Do Independent Shops Have the Edge?
By Leona Dalavai Scott
Shops that offer outstanding customer service stand out.
Matt Cascarino, director of marketing for Identifix, knows what it takes for shops to survive in today's competitive environment. Customer service, he says, is more important than ever as a result of the economy.
"Only during leaner times do we revisit 'the basics' - not only to implement them, but more importantly, because those qualities are often the differentiators between us and our competition," Cascarino says. "For example, I can get my oil changed anywhere but I'd rather go to the place that knows me by name. When you focus on service, suddenly price becomes less of a motivator."
Smaller shop size = more personalized service
ASA members would agree. As independent shop operators, they know the importance of not only knowing their customers by name, but that personal relationship translates into knowing and understanding their service needs.
Diane Larson, AAM, owner of Larson's Service Inc., Peabody, Mass., says her shop's small size enables her and her staff to know their clients more intimately. "Because we are smaller, and there are fewer transactions and employees, we are able to better control the transaction and develop a personal relationship with each client," she says.
David Kusa, owner of Autotrend Diagnostics, Campbell, Calif., says that independents' smaller size [compared to dealerships] allows clients to work with the same person on each visit. "This allows the shop to build a good one-on-one relationship that I think the dealers are either unwilling or unable to do," says Kusa.
Cascarino also points out that independent shops may have a simpler infrastructure that can lend itself to empowering employees to make decisions without going through a lengthy chain of command. This empowerment may result in a job getting done sooner than originally scheduled or giving a customer a ride to work when they drop off their vehicle, for example.
"As long as the staff adheres to shop protocol and has the right tools in place to serve customers properly and in a timely manner, their ability to be nimble when necessary will often result in a memorable and positive experience that can differentiate the 'little guy' from their larger, industry counterparts," Cascarino says.
Mike Brewster, AAM, owner of Gil's Garage, Burnt Hills, N.Y., agrees with Cascarino. Not being restricted by corporate policies, he says, allows shops to more efficiently respond to a customer's needs.
Personalized service also allows a business to build trust with its customers. Vernie Menke Jr., owner of Menke's Automotive Repair, Newburgh, Ind., says that his shop lets customers know that they truly care about their safety and well-being.
"We take the time to give the personal touch and treat people with respect ... you can actually walk into our shop and meet and talk to the owner about your vehicle. When was the last time you could walk into a dealership and meet and talk to the owner about your vehicle?" Menke asks.
Steve Tomaszewski, president, Alpine Collision Center, Grand Rapids, Mich., echoes what Menke believes. He markets his facility to customers by simply telling them they can deal directly with the owner. "As president of an independent facility, I have the ability to make a decision 'on the spot' if necessary to appease an unhappy customer. This can be crucial regarding customer satisfaction, loyalty and referral business," Tomaszewski says.
Customer rebound from dealerships
The more personalized service has driven many customers - who once went to dealerships for service - into the arms of independent shops.
Terry Wynter, AAM, owner of Terry Wynter Auto Service Center, Fort Myers, Fla., recently related the story of a customer who went to a local dealership for repairs. The customer had been told that the car needed an ignition switch and tumbler to repair the problem and the parts were on backorder for several months. Says Wynter, "We were able to isolate the failed portion of the ignition switch, locate a replacement and have the ignition switch rebuilt by a local locksmith. The repairs were complete in two days, and the customer was thrilled with our service."
Service like that is not uncommon for independent repair facilities, according to a Consumer Reports magazine study. A study cited in the June 2010 issue of the magazine found that owners preferred having their vehicles repaired by independent shops. In fact, based on an analysis of 373,000 repair experiences, Consumer Reports found that 84 percent of owners said they were "very satisfied" with their maintenance experiences at independent repair shops, compared to 78 percent who were "very satisfied" at dealerships.
But the statistics only get better. If repairs were involved, 74 percent were very satisfied with independents, but only 59 percent said they were very satisfied with dealerships.
Douglass Kirchdorfer, AAM, owner of Downing Street Garage, Denver, says that his shop offers specialty services that dealerships do not. For example, the shop offers to get a car re-tested if it fails the state emissions test and they do the diagnosis and repair. The dealerships in his area don't offer this convenience. He said that he has also had times when the shop performed a diagnosis on a customer's car and found a defective part that the local dealer had just installed. He then took the customer's car back to the dealer for them to re-do the repair. "I would never expect a dealer to take their customer's car to another company for any repair, regardless of the circumstances," he adds.
Other specialty services offered by independent shops include handling glass repairs or bodywork if they are a mechanical shop, or pickup-and-delivery service and advocating for clients with third-party insurers.
Going the extra mile is quite common for independents and that is in fact another characteristic that distinguishes them from dealerships.
Reputation is key
Cascarino also says that for independent repairers, their reputation is on the line when delivering service to their customers. To ensure repeat business and great referrals to friends and family, he says independents go out of their way to take care of their customers and conduct surveys to learn what they can do better.
"Dealerships do this to some degree as well," he says, "but the connection may not be nearly as personal as most larger outlets lack that 'Mom and Pop' quality that consumers love to support ... independent business owners who recognize that they have both a name and a face will often go the extra mile to establish themselves as the go-to shop in their community and thus be a formidable competitor to those around them, large or small."
Ron Nagy, co-owner of Nagy's Collision Center, Wooster, Ohio, has lived out what Cascarino is referring to. His business has grown to six locations and has earned a great reputation in the community in which he serves as a result of the quality customer service they deliver consistently. Nagy sees a shop's reputation being summed up this way: "Many independent shops have their name on the outside shingle. That means every repair has their name on it! Customers want excellent service and that's what we need to understand - that the independent can beat any dealer at this."
What Gives Shops
the Customer Service Edge
Use this checklist, shared by Cecil Bullard, AAM, a third-generation technician, owner, teacher and consultant with more than 30 years of experience. Bullard has run some of the most successful independent shops in the United States (including one that ranked in the Top 10 by Motor Age magazine for three years in a row). Here are some characteristics that top-notch shops with great customer service exhibit:
• Client is always properly greeted by a live and friendly voice on the phone.
• Service advisers take the time to listen and understand what is required to help a customer with their vehicle needs and their current situation.
• Client is made to feel special, comfortable and valued.
• Business is about relationships and service, not price. Shop is selling customer service and reputation, not repairs.
• Shop always does what is best for the customer.
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