How much should your check engine diagnostic sell for?

March 1, 2023
We have been justifying free diagnostics to our A techs for a really long time. It’s time we stop.

What was your diagnostic charge when the first computer was put in a mass-produced vehicle in 1981 because of fuel injection replacing carburetors? What is it now? How many computers were in a vehicle in 1981? How many are in a standard vehicle now?

There are places out there that will read the check engine codes for free, and there are customers who think you should not charge to check their vehicle. Some techs think that if you charge too much, you are ripping off the customer.

I always ask, who gets to define that? When is too much too much? Let me be clear; I never endorse stealing on any level. This is such an emotional topic, and people tend to overreact. Please read this entire article before making up your mind.

Not all check engine lights are the same

You need different check engine diagnostic levels because not all check engine lights are created equal. Most shop owners and techs already know this, yet some businesses still insist on charging one price. It might make sense if check engines were all created equal to begin with, but that’s not the case.

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Picture a Cadillac that comes in with a check engine light. It takes five hours for a competent A tech to diagnose it. Since you have different diagnostic levels, you charge five hours to the customer — they buy our service, and we repair their car. They leave happy. Three weeks later, another Cadillac, like before, comes in with a check engine light. You give it to the same tech, and it has the same code as the previous Cadillac. The tech jumps ahead, bypasses four hours of documentation he went through on the other Cadillac, and checks to see if it is the same problem. It is — so it only takes an hour to diagnose. In this case, we should still charge appropriately for the job.

Your techs are valuable but not perfect

Your techs are not perfect, and they don’t have to be. So stop holding your A techs to such high standards when it comes to diagnostics. The fact that they are showing up ready to do the job is enough for them to be compensated — regardless of how simple you might consider the check engine diagnostic to be.

The auto repair industry is one of the only industries where the better techs get at their job, the less they are paid.

‘The accumulation of knowledge’

There is a concept called the ‘accumulation of knowledge’ that must be considered. Knowledge has value; to prove it, consider the university system in the United States. The average cost per year per student is around $35,500. For a four-year degree, it costs $142,000. Rarely do students have this kind of money, so they borrow it, or someone else pays for it because education in this country is considered valuable. How can they sell a four-year degree for that much money, and we can’t justify charging properly to diagnose someone’s car that we did not break, don’t drive, didn’t buy, and are not responsible for?

Find, get, and keep your best techs

We have been justifying free diagnostics to our A techs for a really long time, and it’s time we stop. We must start treating our best techs as such. If you want to find, get, and keep the best techs, then you must create a supportive and profitable environment for them to work in.

I have always respected what the techs could do. The best diagnostic tech I ever had wanted eight hours to diagnose a car; I laughed and let him know that I would not rip off my customers that way. At most, this vehicle would take him only two hours to diagnose, so I could graciously see myself selling three hours for him. He laughed and told me to give it to someone else.

I had three master techs at that time, so that is what I did. After six hours, the A tech I gave it to asked for guidance from the first one. With the first one pointing him in the right direction, it still took over eight hours to do it. I had to laugh at myself. From that moment on, I had no problem making people pay to have their vehicle diagnosed.

How you will charge and what you will charge is up to you for obvious reasons. I will leave you with this: do you want to find, get, and keep the best techs?

About the Author

Brian Hunnicutt | ATI Executive Coach

Brian Hunnicutt, CEC, PFP, has been in the automotive industry since 1978 and is an executive coach for the Automotive Training Institute (ATI). Often called in as a troubleshooter, Hunnicutt is an innovative thinker with a history of reviving failing stores, consistently breaking sales records and exceeding expectations. He helps auto shop owners effectively apply successful, practical methods and systems, rather than theoretical techniques. ATI’s 34 full-time, certified coaches have helped ATI’s members earn over $2.5 billion in return on their coaching investment since ATI was founded.

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