It's not far fetched to realize that you should really take your car to a dealer/service station for the specific brand; after all, they have the training, experience, and backing for you to know that your car is in good hands.
However, what if your car is out of the warranty period and you need a shop that wont charge as much as your casa (local vernacular for dealer service) but are just as capable to do the job? Here are some things to look for.
LOOK AT THE FACILITY
Of course, you should really take a look at the environment. Is it clean? Well maintained? Is there an air-conditioned waiting area or coffee shop in the premises? Ample parking? Clean restrooms? Is there sufficient security? Do they have a shuttle service to take you to the office should the repairs take the whole day?
These pointers may seem trivial, but treat a garage like a hospital... it should look ready and prepared to accommodate your precious car.
CHECK OUT THE EQUIPMENT
Are the mechanics wearing overalls and gloves? Do they have the right tools for the job? How is the shop equipped? Lifts? Elevators? Air guns? Jacks? Compressors? Dynamometer? Do they have diagnostic equipment?
Having more equipment means that the shop would charge a bit more. More importantly, being fully equipped from the most basic tools like wrenches and screwdrivers to more specific equipment like OBD (On Board Diagnostic) readers means that the shop owner has invested well into his business, and made sure that his customer's cars are touched with the best equipment available.
TALK TO THE STAFF
Take the time to talk to the mechanics. Do the mechanics sound like they were formally trained in their craft, or are they just guessing? Like a poker game, gauge their sincerity by observing body language, how they refer to certain things like their tools, the work to be done, or what's wrong with the car.
If the mechanics seem like they're just guessing or taking a stab at diagnosing your car, then alarm bells should be ringing.
OBSERVE THE WORK
Owners tend to leave their car in the shop and go elsewhere as it is being serviced. Before you commit your car to their hands, watch how other cars are being serviced when you arrive. Do they look professional in how they go about their work? Do they look competent? Do they take the time to stand up and get the proper tool for a certain job or just settle for the wrenches within their reach?
These little things contribute to the overall professionalism and competence of a shop. When you do get your car serviced for the first time in a particular shop, linger around and watch how they treat your car.
BUILD A TRUST
When you do find a good shop, build a rapport and trust with the people there. Talk to the owner, be nice to the staff and complement the mechanics for a job well done. Refer new customers like friends and relatives to the shop.
It's things like these that add up to a better job, a nicer price, or even just swifter service. After all, in any relationship, it's the trust that counts.