A client once told me a story about sitting in the waiting room of an oil-change shop for an hour and a half. During that time, perhaps 12 or 15 vehicles came through for oil changes. For everyone, an employee came in to tell the driver the windshield wipers needed replaced.
Legitimate? Possibly. Suspicious? Probably.
We’ve all been in such situations. The mechanic says the car needs a new transmission. The dentist says an old filling is cracked and needs replaced before the tooth breaks. The repairman says that funny noise the furnace is making means it’s time for a new one. The insurance agent says you desperately need to roll your old annuity into a new, improved product. How do you know the difference between someone offering services to take care of your genuine needs and someone trying to sell you services or products you don’t need?
All too often, the short answer is “You don’t.” As consumers, we can’t possibly know enough to judge the legitimacy of every product or service we may need to buy. We’re forced to rely on the integrity and competence of the professionals we deal with. Fortunately, there are some ways we can protect ourselves.
1. Deal with reputable companies. Last summer, parts of Rapid City were hit by a severe hailstorm. Almost before the last hailstone melted, those neighborhoods were covered with curb signs and flyers advertising roofing services. Some of these companies may well have been legitimate and competent. But wise consumers got their repair bids from established local firms, even if it meant waiting several weeks to get the work done. This greatly increased the odds of getting a skilled roofing job with quality materials.
2. Ask for referrals. If three of your friends have gone to a particular dentist for years, that’s a good sign. If your brother-in-law who knows a lot about cars trusts a certain mechanic, you’re probably in good hands at that shop.
3. Be suspicious of “one size fits all” or “quick fix” solutions, whether it’s new windshield wipers for everyone, financial advisors who recommend certain investments to every client, or medical offices where every patient seems to need the exact same dietary supplement or treatment regimen. Be cautious about anyone who seems more interested in making you fit a particular product or solution rather than designing a solution to fit your needs.
4. Become a regular customer. When you consistently patronize the same mechanic or the same plumber—preferably one who has been recommended to you—you develop a relationship with that person or business. Not only do the employees come to know your particular needs but as a valued, repeat customer, you are more likely to get “A-List” treatment.
5. Do your research. For expensive repairs, it is wise to get more than one evaluation of the problem as well as two or three cost estimates. In addition, you can compare brands, service, and other important factors by using resources such as Consumer Reports and online review sites.
6. Beware of high-pressure sales tactics. Obviously, if it’s 7:00 a.m. on a ten-degree January morning and the furnace is out, you need to make a fast decision. But in other situations, including many medical ones, you ought to be able to take time to make the best choice. Anyone pushing “special one-time offers” or urging you to make a commitment “right now” may not be someone you want to do business with.
We can’t all become experts on auto repairs or dental work. But we can all become experts at using care and common sense to find the services we need.