Downtown Auto, a 10-bay independent auto service center in Kitchener, Ontario, is AIA Canada’s 2000 Car Care Award For Excellence grand prize winner.
The award celebrates the auto service business for their work and leadership in promoting the benefits of proper vehicle maintenance to the motoring public, either through their normal daily business practices or through a special promotion or event.
While Downtown Auto does its share of promotions and events, it’s a place where they like to put the emphasis on top-notch customer relations all the time.
Actually, co-owner Greg Pilecki disdains the term customer. He prefers client, because it more accurately reflects the relationship between staff and the people who have made the business such a success.
“Our motto is servicing to be the best. We do whatever it takes to make the client happy and feel at home. We’ll take them into the bays, whether it’s a guy in jeans or a suit or a lady in a dress or jeans, it doesn’t matter. If they want to look, we’ll show them around. We’re very open that way. We’ll show them why we’re replacing parts, why something should be changed,” said Pilecki.
Three regional Car Care Award of Excellence winners were also announced. Like Downtown Auto, they were recognized for excellence and innovation in the promotion of vehicle maintenance. Regional winners are Temple Esso of Calgary, Alberta, SMC Automotive of Burnaby, British Columbia and Auto Laperriere of Gatineau, Quebec.
Downtown Auto has a history of positive recognition and it was with good reason that it was selected as the grand prize winner of the 2000 Car Care Award For Excellence, for which it was nominated by John Zuk, owner of Automotive Trade Supply. “He doesn’t just care about selling to us. He looks after us,” said Pilecki.
For instance, it’s virtually unheard of for an auto service business to be chosen as a semi-finalist in the Kitchener-Waterloo Retailer of the Year program, but Downtown Auto was nominated three years in a row.
“For us it was quite an accomplishment,” said Pilecki, about that recognition program, in which restaurants, furniture stores and dress shops most often achieve top results.
A licensed technician, Pilecki, age 35, has worked in automotive service for 21 years. He started at age 14, sweeping floors at a place called Family Auto. As he got used to the environment, he found that he liked to work with cars. He then moved to a Sunoco service station where he pumped gas and did small general repairs, including oil and tire changes. This was followed by doing supervised brake and suspension work. After that he went to Friend Service, a BP station and later a Petro-Canada outlet. Following that he went to Downtown Auto Centre in 1985.
In 1991 he and his wife, Le-Anne, bought the business from Gary Millman. In 1995 he was joined by his brother, Stan, whose business management expertise helped the business cope with growing pains as it became more and more successful.
Keeping three technicians and four apprentices busy six days a week requires plenty of work volume, planning and coordination.
Generating 10 to 15 work orders per day and about 250 to 300 work orders per month calls for wide acceptance by a satisfied and loyal customer base.
Stan, a graduate mechanical engineer who managed a jobber store prior to joining his brother, is the front man for the operation, with responsibilities that include client relations, job scheduling and work order write up.
He said one of the keys to successfully retaining clients for repeat business is to gain their trust by making every effort for them to understand exactly what is going on with their vehicle. Basically, it means developing rapport.
Many clients work in the downtown district, which is where Downtown Auto is located.
Equally important to success is talented and motivated staff who can work as a team, up-to-date equipment and plenty of technical training.
Currently, the shop is booked six weeks in advance for its propane and natural gas conversion services and is backed up four days in advance for regular service work.
Target market for the business is higher-end clientele with vehicles ranging in age from three to 10 years old.
Client count stands at about 3,900 names in the computer database, of which about 70% are repeat regular customers.
If you’re wondering what accounts for this level of success, here’s the abridged version.
With a new customer, for example, Pilecki encourages a whole vehicle approach to service as a means for promoting vehicle maintenance.
That means giving the vehicle a complete physical, “so that we can get familiar with what was done to that vehicle first-hand.”
He relates it to a doctor-patient relationship. “What we hate to do is go in blind. When a client comes in with a brake complaint and we discover something, then discover other problems with the vehicle, it can be awkward.
“We like to get oriented with the car first and be very upfront with the client as to ‘these are the things that are wrong with your car’ and prioritize the items as to what needs immediate attention, what can wait and what is in good operating condition.
“It gives us a real base.” Charge for the inspection is $39.95.
Another initiative is the Preferred Customer Program (PCP), which gives clients a 10% parts and labor discount. If they are a downtown employee, they qualify.
The client fills out an information card, and the information is entered into the computer.
Through their Micro-Biz management software program and Mitchell On-Demand, Downtown Auto can generate maintenance and oil change schedules, and print out vehicle manufacturer service recommendations.
Maintenance reminder cards are mailed to customers every three months. Le-Anne tracks that at home through a computer networked to the shop’s business computer.
Every time substantial repairs are done to a vehicle, the client receives a gift such as a basket of cookies as a token of appreciation. Always after a business transaction a personally signed thank you letter is sent to the client.
“You always have to appreciate the client you deal with. These little gifts don’t seem like much, but the clients are impressed and appreciative,” said Pilecki.
Clients may opt to have their vehicles picked up and delivered following the service from their workplace if they are unable to bring the vehicle to the garage. Downtown Auto will even leave the client with a loaner vehicle if the service takes a longer time period to complete. SSGM
GROUP OF NINE IS DOWNTOWN AUTO
Greg Pilecki, president, co-owner, licensed technician, alternate fuels certified, as well as A/C, electrical, electronics
Le-Anne Pilecki, secretary-treasurer, co-owner
Stan Pilecki, customer service and business manager
Doug Moyer, master technician, a key to operation, multi-certificate holder with alternate fuel natural gas and propane licenses
Don Moogk, technician with 30 years experience
Stephen Richardson, final-year apprentice about to write C of Q