Speaking up on bad service can help others

Consuming Interests

June 19, 2007|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

Here are a few phrases I hear all too often: It won't change anything. They won't care. It's too much trouble. It takes too much time. You can't expect much. Why bother?

I'll confess I've been guilty of using those excuses, too, when confounded by my own consumer problems.

Recently, for example, I encountered bad service at four different locations of the same home improvement business and, instead of calling or writing someone to resolve my complaints, I just brushed it off because I was pressed for time. Weeks later, I'm still feeling gritchy because I got no satisfaction.

L. Bruce Hornstein of Monkton can relate. Last month, the 74-year-old retired veterinarian took his Toyota Prius to the Jones Junction dealership in Bel Air to have a tracking system installed. The dealership had just sold him the car a couple of days earlier.

Three days later, on May 16, when Hornstein picked up the car, he noticed hundreds more miles on the odometer than when he dropped the Prius off.

"The car had 130-something miles on it when I bought it," Hornstein said. "When I bought it, I only drove it to my home in Monkton, which was only about 20 miles or so. When I picked it up, there was 570 miles on it. Did some kid who worked in the shop go for a joyride? Was it stolen? Did someone take my car to New York City and back?

"I called the salesman and they couldn't tell us what happened to it either," Hornstein said. "My partner and I were really upset about it, but no one could tell us anything so I was going to let the matter drop. But I feel like I've totally lost confidence in them. I've lost trust in what they tell me."

That's a lousy feeling to have, especially if you know you'll be dealing with a business for years to come. Hornstein has a long-term service plan with Jones Junction on the Prius.

When I called Jones Junction sales manager Tom Gullivan, he was surprised to learn that Hornstein wasn't happy. Gullivan said Hornstein's car was sent to a shop in Laurel to have the tracking system installed. But that trip should have added only about 80 miles round-trip to the odometer.

Where the extra mileage came from, no one seemed to know, Gullivan said he told Hornstein's partner, Lee Dorman.

"The problem I'm having is that we don't know how many miles Mr. Hornstein put on the car himself because no one wrote it down when he dropped it off," Gullivan said. "We always mark down mileage when you take it to our service department, but that doesn't happen in the after-market department where you have equipment installed. That's a breakdown in our procedure."

Since no one at Jones Junction or the Laurel service shop was owning up to the mileage discrepancy, Gullivan said he could not say for sure who was responsible.

To make up for the mysterious extra mileage, Gullivan said he offered Dorman free oil changes.

"I will do anything I can do to make it right, but I was told that they just wanted to get [the complaint] off their chest," Gullivan said.

Hornstein said he didn't want freebies. He wanted assurances that such problems would not happen again.

Let me take a moment to suggest that instead of putting your trust in someone's word, it might be more wise to adopt a pro-active attitude when in a similar situation. Examine your car with a rep from the dealership or auto shop. Mark down the condition or any existing damage on your car. Write down the mileage. You and the rep should sign those notes and each should have a copy.

We do some variation of this when renting cars, but consider treating your personal car the same way when handing it over for service.

That way, should something happen to your car upon return, you'll have some proof of what condition your car was in when it was dropped off for work.

If your car is damaged while the dealer has it, you have a number of options. You could file a complaint against with the Attorney General's Office or the Motor Vehicle Administration, which regulate car dealerships. You might also file a complaint with the Maryland Insurance Administration (MIA) if the business is denying insurance claims on a vehicle that was damaged while in their care. Or you could sue.

Fortunately for him, Hornstein's car wasn't damaged - though that makes his situation a lot murkier.

Once Jones Junction understood that Hornstein was still unhappy, general manager Steve Smeltzer promptly called with his deepest apologies.

Smeltzer told Hornstein that while the dealership's investigation turned up no answers, he assured him that changes were already taking place as a result of Hornstein's experience. "It made us realize that there was no check-in sheet when the car was brought to us and that was the biggest problem," Smeltzer said.

"Anytime a car is left in our care, we should check the miles, make sure there's no damage on the car and take note of its condition," Smeltzer said. "That change, at a minimum, is in place now so we don't have this problem in the future."

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