Car Dealership Service Advisors Are Making Money From the Services Being Recommended to You
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Car Dealership Service Advisors Are Making Money From the Services Being Recommended to You

Dealership service advisors typically work on nothing but commission, which means they have an economic incentive to get you to buy unneeded repair services

April 24, 2021

Car dealerships have a bad reputation for high costs, which often comes from the extra money spent for the expertise of the service techs. It's why many people don't get routine maintenance performed there. But some people trust dealerships and have all service performed there, including recommended services. But did you know the person recommending services get a kickback for the services you buy?

the money is made in the service department

Many people think that big money is made in vehicle sales, but it’s actually the service department that brings home the big bucks. The sales department is often losing money, not making it, on the sales of new vehicles. The hope is that those vehicles will return to the dealership for repairs and maintenance. That’s one of the reason dealerships try to make their waiting areas warm and inviting. It's also why you get a guided tour of the service area when purchasing a vehicle. Even the introduction to the service manager is gimmick to get you feeling special and wanting to return to spend money.

The Service Advisor gets paid when you spend money

Most people who visit a dealership service department are paid either an hourly wage or a salary, so it can be hard to imagine what life is like when living from pure commission. But that is likely what the service adviser does. It may surprise you, but the majority of service advisors working for car dealerships are paid commission only. In other words, they only make money to pay their bills when you spend money on repairs and other services.

So the service advisor, no matter how nice and friendly, has an economic incentive to get you to pay for as many services as possible, even if you don’t need them. So you need to know exactly what is required as part of your vehicle's maintenance by consulting your manual.

We Recommend this because of the real world

You’ve heard it before. The dealership knows your car best. But with that mindset, you’re likely to buy into a product or service if recommended by a dealership employee, even if it’s not listed in your vehicle’s manual.

Sadly, the industry practice is to push owners into getting maintenance services earlier and earlier in order to get you spending more money more often. On top of that, you’ll often get additional ‘recommendations’ for everything from transmission and brake fluid flushes to your first oil change after only 500 miles, usually with the explanation that real world driving is hard on the car. But manufacturers test their vehicles in ways that are significantly more extreme than real world conditions. Many dealer recommendations based upon real world conditions have no factual basis. They can even be recommended purely because a service advisor needs to increase sales for the week. Sadly, some service advisors will say anything to get you to buy a service, just like some sales staff will say anything to get you to buy a car.

Don't fall for it. You should be especially weary if you are getting hit with recommended services before your car has even been looked over. In this case, stick to only the service that brought you to the dealership in the first place. And definitely don't fall for those postcards the dealerships send out telling you that you're due for a particular recommended service.

Follow the Vehicle’s maintenance schedule

The manufacturer, not your dealer, knows your vehicle best. The manufacturer designed, built and tested it, after all. If your manufacturer says to change your oil every 8,000 miles, there’s really no need to change it sooner from a routine maintenance perspective. If your manufacturer says your transmission fluid gets changed every 200,000 miles, wait until then. If the engine coolant is “sealed for life” and doesn’t need to be changed unless it’s contaminated, then there’s really no reason to change it, even if ‘recommended’ by the dealership.

There’s also no reason to replace a standard fluid, such as brake fluid, with a high performance variety other than to get you to spend more money. So to keep your vehicle operating at its best and to protect your warranty, have only the items listed in your maintenance schedule performed.

‘Recommended’ Fluid Flushes

Dealerships invest money in fluid flush or fluid transfer machines that can push old fluid from a system and replace it with new fluid, usually while using chemicals to clean and remove deposits. These machines can be lucrative for the dealership, and consequently your service advisor. These flushes often run double or triple the cost of the simple drain and refill recommended in your maintenance schedule. Dealerships push this service since it’s quick and easy money, but many manufacturers discourage them while others have even issued advisories to dealerships warning against using them. Walk away if you are being pressured into one of these flushes.

The first problem comes from the chemicals used in the cleaning process. These chemicals are harsh enough to dissolve harmless deposits and push them from the system. But they’re also harsh enough to damage delicate sensors and other electronics. This damage often gets passed to the owner, who returns later with a concern, or to the manufacturer, who may deny a warranty claim.

In other cases, larger deposits that aren't causing a problem can break free and work through the system, where they can get stuck inside a valve or sensor. It is especially problematic in automatic transmissions, which have a lot of fluid passages and delicate sensors and solenoids. If a solenoids gets a deposit stuck inside, the transmission won't shift properly.

Fuel Injector Cleanings

Fuel injector cleanings can sometimes be beneficial and some manufacturers permit the dealership to claim it as part of some warranty repairs. But it’s only necessary when deposits have built up inside the injectors, causing noticeable problems. The vast majority of vehicles, even older ones, do not require any fuel injector or fuel system cleaning, even as part of normal maintenance. Detergents are added to gasoline to prevent buildups and clean your fuel system anyway.

Be Wary of Dirty filter and fluid performances

Service advisors love to show you how dirty your fluids have become. But motor oil is supposed to look dirty and can look black in as little as a few hundred miles. Brake fluid changes color over time as it picks up fine rubber particles from the lines. Transmission fluid changes color as the dye breaks down and as fine deposits get mixed in. But this is all normal. Change these items if and when required by your maintenance schedule. Just because it looks dirty doesn’t mean that it’s time to change.

Dealership service advisors love to bring out your ‘dirty’ filters and show them next to brand new bright white filters. But it’s just another gimmick. Your filter isn’t going to be bright white anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. It’s going to be a little dirty because it’s doing its job. Even worse, some service advisors bring an air filter for your inspection that isn’t really yours.

Many air filter changes are extremely easy for anyone to perform, often with only a screwdriver (if that). It can take you minutes to perform yourself, which can save you a lot of money. An air filter service, for example, can cost you upwards of $90 (or more) at a dealership when the part costs less than $10 and replacement is often a matter of opening a cover under the hood. Check out YouTube videos for common filter replacements on your vehicle and do it yourself next time!

Padding the bill with shop supplies

Most, but not all dealerships, pad their bills with charges for shop supplies. Be on the lookout for shop supplies on your repair bill and then challenge the charge. Adding shop supplies to your bill isn't just getting the dealership money, but may be getting your service advisor money. Don't be afraid to ask to see exactly what was used on your vehicle. You might be getting charged $20 for a few paper towels, which should be part of the cost of doing business.

Service Advisor Turnover is a red flag

When you have a new service advisor each time you visit the dealership service department, you should be on the lookout for issues and double checking every recommended service in your manual and each item on your bill. Turnover is a sign of a problem in the dealership. If that problem is related to low wages, for example, employees look for work elsewhere. If your service advisor isn't paid well, he/she may be more tempted to pad the bill, to recommend services you don't need, or even tell you something needs to be replaced when it's perfectly fine. Regardless, turnover should be a sign that you want to go elsewhere.

Take Home Message

Not all service advisors are out to take advantage of you. But some will take advantage of your lack of knowledge and any hesitancy, so know what is and is not a required maintenance item before you go to the dealership. Don’t be afraid to say “no” and don’t be afraid to insist that your regular mechanic perform maintenance work.

If you are ever in doubt, decline the service and go to a mechanic you trust to give you an honest assessment and, hopefully, a better price. And remember that maintenance doesn't have to be performed at a dealership or with filters sold by the dealership in order for you to get manufacturer warranty repairs.