Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2012   by Andrew Brooks

The service solution

Michael Colacci believes building customer relationships is the key to success - even if it means doing something for free

For Michael Colacci, owner of Meineke Car Care Centre in downtown Oakville, Ontario, the key to success is always customer service. Colacci founded the four-bay, five-employee operation five years ago, and the customer service focus is evidently working out pretty well: Colacci’s is among the top ten Meineke franchises in Canada.

“We’re very customer oriented,” Colacci says. “We don’t overcharge, we treat our customers like family, and we educate them on the maintenance of their vehicle. For me, it really comes down to that — education. A lot of people don’t educate their customers and it leaves a bad taste in their mouth because they don’t understand what’s being done to their vehicle.”

Maybe Colacci’s own background has something to do with his approach. He started the business from scratch. He didn’t move into an already equipped facility or buy out a previous shop owner with an existing customer base. This allowed him to set his own stamp on how things would be done and one of his priorities was to build relationships with his clients.

“It’s a smaller operation,” Colacci says. “The customers can come back in the shop with us and we go over the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedules with them. We like to explain everything. When something the manufacturer recommends isn’t necessary we’ll let them know, and try to save them money that way.”

This service ethic is the main differentiator. Amid an economic slowdown, Colacci says he has seen an increase in customers. And the business is relatively new, so Colacci feels he’s still building up his customer base.

But that’s not the whole story. “We’re seeing a lot of customers who want a personal approach to vehicle maintenance. They don’t just want to drop it off at a big dealership, where they sit in the waiting room and can’t see what’s going on.” It helps that customers can call the shop and get someone to make a house call to boost a dead battery or fix a flat — for free. Colacci isn’t above offering other freebies too, depending on the kind of service required. “We do go above and beyond. I think that’s why we have the high retention rate.”

Regular training is done through ACDelco, about every three months, and Colacci picks up the tab. He stresses skill in diagnostics, which isn’t surprising given the ever increasing complexity of today’s models. The training means Colacci’s mechanics keep their skill sets current, which helps to maintain his good staff retention record. “A lot of training we do on our own in terms of management courses, etc.,” he adds.

The fact that he encourages his staff to talk directly with customers about the work that’s being done on their vehicles undoubtedly helps too. Mechanics are justly proud when they do good work, but when they can talk to the person who’s directly benefiting from their skills, it only increases their own job satisfaction. And when a customer can walk in and recognize not just the person behind the counter, but several other faces as well, it leaves them feeling more comfortable about the whole experience.

“Typically you’d see higher turnover in a shop like ours — or any shop,” Colacci says. “A lot of owners are licensed mechanics themselves and they can be fairly aggressive with their employees, and that’s why people wind up leaving. I have a more laid back environment.”

Colacci doesn’t leverage print media for advertising and marketing, and sticks pretty much to bus and shelter advertising, with materials provided by the parent company. He doesn’t market through the emerging social media channels, and the Web site side of things is handled at the corporate level through Meineke.

The technology Colacci does invest heavily in, of course, is the kind that sits on the shop floor. “These days, with the difference between dealer-bought and the aftermarket, it’s essential to have good diagnostics. Basically, a lot of shops don’t want to invest in equipment, and when they don’t they can’t diagnose certain things. I want to be able to diagnose almost anything and so I’ve invested in buying all the technology I need to do that.” That includes portable diagnostics for house calls.

When he’s asked what are the biggest changes he’s seeing now, Colacci replies that with the kinds of cars being made nowadays, people are hanging on to their vehicles for longer than ever before. “People finance their vehicles now for whatever terms the manufacturers have on offer. They keep their cars longer and they want to make them last. Obviously, this means more business for us.”

The quality of product put out by domestic manufacturers has also come a long way, he adds. “They haven’t fully caught up to the Japanese yet, but cars are cars — they all break down eventually.”

Colacci finds the market competition he’s getting isn’t anything he can’t handle, and that topic brings him around to the importance of customer service and keeping prices in line.

“I hate to repeat an old cliché, but the lack of customer service is the real problem in this business. You walk in and nobody’s at the counter, nobody wants to help you, get personal or talk to you. All you need is a friendlier approach, treat customers the way you want to be treated, take time to explain things, go above and beyond. It doesn’t take much to keep customers, believe it or not. It really comes down to doing the extra service, or doing something for free for a long-time customer.”

Doesn’t keeping a lid on prices — let alone giving work away — hurt the bottom line? Colacci doesn’t think so.

“Don’t nickel and dime your customers and they’ll come back to you for everything. It doesn’t hurt the bottom line to keep prices down and even offer some things free of charge; in fact, it improves the bottom line because you get long-term business, plus you get word of mouth marketing and a better reputation.”

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