Why Service Advisors Shouldn’t Diagnose

By Ted Ings, Executive Director

You may think you know as much as the technicians in the back, and perhaps you do, but that doesn’t mean you should do their job.

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Diagnosing vehicles on the service drive is a risky habit that can lead to serious problems.

Why service advisors should stay away from vehicle diagnostics

It’s hard for advisors not to perform vehicle diagnosis on the service drive. You know (or think you know) the answer to the owner’s concern. Why should you wait for the car to go through the shop when you can analyze it on the spot?

1. You don’t have all the information

A 2010 Ford F-150 with a 5.4L pulls up with the engine rattling. It sounds like the typical cam phaser problem. You inform the customer and give them a rough estimate of what the repair will cost.

But when the vehicle enters the shop, the technician finds things are far worse. Not only is the timing chain stretched, but one of the cam followers has ground into the camshaft, sending metal debris throughout the engine. The truck needs a replacement motor – but you told the owner it only needed cam phasers. Oops.

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Now you must convince the customer they need a new engine (not a fun phone call to make). The vehicle owner is angry and rightfully so. Their repair bill quickly went from a $2000 to over $5000.

This ordeal could have been avoided by selling diagnostic time instead of offering free advice. A good tactic is to tell the customer you won’t know what the problem is (or how much the repair will cost) until a thorough diagnosis has been performed. After the issue is properly identified, you can write up an accurate estimate, saving everyone a lot of trouble.

2. Work is taken away from the technician

If you’re diagnosing on the service drive, you’re giving away work for free – and taking money from the technicians.

Say, for example, a 2012 Chevy Silverado with a 5.3L pulls in. It’s running rough and has a code stored: P0303 Cylinder Number Three misfire. You correctly diagnose it as having a failed active fuel management lifter on cylinder three (a prevalent problem).

Although your assumption was right, you should have left the analysis to the tech. Customers should always pay for your technician’s expertise through diagnostic time.


The scenario is worse when you get a backyard mechanic who has watched a few YouTube videos. These customers (if you can call them that) are looking to score free diagnostics and then fix the vehicle themselves.

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For example, maybe you have a customer with a complaint of overheating. You pop the hood and find a small leak from the water pump. You share your findings with the customer, he takes your free analysis, goes home and replaces the water pump himself. Now, not only did you rob the technician of diagnostic work, but also the water pump job.

3. You don’t have all the tools

Your job as a service advisor is to convey repair information and ensure customer satisfaction. A technician’s job is to diagnose and repair cars, which means techs have a wealth of tools available at their disposal. You don't have this equipment on the service drive. Out in the shop, there’s vehicle diagnostic tools, repair databases with TSBs, and much more. Using these resources, techs can solve almost any issue an owner may have.

4. Lack of knowledge can lead to problems

Some service advisors are salespeople – not automotive experts. This lack of knowledge can lead to confusion and misdiagnosis on the service drive. Here’s a real-world example where the district manager, not a service advisor, was the problem.

A customer was at the counter complaining of an engine misfire. The service manager explained that the diagnostic technician was booked for the day, and offered to reschedule for tomorrow. Not wanting to miss out on a sale, the district manager jumped in and recommended the shop “just throw some spark plugs in it.”

You can guess how his off-the-cuff assessment turned out. Putting plugs in the vehicle did not fix the problem. The real issue was a sticking valve, and the change in diagnosis sent the customer into a tailspin. He was expecting a $200 tune-up, and got stuck with a $3500 engine repair. But at the least he didn’t have to pay for the spark plugs – the shop ate both parts and labor on those.


What service advisors should do – investigate

Good service advisors know their stuff. This gives them the ability to ask customers questions that will be useful during diagnosis.


For instance, if a customer comes in complaining of a vibration, a top-notch service advisor may as :

  • Where is the vibration coming from? Is it coming from the steering wheel, brake pedal, etc.?

  • When is it felt? Any particular speed or engine RPM?

It also helps to check the vehicle’s service history or ask the owner if they have had any prior related issues.

Being an expert investigator lets you demonstrate your automotive knowledge on the service drive. At the same time, it helps technicians do what they're paid to do – diagnose.

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