Motorcycle Service Departments: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Tech Matters

Judging by the letters I receive and the feedback I get on the street, the majority of riders are happy or at least content with their dealer's service departments. For the most part, you feel that your bikes are serviced quickly and accurately, and that the overall quality of the work is good. By the same token, most of you think that warranty issues are usually handled fairly, and in a timely fashion.

Unfortunately, some of you feel like you're taking it in the shorts. Consider these two excerpts from recent letters.

"I've had my new bike to the dealership four times complaining of a clunking noise in the front fork. All they did the last time was jack the rear spring preload up to the point where I can't ride it." Or how about this one: "My new touring bike has a pronounced shimmy in the front end. I've complained about it at every service, but all I get is a bill and some double talk. Last week the service manager told me that the front end was improperly designed and that I should learn to live with it." Both writers went on to say that in addition to not being able to solve the problem, the shops had basically given them the runaround, suggesting, among other things, that if they didn't like the service they were getting they should go elsewhere. While I picked these two as shining examples of substandard service, there have been several others just as worthy, including one poor guy who got his bike back from its first service with a low oil-pressure light that wouldn't go out.

If the writers were describing problems that were truly off the wall I'd be a bit more understanding, but any technician worth his salt should have been able to repair either bike in short order. If I were the dealer principle I'd want to know what happened and who was responsible, because things like that generally don't attract repeat business-what they do is get Lemon Laws passed.

It would be nave to think that every bike is properly repaired or even properly serviced on the first go-round. I was a motorcycle dealer for many years and know that stuff happens. The screw-up may be due to carelessness, or it may due to a lack of communication between the shop and the customer. It's possible that the techs really can't find the problem or, in rare cases, the bike may well have some odd quirk that the owner will simply have to live with. In some extreme cases, and yes, it has happened to me, there may be bad chemistry between the two parties that causes one or the other, usually the mechanic working on the bike, to simply walk away mumbling to himself, fervently hoping that when he turns around the problem will have just disappeared. Trust me on the last one, it won't.

Poor service departments are nothing new. During the 1960s and early '70s the motorcycle industry was full of get-rich-quick types. These guys could open up a dinky little storefront operation because motorcycle franchises were cheap and easy to get. Every motorcycle mag on the newsstand had ads from manufacturers begging you to sell their bikes; even Harley-Davidson was starved for dealers, and would gladly let you open a shop for a few grand down. Because many of these shops were operating on a shoestring, they hired leaky kids like myself as "mechanics" (I use the term loosely) and paid us peanuts. Basically it was on-the-job training, and a lot of bad work went out the door. This cost the get-rich-quick shop lots of business as its unhappy customers soon went elsewhere. Over time the snake-oil salesmen fell by the wayside; the dealers that survived were either the old hands that had known all along what it took to stay in the game, or new guys who realized early on that a good service department brought in customers.

When I hear horror stories about a dealer's service department, my first inclination is to suspect that it belongs to one of my old get-rich-quick buddies. Frankly I'd hoped they were all gone by now, but if nothing else, most of them had an instinct for self-preservation that would have done a cockroach proud.

My second inclination is to suggest the following course of action. First, politely but firmly explain your situation to the dealership's owner. If that doesn't get results, contact the manufacturer. Every owner's manual should have a customer-service department contact number and address listed. Again, be polite-the person on the other end of the phone didn't cause the problem, and screaming at them probably won't help the situation. Lastly, if you honestly feel that you're getting the short end of things, contact your local Better Business Bureau, and as a very last resort your state Department of Motor Vehicles.

One other piece of advice: If your dealer suggests you might be happier doing business elsewhere, take him at his word. He's probably right.