Though I’ve spent very little time as a sales rep, I’ve been to more than 100 car stereo shops across North America. These visits varied from display board repair adventures and product training for my former employer to DSP tuning and audio integration training over the past few years. I’ve seen some of the fanciest stores in the land and hung out in what would be described as nothing more than a garage. Any time I go into a new store, I have a short list of items I look for to learn about the staff and its capabilities – so that I can fine-tune how I interact with them. In this article, I want to share a few tips and suggestions that will help you choose the right shop to work on your car.
Body or Mind?
When you start shopping for someone to work on your vehicle, your goal should be to sense their ability to complete the task efficiently, reliably and safely. This can be challenging. I’ve seen massive shops with fancy displays and dozens of employees that don’t offer the same quality of workmanship as a single person working out of a small bay hidden in the back of an industrial plaza. We’ll steal from Sir Francis Bacon and the PlayStation slogan: Knowledge is power when it comes to integrating aftermarket products into modern cars and trucks. Whether it’s a remote car starter, a new radio with a backup camera or a massive audio system upgrade, using the proper techniques to mount equipment, make electrical connections, run wires and configure the products has a huge effect on the performance and reliability of your purchase and the safe operation of your vehicle.
With that said, let’s get started on how to gauge the suitability of a shop to work on your vehicle. It’s a lot like the basics of any new relationship. For this discussion, let’s pretend you want a new radio, component speakers installed in the front doors, a subwoofer and custom enclosure, and an amplifier with integrated digital signal processing installed in your new car.
The Tinder Photo
The first thing most people do when looking for a shop is to search the Internet. Shops with websites that offer clear and detailed outlines of their qualifications, service options and experience are obviously going to do more to strengthen your confidence in them than one that just has photos of its work or an online store that sells products. A good website is a significant investment and can tell you a lot about the company’s level of dedication.
You will also want to look at the shop’s reviews on Google and Facebook. Great reviews can tell you a lot about a company. Perhaps even more telling is how the business responds to less-than-stellar reviews. Those interactions can let you zero in on a sense of their business practices and customer service.
Once you make a short list of shops to visit, the next experience to take note of is what you see when you first walk into the store. Is the store organized? Does it have displays full of product, or are there holes where radios or speakers have been removed? Are the displays functional? This can give you an idea about the shop’s attention to detail and its organizational skills.
Does the shop have something other than just manufacturer displays? Many retailers will have examples of their work with good, better and premium options for subwoofer enclosures, speaker installation options and custom fabrication work.
Meeting the Family
If the store is empty, you should expect a greeting fairly quickly. If there are a half-dozen other people shopping at the same time, it’s important that someone from the sales team at least acknowledges you. Once you’ve started a conversation with the product specialist, get to the point. Let them know you are shopping for a specific solution and tell them the make, model and year of your vehicle. Run down your goals for the system and, most importantly, let them know your budget. There’s nothing worse for a salesperson than having to pry information out of you.
Once you’ve stated the basics, the specialist will most likely ask you some questions about your listening preferences – volume level, reference audio system experience (do you have a high-end home audio system or do you listen to a $79 Bluetooth speaker?) and whether you have owned a high-end system before. These questions will help them tailor product suggestions to your situation. Answer the questions as truthfully as possible. If you try to convince them you only need a small sub when you actually need a pair of 12’s in a ported enclosure, you won’t be happy.
The First Date
Once the retailer has created a vision for what will serve you best, they will typically show you several products on their displays. Here you will want to do things like try out the new radio with your phone and music to make sure you like the interface and it has the features you want. You also want to make sure it works with your phone, especially if you have an Android-powered device. As cool as Android phones are, they aren’t governed by a single entity and vary dramatically in their compatibility.
If you’ve done some research, you’ll want to start asking questions at this point. I think the best question is “why?” The answers will teach you a lot about the salesperson and the store’s capabilities. Why did they suggest a specific speaker, amp or subwoofer? Are there technical reasons why those products offer the best performance at that budget level? Or do you get a runaround, fluffy marketing story about the company behind the products?
The Grand Tour
If you are comfortable with the interaction to this point, the next step is to quantify the suitability of the installers at the store. This person is going to take your car or truck apart and do things to it. Scary? Yes, if they don’t know what they’re doing. If the store employs Mobile Electronics Certified Professional technicians, there’s a good chance the entire team takes their work very seriously. Having custom installation solutions on display doesn’t tell the whole story. You want to see what’s behind those fancy trim panels or painted surfaces. Ask if they have a demo vehicle you can look at or listen to. Observe how wires are run, protected and secured. Look at the attention to detail in amp mounting – is it serviceable and secure?
You can certainly ask to see the installation bay. Here you will want to look for basic organization. The shop may be busy, so some wires on the floor and boxes behind the car are OK. Are the seats and trim panels from the cars they are working sitting on a protected rack, or just lying on the floor? Do they use seat covers, steering wheel covers, fender covers or protective tape to keep your vehicle safe and secure? Is the battery disconnected or attached to a charger to ensure the vehicle will start reliably when the project is done? Do they have a dedicated wood shop to control dust? Do they have audio system measurement and tuning equipment?
The Prenuptial Agreement
If you are happy with the system design, the suggested products and the capabilities of the installation team, then the last discussion is going to be about the price. We all want to get the most value for our money, but it’s worth noting that you have found a highly skilled artist, not just an enthusiast. It costs money to employ skilled staff, to keep them trained and to equip the shop with the right tools. If you want the job done right, make no mistake, you have to pay to have it done right.
I have no hesitation in saying that you will absolutely be able to find someone who will do the work for less. They may even be able to use the exact same products. The question is, are the people who charge less as qualified? Do they have the training? It’s rare that you will pay less for something and not make a sacrifice.
Here’s a short example: I bought a motherboard, CPU, memory and a power supply at a local computer store chain last summer. Less than a year later, the power supply died. I paid $45 for a diagnosis, then had to pay $10 for them to ship the parts out for repair. The whole process took two months. That wasn’t the level of customer service I expected.
For most car stereo shops, diagnosing system problems, making adjustments and replacing products is an overhead expense. Sure, you pay for it in the price of the product and labor, but it saves you frustration later on. Nobody wants to find out that a company won’t stand behind its work after the sale. See where I am going with this? Better yet, if every aspect of the installation is done to the highest possible standards the first time, you likely won’t need to waste time getting things fixed. Investing a little more up front will save you time in the future.
I most certainly don’t want to tell you how to spend your money. Just remember, you rarely get more service by spending less money.
If you’ve done your homework, then you can expect that your audio system installation (or whatever project you hired the shop to do) will be done to your expectations, within the agreed budget and on time. When you go to pick up your vehicle, the salesperson should give you a tour of the vehicle and show off the work that has been done. They should give you a demonstration of how to use the system, explain its basic features and help connect your smartphone so you can start using it right away. They should also let you know that if you need any changes or adjustments that you can come back to visit them. I’ll note that this a polite request for you to not adjust things on your own.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other things to look for when shopping for a car stereo shop. The points spelled out in this article are just the tip of the iceberg. That said, we hope that you found this information educational and that it gives you a fundamental understanding of the importance of choosing the right people to work on your car.
It’s worth noting that there are exceptions to parts of the above process that shouldn’t preclude a retailer from working on your vehicle. It’s up to you to determine what level of quality you are comfortable with. When it’s time to upgrade your car, boat or motorcycle, research the specialist car stereo shops in your area and drop by for a visit. We hope you’ll choose a great provider and that you will be happy with the results.