless some other, more suitable non-Toyota  product catches her eye.


The Letter

May 14, 2014

Mr. David Maus
General Manager
David Maus Toyota
1160 Rinehart Road
Sanford, FL 32771

Dear Mr. Maus:

This letter is to complain about a collection of service issues that I have pursued with your service director, Mike Gutcheon, with no success. Recent developments in this connection lead me to apprise you of the serious nature of this complaint and demand an appropriate resolution. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, I am conveying associated information to you in advance of initiating a social media campaign and filing a complaint with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

As an overview of my complaints against your service department with respect to a vehicle owned by [Ms. Artificially Sweetened (AS)] that was brought in for repair on April 3, 2014, I present the following bullet points, with details to follow:

  • Your service department improperly diagnosed a rear hatch lock issue and charged $116 for that service.
  • Your service department proposed to charge $1,100 for repairs that simply clearing a computer code would have effected.
  • Your service department failed to provide a written estimate for repair of the rear hatch lock malfunction upon delivery of the vehicle – the original purpose of the service visit.
  • Your service department risked violating Florida Statues 559.905 by not providing a compliant written motor vehicle repair estimate and disclosure statement for repair work estimated to exceed $100.
  • Your service department failed to provide the recommended factory service at the 120,000 mile interval, eliminating low profit margin spark plug replacement from the services to be performed but adding almost pure profit oil and fuel additives, etc.
  • Your service department failed to notice and report that a “check engine” idiot light was illuminated. This suggests that the David Maus World Class Inspection was not performed or certainly, important parts of it were omitted.
  • Your service director offered to waive labor on spark plug replacement as a goodwill gesture but failed to follow through, tacitly withdrawing the offer.

Please refer to your invoice number 238180, a copy of which is attached. On April 3, 2014, my friend [AS], brought her 2008 Sienna to David Maus Toyota for service, explaining to the service writer named Laura that her rear hatch would not unlock and was thus inoperable. She explained that she would need a written estimate due to a possible claim against Safelite AutoGlass, who had recently replaced the rear window immediately prior to the lock problem becoming apparent. At the same time, she requested the factory recommended 120,000 mile service. Your service department kept the Sienna overnight and proclaimed it ready on April 4.

At some point during the time the Sienna was in your shop, [AS] spoke on the phone with Vince, who told her that the solution to the rear hatch malfunction would involve replacing the body ECU, which was not in stock and furthermore, being back ordered, he did not know when he would be able to do the job. Finally, he told [AS] that the repair would cost approximately $1,100 if and when he could get the ECU. [AS] therefore deferred taking any action.

Upon delivery of the Sienna on April 4, [AS] paid a total bill of $610.41, including $116 for diagnosing the hatch problem. She was in a hurry, hampered by a persistent sinus infection, late for a doctor’s appointment, and pressed by work and children logistical issues. Furthermore, upon driving off, she noted that her “check engine” warning light was illuminated. This was a known condition when she brought the car in but which she had forgot to mention to Laura, the service writer.

That the warning light was still lit annoyed [AS], so she called the dealership, speaking with a woman she believed to be a receptionist and asking for the service manager. Drew, who represented himself as service manager, later returned [AS'] call. He told her to bring the car back, which was impossible due to the demands of the day and [AS'] illness.

Although a computer diagnosis for the check engine condition wasn’t agreed to in advance, at some point during the 24 hours your service department had the car the warning light should have been observed and the customer called. This would have been consistent with what you refer to as your complimentary “David Maus World Class Inspection”, which to me appears to be worth exactly what you charge for it. The cause for this fault was later determined by another shop to be a faulty catalytic converter. A check engine light is certainly worthy of note and is not easy to overlook when one sits behind the steering wheel and operates the vehicle, yet it was never noticed during your so-called world class inspection. This, however, is a secondary issue that we shall write off as just another representative facet of a poor overall experience with your service department.

Upon arrival at her doctor’s office, [AS] reviewed the invoice, noting that the written estimate for the rear hatch repair was nowhere to be found. At this point, she grew completely disgusted and asked me to help. She needed to rest in order to recuperate from the sinus infection, and she had been through quite enough with David Maus Toyota. I took over.

Wishing to resolve this mess with a manager in a position to do something about it, I met with Mike Gutcheon on April 8, 2014, at 1:30 pm after having been casually greeted by you in the area outside his office. Mike was friendly at first, but grew defensive as I commented on each line item on the invoice, several of which I considered gratuitous add-ons under the guise of “dealer recommended service items”. In addition, there was a glaring omission from the requested Toyota 120,000 mile service: spark plug replacement. I produced the factory service guideline for 120,000, and Mr. Gutcheon’s response was that he would look into it. I expressed my feeling that plug replacement is labor intensive and therefore not very profitable for the dealership. He scoffed at my suggestion that this was why the plugs were not replaced, stating that he wanted to know himself why his people did not include that item in the service.

I moved on to the rear hatch issue, stating that for the $116 diagnosis fee we paid, no written estimate was produced as originally requested and it was still not in hand four days later. I asked Mr. Gutcheon for documentation of specific diagnostics – something in black and white that transcended a mere technician’s opinion. Documentation of procedures, diagnostic codes, etc. would turn out to be unavailable. Mr. Gutcheon told me that he would review this with the technician and service writer involved and would call me the following day. I asked him if it was later determined that the technician’s diagnosis was incorrect, what would he do? The response was that he would stand behind his technician’s diagnosis – a non-answer. However, as a gesture of goodwill, he offered to perform the spark plug replacement for the cost of parts only and would waive the labor charge. (This would later turn out to be an empty promise, or at least one about which he would conveniently forget.)

As for the check engine light, Mr. Gutcheon had nothing to say other than telling me that [AS] should have brought the car back when she noticed that it was still illuminated. I told him that [AS] is a working single parent who can ill afford the time for recalls when service providers perform poorly. Moreover, she was ill. As I stated above, the warning light should not have been overlooked during the “world class inspection” in the first place.

I told Mr. Gutcheon that I felt [AS] had been taken advantage of, and that I was perturbed by that situation. He then asked me why I had not brought the car in myself if I wanted to protect her from what I felt might be an opportunistic situation. Actually, I originally had wanted to do so for that very reason, but [AS] had felt that because David Maus was the major Toyota dealer in the area, she could trust the service department to be straight with her and not take undue advantage of her naïveté with respect to the sometimes nefarious machinations of auto repair shops. She was wrong. Consequently, she is now completely disillusioned about David Maus Toyota.

I received a call from Mr. Gutcheon the next day. He had forgotten that the two employees involved with this car were off that day (Wednesday, April 9). He promised to call me the following day.

He kept that promise. On April 10, 2:59 pm, I received another call from Mr. Gutcheon. He stated that he had spoken with the employees involved and found that the procedure to diagnose the door was to check voltages at the rear lock actuator. When the technician found that voltage was not present upon switch operation, he concluded that the body ECU was at fault. I considered that a major leap – certainly not a foregone conclusion. At this point, Mr. Gutcheon told me that he personally was not a technician, so he didn’t know the exact reason why the employee implicated the body ECU. He said there were no computer codes or print-outs involved, just judgment by the technician. I tasked Mr. Gutcheon with providing the absent written documentation, which I needed to recover costs of the proposed repair, and with giving me the amount the spark plug replacement would cost me based on his earlier offer to do the job for the price of the parts. He promised to email me a written estimate, and said he would call me back with the information about the spark plug job.

I never heard from Mr. Gutcheon again. With regard to the written estimate, I finally received a PDF in an email from Jessica Lambert dated April 15 (three working days subsequent to my final conversation with Mr. Gutcheon). The written estimate (your invoice #240434, a copy of which is attached) echoed Vince’s telephone estimate, stating the recommendation to replace the body ECU for $723.36 parts cost plus $234 labor plus taxes and supplies.

On Monday, May 12, 2014, I took the Sienna to a reputable independent shop in Longwood, giving them the same information we had given David Maus Toyota on two separate occasions, once with the service writer, and once with the service director. I made no mention of the suspect “diagnosis” made by David Maus Toyota or that anyone had looked at the issue before. The technician confirmed that there was no voltage present at the rear lock upon actuation by the switch, but did not immediately conclude that the problem was the most expensive part in the chain. He found two computer codes related to the rear lock which when cleared completely resolved the problem. Furthermore, because the shop failed to call me at the time they promised, they waived the charge for diagnosis. I would have paid a reasonable amount for the time spent on it, but wound up paying nothing. Thus, we saved ourselves (and Safelite) $1,100 by going elsewhere. Now, I want to recover the $116 you charged on Invoice 238180 for the incorrect diagnosis.

[AS] and I trusted David Maus Toyota to properly diagnose the rear door issue because we felt that a dealer represents the factory and would have all appropriate diagnostic tools and techniques at hand. Further, we felt that a repair estimate from David Maus Toyota would be viewed as more credible by Safelite than would a non-affiliated independent shop’s estimate. However, by the actions detailed above, you have destroyed that trust and credibility. I anticipate that you (or your customer service representative) will have ready-made excuses available, but please skip them and refund our $116. That will not restore our trust in David Maus Toyota, but at least it will effect a measure of fairness.

Sincerely,

(signed by The Nittany Turkey himself on behalf of AS)

 


Whatever It Takes

Now, I realize that I should have included the oil change/interval service double-billing information in that letter, but I didn’t. I gave David Maus the impression that I could be bought off for $116. I won’t be. Well, chances are that he won’t read the letter himself, anyway, and chances are even slimmer that I’ll get any money refunded. He’s too busy doing charity work so he can keep up the positive public front so he can continue to turn profits in this manner and not be detected through the smokescreen. I might well get no attention to this matter at all until I involve Toyota and/or governmental agencies. There are a few auto fraud attorneys in Tampa that love going after auto dealers, too.  Am I in the mood for a legal fight and a lot of information gathering to correct lousy $610 screw job that almost certainly promised to turn into a measly $1,710 screw job? Well, as they say, it’s the principle of the thing. Others are out there getting screwed right and left by these kind of auto dealership service department practices, and maybe I can make enough noise to help some of those who might otherwise have been screwed.

I do think that many, if not most, auto dealerships will do anything to bump up their profits. This includes but is not limited to dishonest practices, flat-out lying, and hiring aggressive employees who serve as a protective layer. In my mind, they are essentially descendants of the original mule traders.

So, next time you hear David Maus spouting off his slogan, “Whatever it takes!”, think about what it really means.

Slippery Slopes

If David Maus Toyota ever responds to my letter, I would expect to be stonewalled, made to look like an idiot, and otherwise demeaned. It is certainly not in their interest to agree with anything I’ve written either here in this blog post or in the letter. That is why I am fully expecting to have to take the next step.

I’ve already been patronized by the service director. Why should his boss treat me any differently? As we used to say in the Bahamas, “Da fish stink from da head on down.” Do you think David Maus is unaware of the deceptive and outrageous behavior of his service department? Sheeeeeit, mon, he’s well aware of it all! He sets the tone for just how far over the line his people can go in order to enhance his bottom line. Don’t let his involvement in charity throw up a benevolent smokescreen. This is his business and this is how he chooses to do business.

I’ve seen it written that dealer service departments don’t get away with this kind of crap in small markets. If they tried and people caught on, they’d soon run out of customers and go bankrupt. In a large market, dealers such as David Maus figure that there is virtually an unlimited supply of customers, so screw it if they piss off a few here and there. Most people will buy the nonsense they’re handed in the well-trained, bulletproof service department, anyway. Why do you think you have to look at Maus’ annoyingly deadpan face on TV all the time? He needs to generate more business continually so he can do “Whatever it takes.” He even owns an eponymously (or is that eponyMAUSly) named media marketing company to better bamboozle the public.

How about complaining to the Better Business Bureau? Well, I don’t know how Maus did it, but somehow, his grade with the BBB managed to increase from a “D” to an “A+” between 2010 and 2014. I’d love to know how that worked.

Here’s the thing I noticed on the BBB web site. Each customer complaint is answered in a formulaic fashion by the dealership. In each case, the customer never responds to what Maus’ operatives write. Then, the BBB considers the case closed positively.

What do you think is happening there? Wonder if the dealer generated a bunch of phony customer complaints and then “resolved” them to pump up his BBB grade? Or did actual customers complain and then were appeased by Maus? What do you think would happen if I addressed all the complaints above to the BBB? Would Maus cave and pay me off so I wouldn’t press it further with the BBB? Or would he try to fight it out with me through the BBB website. Might be worth a small investment of time and energy to find out.

Tools for Traversing the Jungle

While I’m working on my next move, I want to fulfill my promise to provide you with links to some interesting reading material that auto dealers hate because it reveals many of their little money-making ploys that screw the customer.

  1. Confessions from the Dealership Service Department: How Consumers Are Often Overcharged for Repairs,” by Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor, Edmunds.com.
  2. The Truth about the Auto Repair Industry”
  3. I am a thief, a crook and a con-man,” by Jim Bell. This one shows that it’s no different up north of the world’s longest undefended international border.

Please Comment!

I’d love to read comments on this subject from anyone, but I’d particularly like to see what mechanics and dealership people have to say. Hey, present and former David Maus employees are welcome to comment anonymously here as long as they stick to facts and avoid unsupported slander.

Whatever it takes, readers!

 

Comments

  1. Joe says

    I hope you used your voice to text software for this. My fingers would be soaking in an ice bath for days if I typed this.

    And lastly-you didn’t know you were going to get clipped by the dealer? Once the warranty is over, it’s off to my local Sunoco station where they actually have an owner (and mechanics) with real integrity!

    • says

      Nah, I typed it all by myself.

      Of course I knew the dealer was a crook. That’s what I wrote — I threw caution to the wind. I was a schmuck and paid dearly for it.

      However, as a result of this fiasco, I mentioned that I found a local independent shop I can trust. The guy who owns it is also one of the judges for the national AAA high school automotive competition. He’s the one who figures out devious ways to break a car for the kids to diagnose.

      Brings to mind thoughts of having him sabotage a car and taking it to the dealer for diagnosis, just to see what kind of expensive repairs they suggest for the broken wire or whatever.

      —TNT

  2. Michael H. Geldner says

    Infuriating! Your account is strong testimony in support of reputable, small business owners, particularly when it involves car repairs! It’s a shame that with the multiple dealership owners like David Maus, it’s all too common that profit becomes their only motive. Honesty, quality and customer-focus always seem to get abandoned at some point in the growth of the revenue curve.

    I’m really glad that you short-circuited the process before the Body ECU could be ordered and replaced!

    -mike

    • says

      Dealing with Marty’s Auto Works in Longwood is like a breath of fresh air. I’ve diverted some of my negative Maus-generated energy toward writing positive reviews of Marty’s for Angie’s List. One thing Marty said to me that sticks in my mind is that he likes money as well as anyone, but there’s such a thing as good money and bad money, and he doesn’t want the bad money. He’s all about building goodwill, while David Maus is doing “whatever it takes.”

      I didn’t quite short-circuit the process before the body ECU was ordered. AS got a postcard in the mail the other day saying that her part had arrived. It was referred to as a “block” on the card, so I presume it is the body ECU, which is essentially a fuse block. I had to restrain AS from going over to David Maus and telling him to shove the part up his ass. That might have been interesting, especially if she asked for some of the scented Vaseline used in her “premium battery terminal service.”

      I hope the cocksuckers charge us a restocking fee so I can go over there and give them a premium reaming. Unlike on my first visit, they are likely to succeed in removing the license tag from my car while I’m doing so.

      I’m just hoping that I can open some people’s eyes about this kind of behavior. People deserve to know.

      —TNT

  3. BigAl says

    Sounds like Maus should change his last name to Ratte.

    I notice that his “fans” have even established to a web site named david-maus-toyota.pissedconsumer.com to praise his “service.” I’m sure your story would be a welcome addition.