Auto Service World
Feature   November 1, 2014   by Andrew Brooks

Success Through Service

A focus on customer service, and word-of-mouth marketing, have built Columbia's brand

Jim Voigt, owner and general manager of Columbia Auto Service in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, understands the importance of customer service. It was one of the pillars of this family-owned enterprise when Voigt’s grandfather went into business in 1954 in this community about 80 kilometres west of Toronto. It remains the prime directive as the family’s next generation enters the business.

After starting out in 1954, Voigt’s grandfather took a position in the fuel industry, but Voigt’s parents returned to the family mold by launching their own auto service business in 1968. Voigt and his wife Laurie bought the business from them in 1992, and now their daughter Sarah, a service advisor at Columbia, has become the fourth generation of the family to be in the business.

Several years ago Columbia took out a newspaper ad that showed Voigt’s grandfather in front of his original White Rose service station in 1954. Voigt got the ad blown up and hung it in the office. “One day a longstanding, elderly customer came in and while he was sitting in the office he was looking at the photo,” Voigt recalls. “After a while he turned to me and said, ‘Jim, I just realized that your grandfather was the very first mechanic I ever went to – and you’re the last mechanic I’ll ever go to.’ That was a great moment for us.”

Voigt says the customer service ethic is in his blood. “I remember my grandfather always used to take me aside and tell me how to provide great customer service. That was always his specialty. And my father from the start also stressed great service at a fair price. So you could say it’s the family mantra.”

The formula has been so successful that Columbia has continued to grow in spite of recessions and the loss of a keystone client several years ago – and in spite of not doing aggressive marketing through traditional channels. When Jim and Laurie took the helm in 1992, Columbia consisted of three service bays and was renting its 2,000-square-foot location. Today there are nine bays, two tuning and detailing bays, a massive tire storage area, a rustproofing facility and a car sales operation, covering almost 10,000 square feet and keeping 17 employees busy. And Columbia owns the premises.

While Columbia is a very diverse business, maintenance is the core of what it does, Voigt says. They focus particularly on new vehicles, and Voigt is proud to say that many of his customers entrust the servicing of their new vehicles to Columbia from day one. While these customers prefer Columbia’s service to that offered by the actual dealerships, excellent relations with those dealers are a huge part of Columbia’s success.

“We do our best to have good relations with the dealerships,” Voigt says. “If we notice something that’s covered by warranty, we can contact the dealership, and get the service done there at no charge to the customer.”

The car sales operation is a relatively small part of Columbia’s business, and the company carries a small inventory. But even here it has imprinted its own service ethic on how it conducts business. “We specialize in finding new cars for our clients,” Voigt says. “So for example someone might come in and say they need a new car for one of their kids. We can find a vehicle through the daily rental auction, and through our dealer relationships we can explore their excess inventory. We can usually find something pretty quickly.”

Customer convenience is also the motive for Columbia’s strategy of allowing customers to pre-book service appointments well in advance. This enables customers to know exactly when they need to bring their vehicles in as much as a year in advance. In addition to the convenience of a firm schedule, Columbia provides loaner vehicles for customers whose cars are being worked on, and also has a complimentary shuttle service to drop customers off and pick them up as required.

Growth has been pretty much uninterrupted since 1992; Voigt says in that whole time there was only one year where business flatlined. “We often consider ourselves somewhat ‘recession-proof.’ When times are tough people may stop buying new cars, but then they need regular maintenance even more so they can keep their older vehicles lasting a bit longer.”

Columbia has been fortunate to be situated right in the middle of Ontario’s renowned “Technology Triangle.” The Kitchener-Waterloo area is famous as high-tech hub, with companies like OpenText, Agfa Healthcare and, most notably, BlackBerry Ltd. – formerly Research In Motion (RIM) – the makers of the BlackBerry. For many years, Columbia’s fortunes were closely tied to RIM’s.

“When RIM bought so many of the buildings around us, we were pretty much an island in the middle of the ‘Land of RIM,’” Voigt says. “Some people referred to us as ‘RIM Automotive.’ We did expand quite a bit as RIM expanded, but when they fell on hard times they sold all of those buildings, and people predicted that we were going to have a hard time of it.” Instead, business boomed. Columbia was able to retain many of its RIM customers even as they were laid off and wound up working elsewhere in Kitchener-Waterloo, thanks in large part to the ability to schedule appointments, and the loaner cars and shuttle service.

“So we’ve continued to grow, and we’re set for another era of growth, I believe, because now new companies are moving into those old RIM buildings,” Voigt says. “The whole area is being populated with potential customers who are new to us. We’re seeing a lot of new clients every day.” Columbia’s word-of-mouth reputation has been a lifesaver. Voigt says it’s pretty common now for a new employee in a workplace to mention their car needs work and to have Columbia customers in the same workplace mention the great work that Voigt and his team can do.

“We run a few ads here and there in the local papers, and we do radio spots once in a while,” Voigt says, “but we’re successful enough that we don’t have to do a lot of marketing for new customers. We do it, of course, but we’re getting lots of new customers by word of mouth. Being in an area where people come to work seems to be one good way of getting new clients.”

Columbia is a certified member of NAPA AUTOPRO Mechanical, and the NAPA name has a lot of trust. “They’re a big part of our success,” Voigt says. “We get a lot of help and training from them, and they’ve taught me a lot about how to be a successful businessperson.” The support includes the “Peace of Mind Warranty” for 12 months or 20,000 kilometres on all repairs. “NAPA gives us a lot of tools to be successful and this is one of them. You can call from anywhere in North America. Fortunately it isn’t needed very often, but when it is, it’s greatly appreciated.”

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