It’s far from the biggest shop in its market. It’s not even the biggest on the block. But SSGM Garage of the Year winner Sil’s Auto Diagnostic Centre generates both profits and rave reviews from a dedicated fan base of clients that have the choice of over a dozen auto service providers literally a stone’s throw away, including several Big Box and national chain operations. How do they do it?
Founder Sil Sabucco uses two “secret weapons”: his staff, including son Carlo and technician Cory Haight, and an operating philosophy that emphasizes A-level service and isn’t afraid to price it appropriately. Sil took up the trade in 1964, and progressed from a leased building with retail gasoline sales under the BP banner, to his own brand in 1976.
“Sil’s displays an exceptional degree of honesty and integrity”, wrote local customer Stan G. Craig, one of many testimonials Sil’s Auto customers submitted to SSGM, adding, “one specific example of service excellence comes to mind. Sil drove to where I was stranded, about 10 miles from the garage and remedied an unexpected ignition fault. I was not billed for this courtesy. Sil also has patronized and financially supported neighborhood youth programs for many years.”
Sil’s Auto customers are very enthusiastic about the service they receive. Sil attributes much of the fan mail to the way Sil’s Auto and Diagnostic Centre interacts with clients.
“It’s so important today compared to years ago”, says Sil. “The way technology has advanced the cars, you need good counter people who know what they’re talking about and are able to relate to the customer.” Racked in the comfortable customer waiting area are learning materials ranging from brochures and posters to cutaway CV joints, EGR valves and ECU’s as well as samples of new and old automotive fluids.
A common theme mentioned by Sil’s clients is the cleanliness of the operation. Floors are bright and clean, with no wet spots or staining. Spills are attacked with biodegradeable cleaners, and there are no floor drains in the bays. Sil notes that the clean/bright philosophy appeals especially strongly to his female clientele. “They comment on the brightness of the shop. They don’t want to come into a shop where it’s dark or they have to watch where they walk. We lease a machine to keep the floors clean. It all comes back to the first impression.”
Benches are orderly and everything from belts to wipers is racked clearly by size for easy access. The four-hoist work area can accommodate seven vehicles and features lifts by are Wheeltronic and Hydra-Lift with a John Bean alignment bench. Main scan tools are from OTC, Vetronix and Fluke. Sil’s is a full service facility as well as a Drive Clean shop (Ontario’s emission inspection program), but doesn’t use an in-house dyno, testing vehicles instead by an arrangement with a local centre not in direct competition with the business. Declares shop manager Carlo Sabucco, “we’re affiliated with another shop. We’re certified, but we chose not to shell out the money for the equipment. We do a lot of Drive Clean testing, often when consumers doubt the readings from the chain locations. I don’t make enough on it.” Carlo’s father agrees. “It’s a time factor. Is the big machine worth the money?”
Sil’s purchases equipment based on its predicted return on investment. Carlo relates: “Take the power steering flush machine. In three months it paid for itself. You’ve also got to have the training to know how to sell it. Then you can make money.”
Parts inventory is modest, but tactically chosen. Parts carried in-house include belts, hoses, brakes, fluids, ignition components, cabin air filters, and OEM-type specialty fluids. Virgin and recycled coolant as well as transmission fluid is dispensed from see-through poly bulk tanks. Sil’s purchases parts through two jobbers, with the vast majority (over 85%) of the business going to Bestbuy affiliate Cawthra Automotive. Sil’s participates in some of Bestbuy’s installer services, but prefers to maintain an independent brand identity. Sil’s Auto Diagnostic Centre is also CAA affiliated (and is the only Mississauga-area CAA shop to have a 100% customer satisfaction rating for two years running). Carlo notes that Sil’s buying practices are not focussed solely on price: “They look after us quite well. Prices are quite good, but it’s about loyalty. For warranty purposes, they look after us. Ultimately, the customer wins. I deal with the same people all the time.”
Sil’s emphasizes the soft skills, but enables the process with serious attention to information flow in the shop and out. Management software is Triad Pace, with Alldata for technical information. The Alldata system is backed up with a subscription to the iATN technicians’ chat room. Carlos has integrated PC Anywhere into the Pace system to allow remote control from anywhere, including his home PC. They are currently shopping a new integrated system. What will they look for? According to Carlo, ” E-mail, invoices, everything over the Internet.”
E-business is the core of Sil’s marketing strategy, including E-reminders for maintenance, a newsletter and a customer referral program. Sil’s also runs a comprehensive Web site (www.silsauto.com) that feeds information to clients, and back to Sil’s Auto. Carlo describes the site: “We did it five years ago. It’s several pages long. Very informative. Customers can book on-line, and can choose their maintenance package. We notice that the number of hits spike after every newsletter goes out. I track who’s looking at it, what key words they were using to find the site and what they’re looking at.”
Training is crucial to a modern operation, and Sil’s spends an average of three thousand dollars per year for each of the three full time employees of the business. Carlo mentions Glenn McNally as well as Bob Greenwood on the management side, as influential trainers, as well as local manufacturer clinics. Declares Carlo, “I’m a big believer in Bob Greenwood. The stuff works. The ‘Wow!’ program? Whether it needs it or not, clean the car up. Take your fingerprints off; even spend five bucks at the local car wash. It’s the little things that count. I think that that’s the biggest thing lacking in the industry these days.”
Training, good information systems and the resulting customer loyalty gives Sil’s two key advantages. One is the ability to command a $78 door rate, the third highest in the local market, and level with several area new car dealerships. “The way the technology is today, you just can’t afford to give it away. It just costs too much to update”, explains Sil. The other advantage is the confidence to push back when necessary if the customer is wrong. States Carlo, “the hardest part is communicating with the customer. Many question you about everything. If we’re right, we’ll challenge the customer.” Sil emphasizes, “We spend a lot of money, but if you have a good person with the confidence to stand their ground behind the counter that can also relate to the consumer, the customer feels comfortable. They often say, ‘Carlo, just do it’.”
Sil’s Auto Diagnostic Centre would seem to be an anachronism by modern standards. It’s a small shop in a brutally competitive local market with national chains an easy walk from their non-descript location. Yet Sil’s manages to generate outstanding customer loyalty with firm door rates without a famous brand name. How? The business mission statement, posted large in he waiting area, reads:
“WE believe that through communication and proper diagnoses our staff and technicians can effectively serve your vehicle needs and expectations. Our honesty and trust develops client relationships thus providing a balance between quality value and service.”
And by leveraging information technology, training and a customer-focussed philosophy that doesn’t race to the bottom in pricing their services, Sil’s Auto Diagnostic Centre keeps that promise, with profitability.