Tactics Called 'Blemish' on Auto Repair Industry

CREATED Sep 20, 2006
(Story created: 2/19/04)

If you've seen their ads, you might think you could get a real deal at Budget Brakes. But a NewsChannel 5 investigation found that customers may not get much of a deal at all.

Investigative reporter Jennifer Kraus uncovered some of the tactics they use at Budget Brakes to separate you from your money.

When we took a minivan in to Budget Brakes for their advertised free brake inspection, three out of the four shops in town told us we needed all sorts of parts and repairs.

That despite the fact that we'd just had our brakes inspected by our own mechanic and had the brake pads replaced.

And instead of their advertised $68 brake job, they wanted to charge us anywhere from $100 to more than $300.

Former Budget Brakes manager Jack Hays says, "You go there for a $68 dollar brake job and you walk out spending $300."

And former employees like Hays tell NewsChannel 5 that their orders weren't to fix cars, but sell parts and service -- even when customers didn't need it.

"That's a very common, very common thing that happens every day there," says another former Budget Brakes employee, David Brockus.

And here's how they do it.

Former employees say it all starts when customers first call in. Managers are supposed to follow a phone script to convince the caller to bring their car in while giving out very little information.

"You wanted them to think we could get them out the door for $68," says Brockus, who worked as both a technician and an assistant manager.

But most customers end up spending a lot more because employees are told to get as much as they can out of customers, the former managers say.

They do it by significantly marking up their prices and inflating the total bill. "We was always told to at least double it," Brockus adds.

And customers have no idea.

But when customers seem hesitant about the quoted price or are unable or unwilling to pay it, Budget Brakes managers will keep lowering the price until the customer finally agrees to pay.

When our undercover customer seemed reluctant to pay, managers asked her, "What can you afford to spend today?"

"I can try to help you out a little bit. How much do you need for me to?" one manager told our shopper.

Former manager Jack Hays says, "It's like being in car sales. Always ask for the most first and then you can go down."

Kathleen Calligan of the Middle Tennessee Better Business Bureau says, "What that translates to me is what can I get out of you?" Calligan calls this kind of sales tactic outrageous.

"That's a big warning signal for consumers that it's not about the repair but about the money."

But Michael Palazzolo, the owner of Budget Brakes, explains it this way:

"We want to solve the customer's problem. If they only have so much money to work with, we'll have a better idea of what type of repair we can do."

But former managers say even if a customer's about to drive off, they're told not to give up, to push even the smallest of service jobs.

When we tried to leave Budget Brakes, managers strongly suggested, "Let's do that clean and adjust before you leave."

"That's told to anybody that backs out," Brockus says. "You always tell 'em, well, I'd at least do the clean and adjust."

In explaining to us why we needed a cleaning and adjustment, one Budget Brakes manager told us, "I noticed that your brakes was a little bit out of adjustment."

"That's how they get somebody to buy the clean and adjust is you tell 'em they're out of adjustment and it's overstraining the front brakes," Brockus explains.

But Palazzolo claims that's not true telling us, "We're not saying your brake adjustment is bad. It's more of a preventive maintenance."

Yet, the Budget Brakes mechanics told us this type of service was absolutely necessary, and to emphasize their point, told us, "You're working all on the front brakes and that along with those rotors is overheating those a little bit."

Brockus says that's just another tactic. "Basically you'd also try to scare them to thinking they was going to tear something up."

And former employees say they do this because no one, even those who come in simply for the free inspection is supposed to leave without spending something.

The BBB's Kathleen Calligan says, "If I have you in here and I can just get something from you, that's scary."

And we found that employees have a strong incentive to sell. Internal documents reveal how employees earn bonuses based on their sales.

"We was always told we make our own paycheck and we create our own raises," Brockus remembers.

The more employees sell, the more they make.

"I was probably getting six to seven hundred dollars a week in cash, sometimes more," Hays adds.

Earline Corley thought she could save some money by taking her car to Budget Brakes. But she says she had to take her car back five times because her brakes weren't getting fixed.

And every time she went back, she says, her car always seemed to need something else.

"When someone comes back in, it's an opportunity to sell them something else," Hays says.

Palazzolo responds, "That is false information, OK? False information."  He insists he runs an honest business.

"If we mess up, we own up to it and take care of it. I'm not going to say we don't make mistakes cause we do."

But the Better Business Bureau says these are more than honest mistakes. Calligan believes what we uncovered "puts a blemish on the entire auto repair industry."

And customer Earline Corley calls it just plain wrong.

"I got screwed and I didn't like it," she says.

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Since our reports began, we've heard from dozens of Budget Brakes customers. If you want to file a complaint, call the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs is (615) 741-4737 and the BBB at (615) 250-1084.