Dealership or Independent Garage? That is the question.

With a click, I closed the fuel tank door on my 2016 Ford Explorer and jumped back into the driver’s seat to head to a work function a couple of hours away. I wasn’t even out of the parking lot when I noticed the check engine light mocking me from the dash as it informed me my trip had come to an abrupt halt. 

I ran by AutoZone to see if it might be a simple fix, but unfortunately, it was a part I had never heard of. I am new to the area, so I jumped on my local Facebook group to get recommendations for a mechanic that met a few criteria:

  • – Reasonable or no diagnostic fee
  • – Could get the car in on the same day
  • – Reasonable labor rate
  • – Parts pricing that was in the ballpark of what AutoZone quoted me

Within minutes I had dozens of recommendations. Three of these had a local independent mechanic in common, so I called. The gentleman answered the phone within the first couple of rings, discussed my issue, and had me bring it in. Within three hours, the repair was complete and the car was sitting happily in my driveway, with what appeared to be a proud grin on its face.

What’s more interesting about this story than a smiling SUV is what occurred during the short three-hour wait for my car repair. I’ve been writing about fixed ops for a few years now, but I have always preferred an independent garage because I’ve always had the above experience or better with the mom-and-pop around the corner.

But on this day, I was curious to learn what my experience would have been had I looked for a dealership to repair my car instead. So, the minute I got home from dropping my car off, I sat down at my desk and went to work.  



I share this experience not to knock on dealerships as a whole but to provide feedback on my experience. If I were running a service department, I’d want to know these insights and do everything to address the issues that prevent consumers from ever considering dealerships for maintenance or service. Now that we’ve covered that let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

The Online Search

I started with what most people would do in my predicament:  I Googled “check engine light 2016 Ford Explorer.” Where did this search lead me? Straight to a dealership all the way across the country. While this didn’t bother me much as a consumer, I immediately recognized the opportunities my local dealerships allowed to slip right through their digital fingers.

What would have helped my local dealers land at the top of my search engine results page (SERP)? 

  1. Strong Search Engine Optimization (SEO) content, including keyword-focused blogs and videos that are of interest to local consumers.
  2. Paid search ads that nudge dealerships to the top of the page when consumers are searching for specific parts or repairs for their vehicle. In this case, “Check Engine Light 2016 Ford Explorer” should produce a local dealership.

The Phone Call

After calling three dealerships, it was apparent which ones engrain the value of the phone call into their processes and which allowed this valuable interaction to become a second thought.

The initial answer is typically pleasant, but if the handoff isn’t handled with care, it’s more of an annoyance or a hurdle for a customer to overcome to get necessary answers. A typical consumer doesn’t always know they need to ask for a specific department, so they instead explain their issue to the operator. 

After listening to my concerns, not one operator explained my problem to the service department when transferring the call. This causes a potential customer to explain their needs multiple times, which can easily be avoided. Once transferred, a customer should be able to pick it up right where they left off and quickly get answers.

It only takes a second for the operator to relay the issue and for the recipient of the call to restate the issue upon taking the call. This small act instills confidence that the dealership’s communication is on point and that a customer’s vehicle will be well cared for.

There was one dealership that won the day as far as phone calls were concerned. A lovely lady answered the phone directly from the service department and answered all questions from the jump. For a moment, it gave me mom-and-pop vibes, a breath of fresh air after bouncing back and forth from department to department and waiting on hold multiple times with the other dealers.

The Pitch

I called. I teed it up for them, and in all cases, the dealer struck out. Why? Some, but not all dealer representatives answered some of my questions, but none of them seemed aware of my objections, nor did they do anything to address them. Let’s take a look at the answers I worked hard to draw from each phone call.

The Headscratchers

Why would I want to wait one to five days to drive my broken car twice as far and pay three to six times more than my day-of, affordable, independent shop experience? The dealership team must be prepared to address the reasons for this, if there are any. For example, it’s likely that the diagnostic fee would go toward the repair, but not one dealer representative offered this information. Not one person spoke to the skill level and expertise of their technicians when it comes to working on my specific make. 

No one painted the picture of what my experience would be like when I brought my car in. Would I be able to get work done while I wait? Is there a workspace, complimentary Wi-Fi, or a coffee bar? Why is the part so much more expensive? One dealer did mention the warranty, but he was the one who failed to price anything unless I brought my vehicle in. This brings me to my final objection, price transparency. Why would you not assist a customer in budgeting for this unexpected expense? Why do you expect a customer to spend their valuable time bringing their car to you, just to discover they can’t afford the repair?

If dealerships can’t address these objections in an honest and transparent manner, then it might be time to adjust pricing and processes to be more on par with independent competitors. 

Thought Fuel

It’s no secret that many dealerships focus more on car sales and overlook or ignore the value that the fixed operations department brings to the business. But what better way to increase customer acquisition and retention in car sales than to build a service department with a robust customer base? Some dealerships have big changes to make to accomplish this goal.

How can your service department create the mom-and-pop (independent) garage experience? How can your dealership earn the trust of a customer at each and every touch point? And how can you make the processes and pricing more appealing to a potential customer? These are questions dealership leaders should explore and take action upon to find the ultimate fixed ops success.

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