Jim Morton has a concise view of the work he did as a shop owner.
“We specialized in the things nobody else wanted to do,” Morton says.
Morton focused on diagnosing and fixing the drivability problems that few others could. He sold his last shop in 1995, and now teaches at Pennsylvania-based Automotive Training Center and owns Morton’s Automotive Technical Services (MATS) alongside his wife, a company that provides continued training for working technicians.
Often referred to as Sherlock Holmes with a wrench, Morton is one of the industry’s premier experts on vehicle diagnostics, presenting on the topic at numerous industry events, including CARS, VISION and NACAT.
With a background as an owner and a technical educator, Morton is uniquely equipped to advise shops on all aspects related to vehicle diagnostics, including proper tools and training, as well as how to staff and charge for diagnostic work.
Morton recently shared his thoughts on the topic with R+W.
How important are diagnostics to a shop’s bottom line?
It’s essential to the shop’s bottom line. The biggest mistake I see today is the average shop repairs or replaces the effect of a problem. In order to save your bottom line, you have to take care of the problem.
Here’s an example: In a vehicle, an electric fuel pump is nothing more than a DC motor that pumps fuel into the engine. Over time, the vehicle starts to develop rust and corrosion. That rust and corrosion gets into the electrical connectors and causes resistance, which decreases current. And the current is what allows the DC motor to pump the fuel into the engine. What happens is that the DC motor burns itself out from working too hard to compensate for the decreased current.
At the shop, they’ll find that the fuel pump isn’t working, so they’re going to put a new fuel pump in it. With the new fuel pump, the car will start up and run. But the problem is going to keep happening, usually in a much shorter period of time, since the corrosion is going to get worse and worse, because they didn’t fix the problem.
The worst thing to hear in the automotive industry is “comeback.” It is not good for the owner’s profit margin. Without good diagnostics, what eventually happens is you work on a lot of cars for free.
In your experience, how many shops do a good job with diagnostics?
Percentage-wise, I’m going to be very nice about it and say that 25 percent of the shops out there are doing good diagnostics. The rest of them are basically trying parts.
The ones that are good at diagnostics realize you can’t just ask somebody to go figure out what’s wrong with the car without having the proper shop tools and training.
What diagnostic tools should shops invest in?
There’s a rumor out there that you can’t use a general scan tool; you have to buy factory scan tools. I’ve been fixing cars for a long time without factory scan tools. Granted, the factory scan tool is going to be more specific to that car. It’s going to give me the ability to re-flash the computer—a lot of aftermarket stuff can’t do that. There is a need for factory scan tools, but the need is nowhere near what people have it made out to be.
Whatever diagnostic tools the owner invests in, the tech should be in on the choice of the equipment. The owner might think that he’s going to get the best deal, but maybe the tech doesn’t like that piece of equipment or doesn’t know how to use it or will never learn how to use it. Let him be part of the decision process. He’s the one who is going to be using the tool.
What are some common misconceptions about the diagnostic tools on the market?
What I see too much of is that owners think that if they buy that one piece of equipment, whatever it is, that tool will do it all. I wish it were true, but it isn’t. There’s no piece of equipment with arms that come out the side and point at the bad part.
The one piece of equipment you should worry about is the one between your technicians’ ears. If the technician does not know what a diagnostic tool can and can’t do, or understand the car they are working on, the repair won’t be done properly. And that’s why training is so important.
What sort of diagnostic training should shops look for?
You want to find training that your techs can use in the shop tomorrow. When I do classes at independent garages, I focus on vehicles that are at least five years old. I don’t want to teach them something that they’re not going to see for two or three years.
Also I think it’s better to have techs in training where they are actually working on cars, rather than sitting in a lecture. The average tech can relate to that a lot better, when they actually see it, and they repair it themselves.
How would you staff a shop to enhance diagnostic efficiency?
I would hire a mix of mechanics and technicians.
The technician is going to be my high-tech guy. He’s going to be focusing on figuring out what’s wrong with the vehicles. My mechanic is going to be the one focusing on replacing the parts.
I may not even give one of my technicians a bay. I would have him roam from bay to bay, concentrating on the diagnostic part of it.
Should shops charge for diagnostic work?
That’s got to be the biggest problem today. I can see no reason why people shouldn’t charge for diagnostics with the way today’s world works, versus the way it used to work. If you’re not charging for diagnostics, and the technician gets down to what’s wrong with the car, and he only has to remove two screws to fix the problem, what are you going to charge?
When I owned my shop, we had a fee for diagnostics. The customer agreed to pay a certain amount for us to tell them what’s wrong with the vehicle. It’s common in other industries. You know darn well that a plumber or electrician, even if they are there for 15 minutes, they’re going to charge you for an hour. Everybody else seems to be able to do it, but this industry has a problem with it.
One of the reasons why I think it’s tough for people is because they’re not that good with diagnostics. For example, if a doctor has no clue what he’s doing, and he tries to charge you for a diagnosis, it looks terrible.
How should shops determine their diagnostic rate?
The average shop for the most part has different levels for labor charges. The scale that’s usually used is A, B and C. For example, the A tech is going to be $150 an hour. The B tech is going to be $100 an hour, and the C tech is going to be $50 an hour.
Now the same tech in a shop, he may act as an A, B and C tech during the same day. It has to do with the skill level of the job.
For a diagnostic job, you should be charging your top rate. That’s the skill level it takes to do the job, and the level of compensation it takes to attract the tech that has the skills to do it.