AAPEX update: AMRA official calls for end to wallet flushing

Wallet flushing – the practice of recommending unnecessary services in order to pad a customer’s bill – has long tarnished the reputation of the aftermarket industry. In the interest of eliminating this practice, the Automotive Maintenance & Repair Association (AMRA)’s Motorist Assurance Program (MAP) has provided business guidelines for repair shops.

To help repair shops operate in a reputable manner, MAP continually updates its guidelines. During the AAPEX show at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas, Joseph Henmueller, AMRA director of administration, gave a presentation on wallet flushing. “We don’t ever want to talk about wallet flushing again,” he said at the outset of his talk.

Henmueller noted that the aftermarket industry still faces allegations of “odometer surfing,” which occurs when a shop knows nothing about a vehicle but the odometer reading, then suggests service based on no other information.

Another unfortunate practice is using accelerated service intervals, whereby the shop intentionally shortens the manufacturer’s suggested service interval to justify recommending service.

Still another unfortunate occurrence is bundling of unnecessary services. This occurs when a shop offers a package of services at a discount when the customer does not need all the services in the package.

MAP guidelines advise shops to first interview the customer the following:

  • Vehicle maintenance history
  • Driving conditions
  • Driving habits
  • Vehicle ownership plans

“If they are leasing, they may not have long-term ownership (in mind),” Henmueller said.

When inspecting a vehicle for problems, he said shops should be methodical, should document details, get the vehicle’s service history, and never condemn an automotive fluid solely based on the fluid’s color or the car’s mileage.

“The biggest complaint is condemnation of fluids based solely on color,” he said. “The bottom line is it (the recommended work) has to benefit the customer.”

Henmueller encouraged his listeners to ask themselves if the recommended work will prolong the life of the vehicle and/or maintain the vehicle’s performance.

“Will it reduce overall repair cost to keep the vehicle operable over its lifetime?” Henmueller asked.

He said shops should be aware of what auto manufacturers say in their technical service bulletins (TSBs). For instance, Honda says not to perform engine flushing on the lubricating system, while  Ford says demonstrating to a customer that specific fluids should be changed because of color is misleading.

Henmueller also advised listeners not to simply use the word “recommend.” “’Recommend’ is the wrong word,” he said. All of a shop’s service or repair offerings are recommendations. However, some recommendations are required, meaning that a part or service is necessary in order to bring that system back to its proper operating condition. Some service recommendations are only suggested. Suggested services are always optional and typically are offered to help avoid future, more costly repairs. By their nature, all maintenance recommendations are suggested.

One reason AMRA is concerned about the issue of wallet flushing is that the California Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR), one of the most vigilant automotive regulators in the country, recently mounted a consumer protection campaign against wallet flushing. After investigation and conversations with representatives from the automotive repair trade, the BAR has determined that its current laws are sufficient in and of themselves to deter wallet flushing.

In recent statements, BAR stipulates that the OEM maintenance schedules are a starting point for maintenance services, Henmueller said.

California and other states require precisely what information shops should include on customer invoices. Henmueller said draining and refilling fluid should not be referenced as a “flush” service. “Fluid exchange” is defined as one-for-one fluid replacement, he added.

Suggested fluid exchange intervals vary according to OE service schedules, Henmueller said. While suggested motor oil service intervals vary, he said surveys have shown that most consumers get the oil changed every 5,000 miles, regardless of the OE specification. Also, when a fluid is replaced in a vehicle, consumers expect shops to use OE-specified fluids.

To determine oil condition, cars use different types of onboard monitors: optical, capacitive and algorithmic. Henmueller said the optical system is the best.

Suggested service intervals are getting longer in newer model cars, Henmueller said. The suggestion to replace spark plugs every 100,000 miles has become commonplace. “However, those things (spark plugs) don’t always want to come out after 100,000 miles. At that interval, damage and excessive repair costs may be incurred trying to remove seized spark plugs. The customer may be better served if you suggest replacing them at 60,000 miles,” Henmueller said.

While it’s important to be aware of OE maintenance interval, Henmueller said it is not always in the motorist’s best interest to strictly follow all OE intervals. Instead, the shop should try to determine what’s best for the customer based on the questions noted above.

“(Suggested) OE intervals are based on things other than pure science,” he said. He said some OEs intervals may be based on improving a car’s cost of ownership, which may not result in the best interest of a customer looking for 200,000 or more miles of service life from their vehicle.

“It is a good reference point,” but “remember to take the OE intervals with a grain of salt,” he said of OEM recommendations.

He said a shop should be aware of this when discussing maintenance service options with customers.

Coolant can easily be tested for acidity contamination and mixture strength at OE-recommended cooling system inspection levels, Henmueller said.

For many vehicles, poor fuel quality, adverse driving conditions and lack of other maintenance are good reasons to suggest chemical engine decarbonization service every 15,000 miles or 12 months, he said.

For batteries, a shop should always test and determine if a battery meets OEM specifications.

For OEM shocks and struts, MAP suggests considering replacement of these components after 50,000 miles. It’s not to say that these components are already worn out, but their performance has likely degraded measurably, and to the point that their condition is compromising braking, handling and some safety control systems. This suggestion only applies to original equipment hydraulic fluid and low gas-charged shocks and struts, not electronically-controlled units.

Power steering fluid often becomes contaminated during the first 50,000 miles, he said. A one-time replacement of the fluid can help prolong the life of expensive hydraulic steering components. In addition, power steering fluid should be exchanged whenever a system component (pump, hose or rack and pinion) is replaced.

Shops also have to pay attention to federal packaging and labeling requirements for aftermarket products, Henmueller said. He said the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Uniform Weights and Measures laws stipulate labeling requirements for products sold at retail.

When writing an invoice, Henmueller suggested always using consumer friendly language, not jargon or incomprehensible abbreviations.

 “Document full disclosure,” he said, even if something negative is mentioned. Customers can only make informed choices when shops clearly communicate and document all the facts.