When Larry Dansereau started L.A.D.’s Auto Repair in 1985, he built on his years of experience working at a Calgary service station and good customer relationships he developed there. When he opened the doors to L.A.D.’s, his two sons, David and Richard helped him organize the shop and Larry’s wife Mandy, handled the accounting. Today, Mandy still handles the accounting — and who her husband and sons like too affectionately say is the real power behind the shop — but a lot has changed since then. David is now L.A.D.’s shop manager and chief technician and Richard has taken the reigns as general manager from his father and the brothers are looking to move into a larger place from their busy 4,000 square facility, minutes from downtown Calgary. In 1992, L.A.D.’s joined NAPA’s Autopro network and in 2001, in a move that set them onto the road of winning SSGM’s Garage of the Year, L.A.D.’s stopped being a traditional repair shop and became one focused on “maintenance,” building customer loyalty and long-term business growth.
First step to success: Don’t just do repairs
“When we started, we were your traditional breakdown shop,” said David Dansereau. “But while we had business, we were all stressed out. And we soon began to realize that these kinds of ‘breakdown’ customers were in fact not good for our business.”
The problem with being a breakdown shop is that it does not produce loyal customers and long-term revenue growth. You see a person only when there is a problem with the vehicle and once the problem is fixed, that effectively marks the end of the business relationship; and the end of any further revenue.
Art Wilderman, executive director of the Calgary-based Canadian Independent Automotive Association (CIAA) said the maintenance model for independent service shops is the only one that keeps customers regularly coming through a shop’s doors and keep an independent operation profitable. He cites L.A.D.’s as a perfect example of the benefits of the maintenance model.
The first step the brothers took in moving to the maintenance model was to begin regularly attending the PROShop Manager Performance Groups shop management training seminars and programs sponsored by NAPA and facilitated by David Meunier’s, Calgary-based Total Automotive Consulting and Training Inc. (TACT). In these groups, shop managers and owners learn to analyze business processes each month to look for new profit opportunities and to provide training for how employees should speak and interact with customers in order to have them buy into a regular maintenance program with a shop.
“What we learned right away is that the worst thing you can do is when the customer leaves the shop is to say ‘Thank-you for your business,'” said David Dansereau.
Saying those words means one is not engaging with the customer in a way that will have him or her come back, he added. You’ve simply ended the relationship without building on future business.
Instead, L.A.D.’s staff now tells every customer that bringing their vehicle through the bay doors means they are now on a maintenance program, one that David and Richard spell out in the company’s mission statement, available for all to see when entering the shop and online (www.ladsauto.com). The mission statement spells out that each vehicle will get a inspection each time it comes into the shop, any maintenance or repair work will not be done without the customer’s consent; an invoice will never be presented to the customer that is larger than the most current estimate given to the customer; to provide skilled diagnostic technicians and equipment to accurately solve problems, source and provide parts considering quality, price and availability; and to book the customer’s next maintenance appointment at a time that is convenient with their work or home life schedule.
This program tells the customers that the shop is interested in the long-term care of the vehicle, and in helping to maintain the value of the vehicle as regular maintenance catches problems earlier and is easier on the pocketbook of the customer.
Richard Dansereau added since L.A.D’s is upfront with the cost of its work, including building into the estimate the cost of diagnostic work, the customer is never surprised by the bill.
“Everything we do here is pre-sold,” he added. “That way there are no surprises to the customer. How would you like to go into Home Depot and pick out a power tool that is priced for $109, but when you get to the checkout counter, it comes up as $159? So if a person comes in with a “Check Engine” light on, we will pre-sell the diagnostic and if the work we have to do ends up being easier than we predicted, then we will lower the price. And yes, we have made mistakes where the estimated price is lower than what has to be done, and we have had to ‘eat’ the cost. But, we will keep the bill we quoted to the customer. It is more important for us to keep the customer coming back than it is to try to get more money out of them.”
Another advantage of a maintenance program is that if L.A.D.’s technicians find that service work needs to be done at a future date — replacement of brake pads or a transmission or coolant flush, for example — L.A.D’s will tell the customer of the work that needs to be done, allowing the vehicle owner to budget accordingly.
“What we do is go through the work order, review with them everything that was done, and have estimates ready for what things will cost three to six months down the road. We are not the cheapest shop, but we end up saving the customer more money in the end.”
Keeping the lines of communications open
As well, L.A.D’s, extensively uses MechanicNet Group Inc.’s MechanicNet and Michell1’s customer retention programs along with its own database to better communicate with customers. Every customer who has work done at the shop are asked for their email and home addresses, and they are sent email or postcard inquiries as to how the technicians and staff treated them and their vehicle. The brothers encourage this kind of feedback from all customers, as the comments, whether positive or negative (which they say are few) are read over carefully and are used to put into place improvements to customer or vehicle service.
“The most important thing that we have done, and which I would say has helped us grow and become successful, is that we have come to realize this business is not just about the work we do on the vehicle or the quality of that work,” said Richard Dansereau. “Quality of the work is important, but in this business, it is really about building good relationships with all the customers. That is where, I believe, many shops go wrong. As soon as you have poor communications with your customers, you are not going to succeed.”
David Dansereau added the shop also uses shop management systems to mine the maintenance records to find new revenue opportunities. This might include sending reminders to owners that their vehicles are due for the manufacturers regular maintenance work, or to remind them the brakes are in need of inspection as the car has reached a certain number of kilometers.
And this communication also extends to the jobbers and suppliers L.A.D.’s works with.
John Blackstock, sales person with Avenue West Motor Works Inc. in Calgary, which sources all GM parts for L.A.D’s and helps the shop maintain its ACDelco TSS status, said successful shops always work to maintain good communications with their jobbers. He added the brothers work hard to keep the lines of communication between them and Avenue West open, and both are eager to try new ways of ordering parts and services, such as Avenue West’s new online ordering system that is slowly being rolled out for all Avenue West customers, first in Ontario and now in Alberta.
“They run a clean shop, they treat their customers very well and they know that if they have any problems, they can phone me at any time and we here will look after them,” Blackstock said. “They are good people and I wish this industry had more people like them.”
Bruce Cowling, banner and major accounts coordinator with NAPA Distribution Centre in Calgary praised L.A.D.’s communications with NAPA, the brother’s dedication to taking part in the NAPA-T.A.C.T ProSho seminars, and to communicating with its customers and its parts suppliers. It was this kind of dedication that made them into one of NAPA’s best AutoPro shops.
“Their shop is always clean, it is well run and they have the systems and procedures in place for looking after the customer, for always putting the customer first,” Cowling added.
Staying ahead of the game with training, technology
Both brothers believe that another key to their continuing success comes from their dedication to always improving the knowledge and skills of their technicians. They are willing to financially support the technicians in getting the training they need to stay current with new vehicle technologies and repair information.
And that extends to making sure the technicians have the latest equipment. A tour around L.A.D.’s will show that none of the shop’s equipment is older than four year old. Just a few of the pieces of equipment around the shop include a Robinair 34700 air conditioning service machine, a 3D John Bean Visualiner four-wheel alignment machine, MotorVac Fuel Carbon Cleaning systems, Midtronic’s MCR-500XL battery and electrical diagnostic tool and an OTC Genisys GM diagnostic tool with high-speed Internet connection for easy updating.
“Staying on top of the latest technologies and having them in the shop is something that was started by our father and which we have continued,” Richard Dansereau said. “He always kept his equipment up-to-date, kept a clean shop and always worked to improve his technical knowledge. And what we have come to learn is that this regular investment in new technology and skills is an important part in protecting the value of our business.”
Richard said he is surprised at how many shop owners do not regularly invest in new technologies and equipment, and suddenly find that when they try to sell the business some years later they do not get the value they assumed the shop had.
“There is no residual value left (in the operations),” he added. “So when they try to sell the shop for $300,000 they only get $80,000 because the new owner has to reinvest in new equipment and diagnostic tools in order to remain profitable.”
Along with investment in new equipment and training, L.A.D.’s also a firm believer in having clear lines of communication between the service managers in the front of the shop and the technicians in the back. Richard and David believe having the service managers carefully fill out standardized service forms — which note the problems the customer is having with the vehicle after spending time getting the customer to explain the problems and issues — means the technicians now have a better idea of where to begin looking for a solution, which improves overall shop productivity and customer satisfaction.
“Some shops believe you have to have seven or eight technicians in order to fill in the gaps,” David Dansereau said. “But you can do amazing things with just two technicians, as long as you have the systems and procedures in place to have them working all day. I believe that most shops are at 50 per cent productivity, meaning half the time the technicians are not generating revenue. But if you have two competent service providers in front and have everything organized to facilitate clear, accurate communications with the technicians, there is nothing to say you cannot get that productivity up to 90 per cent. We hover between 80-90 per cent (productivity). Poor efficiency and low productivity will affect your shop rate and you are going to put that inefficiency on the back of the customer.”
L.A.D.’s Auto Repair Mission Statement
* Book your next appointment tailored to your time schedule.
* Perform Inspections every time on every vehicle.
* Never proceed with any maintenance or repair work without customer authorization.
* Never present an invoice larger than the most current estimate.
* Provide new warranty inspections and on line search for all manufactures recalls.
* Provide highly skilled diagnostic technicians & equipment to accurately solve the toughest problems.
* Source and provide parts considering Quality, Price & Availability.
* Provide & maintain responsible environmental practices.