Feature October 1, 2011 by
Murray Voth, TACT (Total Automotive Consulting and Training)
How To Live Happily Ever After
Once upon a time in a land far, far away…. well maybe not so far away, there lived a retired automotive parts salesman. Bob had spent the majority of his career calling on service stations, dealerships, and independent garages, as they...
Once upon a time in a land far, far away…. well maybe not so far away, there lived a retired automotive parts salesman. Bob had spent the majority of his career calling on service stations, dealerships, and independent garages, as they were called in his day. He had enjoyed his career for the most part and had made many good friends in the industry. He did not see himself as a salesman, but prided himself in being an excellent problem solver and solutions provider. His customers were loyal because they understood that Bob had their best interest at heart. They never had to worry about the quality of the products they bought and they knew the pricing would be competitive. Even though an occasional part failed, they knew that Bob’s company had not made the part; they just distributed it, yet offered the value of an excellent warranty program. Bob understood very early in his career that he did not sell automotive parts; his customers sold parts. In fact he came to believe that even his customers did not sell parts. He watched the best of his customers carefully and noticed that like him they also had the vehicle owner’s best interest at heart. They took the time to inform and educate their customers about the condition of their vehicle and the needs of the vehicle, the vehicle owners than chose to purchase particular services or repairs based on that information. What set the better shops apart from the others was that they had a clear understanding of an obvious fact that most shops and parts salespeople miss. When a part on a vehicle fails, it is already sold. The vehicle owner is going to buy that part somewhere; it is just a matter of where. Most of us really dislike being “sold” anything. Yet we feel good about a purchase when we have all the information to make a good decision regarding that purchase. Bob and his best customers clearly understood this principle. One day Bob decided he needed a break from the garden and the grand kids and decided to take a road trip and visit some of his former customers. He looked forward to reminiscing about old times, and maybe someone would buy him lunch for a change. He first stopped in at Charity Automotive. Charity Auto was started by Jim and his wife Joan 30 years ago, and has been limping along ever since. Jim started out as a technician working for someone else, but he always felt that his boss was making money off of his back and the backs of his customers. So Jim decided to go out on his own. He knew that he could give great customer service and had good workmanship. When he first started out, his first customers were his family, friends and neighbors. He wanted to give good service so he felt that in order to do that; he would give them discounts when they asked. As time went on he was so used to giving discounts, he thought that all of his customers expected discounts. Because he had that memory of his former boss, the last thing he wanted to do was make a profit off of his customer’s back. It had been a few years since Bob had seen Jim, and he was shocked by what he saw when he arrived at the shop. The newest car in the parking lot was a 1999 Ford Taurus, Jim was in the bays working on a 1978 Fairmont, and Joan was at the front counter juggling all the bills. When Bob asked Jim where all the help was, Jim replied that he could no longer afford to pay any staff. Jim said that no one was willing to spend any money on their cars; the economy must be really bad. He thought he might work a couple of more years and just walk away from the business. “No lunch here,” Bob thought and said his good-byes. Bob decided to go to another shop called Hobby Automotive. Hobby Auto had been started 20 years ago by Bram and his brother Hans. Bram and Hans had loved cars all their lives; they had started out working in their back yards on their own cars and their friend’s cars. They raced cars on the weekends and started getting into performance modifications. As their business grew they quit their jobs as technicians in other shops and opened their own location. During the 90s they seemed to be busy and making money, but as time went by less people were interested in the type of work they did. They branched out into accessories and detailing and even got a couple of tow trucks. They had read an article about diversification in business and thought this was the best way to make more money. When Bob showed up the boys were all smiles, yelling a greeting from back in the shop. Bob smiled and thought to himself about how some things never change. The parking lot was jammed with old wrecks, half finished hot rods, and a couple of rusty tow trucks. There seemed to be a few cars around owned by paying customers, but the business ran like organized chaos. Bob went into the waiting area and cleared a pile of shop rags off of a chair to take a seat. Bram came in wiping his hand on his coveralls and shook Bob’s hand. They discussed how business was and Bram started saying that he wasn’t enjoying the business that much anymore, in fact, he was beginning to loose his love of cars altogether. Besides Bram and Hans there were three other technicians. Everyone was busy and working hard. They were all taking turns answering the phone and talking to customers, ordering parts, yelling instructions back and forth to each other, working on cars, towing, test driving, and writing out the final invoices for the customers. Bram confided in Bob that it seemed no matter how many cars came in or how hard they worked they just could not make enough money to run the business. They had sold their race cars and were now thinking of re-mortgaging their houses to stay in business. As friendly and positive as the brothers always seemed, you could see the worry beginning to show on their faces. Bob wished them well, made a few suggestions and went on his way, his stomach growling from hunger. “No lunch here either,” he thought. He began to wonder if he had got out of the industry just in time. Bob stopped for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants and when he did not recognize any of the serving staff any more, he began to feel very old. The world seemed to have passed him by. He was also discouraged to see the struggles of some of his friends; he had hoped some of them would be retired by now and become his golfing buddies. He did start to feel better after having a bite to eat so decided to call on one more place before he called it a day. On the other side of town tucked into a complex filled with all kinds of shops he pulled in front of Runswell Automotive. This shop had only been open for about 10 years and was owned by a former technician by the name of Richard. Most of Richard’s experience had been at a new car dealer, but he had left because he felt that he could not really look after customers the way he wanted to. The whole team at the dealership really did want to serve their customers well, but there always seemed to be some policies put in place by the car manufacturer that restricted their ability to do so. It seemed like the manufacturer was the most important customer and put themselves in front of the regular customers. Having received some great training in productivity and efficiency at the dealership, Richard went looking for a shop that might be for sale that was not living up to its full potential. With a loan from his uncle he started out on his own. In his first year of business, Richard heard about management training for automotive shop owners from one of his parts suppliers. He took all the courses he could get and began to implement what he learned. He knew that he had to work on his business and not in it. As Bob entered the waiting area he was greeting by Kim. Kim had been working for Richard for just two years so Bob had not really had an opportunity to get to know her. Kim’s last job had been as office manager in a large insurance office, she was accustomed to systems and procedures and how to serve customers. Richard had learned that one key to satisfy clients was to have good written communication between the client and the technicians. Kim was good at that and really only needed to have basic automotive knowledge to be an excellent service advisor in the business. As they chatted, Kim mentioned that Richard was in a meeting with one of the technicians discussing the purchase of a brand new scan tool. The whole team at Runswell Auto was proud to be the diagnostic shop of choice in the area. In fact, Richard’s old boss at the dealership sent him the occasional vehicle to diagnose when his own guys couldn’t figure it out. A short while later Richard entered the waiting area and greeted Bob with a hearty handshake. Richard offered to take Bob out for a coffee and Bob accepted, although he asked Richard if he really was able to leave the shop behind like that. Richard laughed and motioning to Kim said that with the great team he had in the shop, his time was more flexible and he was now able to work on his business and not in it. Taking out a retired parts salesman for coffee and picking his experienced brain for wisdom was part of working on the business. Bob smiled, and felt a little younger again, along with a renewed hope for the industry he loved so much. And it looked like Richard was going to buy the coffee.