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  Mechanical Feature

Repair Facility of the Future

Posted 10/18/2005
By Andrea Betts Menendez

With new cars lasting longer, requiring fewer repairs and using more technology, one thing is certain: To ensure the continued survival of their businesses, independent shop owners have to think strategically.

Despite rapidly changing technology, it's not hard to pick out which shops seem poised for future success. Talk to their owners, and a number of commonalities emerge. While there's no magic formula for future success, certain guiding principles and practices are clear. Here are the top 10 things cutting-edge shops can do to help secure their place in the future:

Provide Easy Access to Information

The drive-in customer reception area in C&M Auto Service's Vernon Hills, Ill., location enables customers to pull inside and drop off their vehicles safe from Chicago's scorching summers and bone-chilling winters.
All shop owners agree: In today's industry, information fixes cars. And as our busy society demands fast turnarounds, technicians need to be able to access information quickly and easily.

In competitive shops like C&M Auto Service Inc. in Vernon Hills and Glenview, Ill., and C&H Foreign Auto Repair in Spokane, Wash., every technician has an Internet-equipped computer in his bay. They look up vehicle service history, technical service bulletins and service information, order parts, write invoices and e-mail other techs right from their own stations.

Owners are also realizing the value of Internet-ready portable technologies. Stan's Automotive in Lafayette, Colo., uses both laptops and PC tablets. "I can walk through the shop and see a tech under the dash of a car or under the hood, and the Web tablet is right there with him," said owner Stan Elmore. "It saves a lot of footsteps. I don't look at buying things like Web tablets, laptops and DSL lines as an expense; I look at them as an investment."

Plan for Increasing Costs

Seyfer Automotive in Wheat Ridge, Colo., uses computers to manage voice mail, shop management software, do accounting and parts ordering, and communicate with customers through e-mail.
"The biggest challenge today [is] figuring out ways to afford the equipment and information to service the types of cars you want to service," said Ed Cushman, owner of C&H Foreign Auto and former member of the Automotive Management Institute's (AMI) board of trustees. "We [have to] look at what kind of cars can we afford to service and how many systems can we afford to operate."

Cushman believes that to stay competitive, most shops will need to develop an area of specialty. "It makes sense from a business standpoint. You can control costs, do more definitive training, increase efficiency and make a profit."

C&M Auto continues to service a wide range of cars by basing prices on their costs, not the competition. "Whereas in the old days, the independents always priced themselves below the dealer, because they delivered less, we deliver more than the dealer typically, so to most of our clients it's worth more than the dealer," said Mike Starovich, president.

Seek IT Assistance

Technology increases efficiency, but it can also create chaos when it acts up. And it can be challenging to make the right information technology (IT) decisions in a market replete with tools that - however revolutionary for the industry - tend to be a few years behind the rest of the IT world.

"Some of the tools that are out there won't run on Windows XP," lamented Donny Seyfer of Seyfer Automotive in Wheat Ridge, Colo. "Some are still running on Windows 98, and some are running on 95! And their updates are so slow in coming in a lot of cases. So that creates a real challenge for a shop owner who's not computer savvy." Though a self-professed "computer geek," Seyfer hired a Microsoft Certified Systems expert to help implement his shop's Windows capabilities.

Cushman laughingly admitted, "I own 16 computers, and I can fix a car with a computer, but I don't know how to cut and paste!" A computer tech visits his shop once a week to check the equipment and assist technicians with any problems.

Invest in Technician Training

At C&M Auto Service, Scott Schoellhorn's service bay is designed to put his toolbox not more than within two steps of the vehicle he is working on. Each technician's kiosk is equiped with a computer.
"Tools are only as good as the people who use them, so technology requires an investment throughout the entire business," said Chuck Hartogh, vice president of C&M Auto.

Cushman agreed. To help familiarize older techs with computers, his shop financed the purchase of home computers. He is currently helping to organize a local training group with area shop owners.

Cushman also advocates national educational opportunities like the Congress of Automotive Repair and Service (CARS). "The industry needs to realize that, like a dentist's office, you can make it if you close for a few days to go get training," he said.

Timothy Dwyer, former shop owner and automotive instructor in Oklahoma State University's Pro-Tech program, encourages shops to implement apprenticeship and mentoring programs, formulate continuing education plans and require all employees to spend a certain number of hours training each year.

"Have something in-house that techs can work on in slow times," he suggested. "Whether it be online, interactive or manufacturer provided, there should be an actual program to stay current with technology that changes faster than gasoline prices!"

Promote the Industry

"Most of the qualified techs we see are in their late 30s and 40s," said Bill Moss, owner of Auto Advantage in Manassas, Va., and member of ASA's Mechanical Division Operations Committee. "I see a lot of enthusiasts in their 20s, but I don't see a lot of career techs in their 20s. So that will be a challenge - developing interest and passion among those people for fixing cars."

As young techs - who are recent graduates of vocational schools - enter the field to head to dealerships, independents have to step up their efforts, Moss said. "Be involved in community colleges and high schools. Sit on those advisory boards. Become allies of the teachers and instructors and feed those institutions in ways other than cash."

Cushman agreed that to compete with dealers for quality technicians, shops must be proactive in education and promotion, though he believes that cars requiring fewer repairs will prevent any serious technician shortage. "Now we have five techs, but 10 or 15 years from now, we're only going to need one or two really good techs. The other three will be service personnel."

Cushman also feels strongly that shops must participate in trade organizations like ASA that help lobby for a level playing field.

Present a Professional Image

A brightly lit, spotless facility conveys to employees and customers alike that you're running a progressive, professional business.
"Clean, well-lit, organized facilities are a must for consumer confidence," said Dwyer. "People spend a lot for vehicles today, and when they hand the key over to a shop, they don't want a Cro-Magnon mechanic getting it dirty, adjusting the radio, seat and mirrors or smoking in the car."

Comfortable, climate-controlled waiting areas that cater to both families and professionals by offering interesting magazines, children's play areas, clean restrooms, internet connections, coffee and privacy are a plus. Whatever you have, it must be clean.

"It's just not OK anymore to have that part on the floor in the waiting room, collecting dust in the corner," said Cushman.

Well-designed Web sites help create an image of professionalism. For first-rate facilities, Web cams are a pioneering way to make an impression on Internet-savvy customers. "In all of the still pictures in our brochures and on our site, [the shop] is always clean and appealing," said Starovich. "But that's what everybody's going to present. If you log on and see that it's just as clean all day, then you know the company's doing what they're advertising."

Attract Quality Employees

"It's got to be part of your business plan to create an environment that will attract the right people," said Cushman. "You have to look at pay scales and benefits and all those things - because without the right people, you don't have a business."

Cushman's shop actually has a waiting list of technicians that would like to work for them. "The whole thing is to find people with cooperative attitudes. We really try to hire attitude more than aptitude, because we can teach them."

Professionalism is often as important to qualified techs as it is customers. Hartogh recalled, "I just drove by an off-brand brake shop, and there was a sign in the window that said 'Experienced Help Wanted' and it was all crooked and dirty. What is that saying?"

Online postings, on the other hand, draw qualified applicants searching for jobs on the Internet. A number of C&M's current employees say they were attracted by the company's professional Web site and the Web cam views of the clean, appealing service bays. "It actually helps sell our company to them and their spouses," said Starovich.

Communicate Well

As automobiles become increasingly complicated and the cost of repair mounts, communication becomes even more critical. Many of today's customers know little about how their cars work, and you must educate them to effectively convey your service recommendations, justify a proper course of action, and explain the bill.

"We try to find a common ground upon which to describe what's going on with customers' cars," said Wayne Herndon, owner of Cool Air Automotive in North Richland Hills, Texas. Herndon and his service advisers look for examples that a customer can understand, given his or her line of work or experience. Herndon also engages in role-playing with his techs, asking them questions he anticipates the customer will ask.

Some customers try to diagnose problems themselves, using the Internet to test a shop's credibility. When they miss the mark, Seyfer recommends pointing such customers to accurate online sources. If that happens to be your own Web site, all the better. Public clinics can also educate consumers while building trust and helping prevent owner neglect and "fear of the unknown."

Know the Clientele

As future cars require less maintenance, shops face the challenge of increasing their volume business while trying to limit the makes and models they work on due to expense. That means they must know their customers and what they're looking for.

In high-end shops, the more amenities, the better. At minimum, they expect shuttle services or loaner cars. "People who can afford to get our service are the people who shop at Nordstrom's," said Cushman, whose shop specializes in Volvos. "So you'd better spend some time there and figure out what it is that they do, because that's what customers expect from us - only more."

For customers feeling the pinch of gas prices, repair options may be more important than amenities. Herndon always tries to present his customers three options - a "patch," a "fix" and a "repair" - and fully explain the repercussions of each. He gives customers time to weigh the options and understands when cost is a primary deciding factor. By doing so, he gains their trust and their future business. He's also able to stress preventative maintenance by explaining it in terms of "pay some now" or "pay more later" scenarios.

Embrace the Future

Tomorrow's shop owners don't fear the future; they plan for it. For these entrepreneurs, marketplace challenges inspire creativity. They stay on top of legal, financial, accounting and employment issues while figuring out the best way to serve the customer of tomorrow.

"The hybrid market is very exciting to me," said Moss. "If I was doing general repair right now, I would look seriously at becoming the hybrid shop in a major metropolitan area. The cars are coming out of warranty, and the owners clearly see them as more than just a means of transportation. There are a lot of levels on which you can appeal to those people."

For forward-thinking owners like Moss, hybrid and fuel cell technologies are a natural step in the evolution of cars, one that will ultimately translate into more work for their shops. They are careful not to alienate customers with cars currently under warranty, as that customer may have more than one vehicle.

Aggressive, open-minded and innovative, these shop owners feel certain that customers will continue to flock to their doors.

Will they flock to yours?

Andrea Betts Menendez is a freelance writer based in Dallas. You can reach her at

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