Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2010   by Nestor Gula

Ignoring The Chassis Can Cause Loss Of Ride Control

As vehicles age, strange noises start to be heard from the most unusual places. At the tender age of 18, I was taught, by a wise acquaintance, that the best way to solve these problems was to turn the...

As vehicles age, strange noises start to be heard from the most unusual places. At the tender age of 18, I was taught, by a wise acquaintance, that the best way to solve these problems was to turn the radio volume up.

While some motorists — those that don’t crank the radio to 11 — will attribute noises as the sound of the deteriorating road surface, the astute driver will realise that the suspension should be looked at.

Unfortunately, very few motorists come in to their independent service shop because of some rattles in their suspension. Most ride control problems are spotted by a patient, diligent and well-trained technician while performing an unrelated service on the vehicle, like an oil change, brake job or swapping seasonal specific tires.

The problem with the latter scenario is the customer, who was willing to pay a set amount for the original service, is now confronted with a much larger bill — one that can even exceed the Blue Book value of the vehicle.

“The basic problem is that most shops deal well with the repair category because there is visible value for the customer. This process is very reactive and the shops are in a comfortable position. It means that when something is broken the shop can identify it and communicate this and earn the sale quite easily,” said Mac McGovern, the director of marketing and training for KYB America. “Where they struggle is on the other side of the coin. The maintenance or found opportunity category. There, the value is invisible to the motorist. So when something is invisible or unknown it comes down to communication, the ability on the shop’s manager to establish and make visible the value proposition. The hang-up is really on the word ‘Need.’ It is probably the most destructive word in the auto aftermarket. ‘Need’ is interpreted in so many ways and misused most of the time. It is not a question of need it is a question of goals.”

He explains that a proper approach is required, where the technician, manager or service writer gets to know the customer, goals and expectations for the vehicle. He suggests that there are three steps to this end: “Interview, respect and inform. What usually happens is you start with inform.”

Steve Cartwright, chassis curriculum training manager at Federal Mogul, concurs and added: “I try to make the customer think what is best for them.” Faced with a large bill the customer might be tempted to walk away from the car and scrap it. “What I used to do when I was the mechanic in a shop was to remind the customer, subtly, they can scrap the car if they wish; but if the car is otherwise in good shape — it had the transmission redone two years ago, new brakes installed — maybe it’s in their best interest to go ahead with the repairs. Because, if you buy a new car, you have at least 44 payments instead of the four you will have on the repair.”

He said that a lot of times chassis problems are discovered when cars come in for an alignment. “A loose ball joint or a loose tie rod will make the car be out of alignment.

Aligning the car won’t fix the problem because you obviously can’t get rid of that play. You first have to fix the problem and then do an alignment. I tell the customers that if we don’t make this repair, then the tires will be consistently worn. It is an investment in your car and in your tires, because if we don’t address this base problem, an alignment will not solve the original complaint.”

He added too many shops are obsessed with performing fast alignments and do not do the necessary work of investigating the root cause of the problem. “Shops are so hung-up on doing many alignments per day that sometimes they do not bother to do a thorough inspection and look for the loose parts that might be the cause of the problem. There is a misunderstanding that the way to make money and pay off the alignment machine is to do many alignments a day. What you need to do is to slow down and conduct a proper inspection and perform the necessary repairs. This will lead to happier customers.”

To make customers understand what the problem is Cartwright said, “I do bring the customer out to the shop. I know there are insurance regulations, but I will say, ‘I want to show you on your car what I am talking about.’ I can have them push on the tire and see it move and then if I have another car hanging on a hoist I show him that there should be no movement. (The vehicle owner) then sees the problem graphically.”

There are legal ramifications about letting a vehicle you suspect might be unsafe out on the road. “For the tech, it is your responsibility as a professional to inform the customer of all problems. Just like a doctor, if he notices a serious problem with a patient when the patient comes in for a check up for a cold.” He said that many shops view this as a huge liability issue, but if the customer refuses to pay for the repairs, you cannot impound the car or stop the driver from driving away. “Most shops are worried about liability so they will pay to have the car towed to his house so it can safely leave the facility and does not hit someone on the way home.” He mentioned that getting the owner to sign a piece of paper is not enough and in these cases the technician and the manager should make thorough notes on the issue and what was said.

Chassis parts do get worn out with time and the customers should be aware that these items are essential to the vehicle’s safe operation. Bill Dennie, director of channel management for Tenneco’s Monroe shocks and struts brand, said, “Many consumers don’t understand that a worn shock or strut can increase a vehicle’s stopping distance by preventing firm tire-to-road contact and permitting excessive weight transfer. Shocks and struts also directly affect overall tire wear, so a worn unit can end up costing a lot of money if left in place over a significant period of time.”

Shocks and struts are items that do get worn he said: “Shops are best served to follow the industry’s established 80,000-kilometer ride control inspection and replacement recommendation. If a vehicle has 80,000 kilometers and still has its original ride control units, it’s time to take a hard look at overall unit condition and check for unusual tire wear. Chances are the customer could benefit from new units, especially in light of their affect on vehicle steering, stopping and stability.”

Regular inspection of the whole chassis, looking for worn, corroded, broken parts, should be a regular part of every service. “Any time a vehicle is on a rack, it makes sense — for the shop and the consumer — to check the shocks and struts,” said Dennie.