Arizona shop opens its door to satisfy customers
Launching a business because your customers demand it isn’t a bad way to start. And that’s exactly how Stephen “Steve” Yacovone and Jurgen Ankert came to open Sun Valley Imports in Tempe, Ariz. – a suburb of Phoenix.
Before they opened Sun Valley Imports, Steve and Jurgen had been working at a family-owned Porsche dealership in the Phoenix area. When the dealership announced it was selling to a large corporation, its customers were not happy. They didn’t want to lose the personal relationship and level of service that Steve and Jurgen had been providing. “They encouraged – even pushed us – into opening our shop,” says Steve. “They came to us and brought their friends when we opened Sun Valley Imports in 1993.”
Steve had been the service adviser for the dealership and Jurgen was the “doctor.” That’s what everyone called him because he had extensive education in the repair and service of German-made vehicles, having earned a master’s degree in automotive technology in Sinsheim, Germany. The master’s degree he earned is equivalent to a Ph.D. in the United States; that’s why he was called “doctor.” He brought more than 35 years of training and experience to the Porsche dealership in Arizona. He was the dealership’s “doctor of cars.”
Like Jurgen, Steve also has a lot of experience and credentials. He has completed a multitude of manfacturer training courses, including classes offered by Alfa Romeo, Audi, BMW, Daihatsu, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Peugot and Volkswagen. He has been a winner in BMW service knowledge competitions multiple times and has won BMW’s service management achievement award. Steve is a certified Audi quality inspector and is an Arizona automotive dealer emissions inspector.
Steve manages the administrative side of Sun Valley Imports, including marketing, as well as fills in as service adviser when needed. Jurgen manages the shop and the parts department and fills in as technician.
They estimate that 80 percent of their business comes through referrals. Steve says that’s the best kind of marketing. “We have accomplished this by nurturing and educating our customers, employing the best technicians, focusing on providing the absolute best possible customer service experience at the lowest possible price and giving customers a little something extra that is not expected.” And business has been good. But like most shop owners, they’d like for it to be better (see adjacent sidebar).
Educating their customers includes helping customers see and understand what’s happening. “Many years ago,” says Steve, “I noticed that when customers drop off their cars for service and decide to wait, they often take a walk around to the service bays to see what’s going on with their car. We started making it a practice to take the customer back to the service bay and point out where the failure was and what it would take to fix it. That wasn’t something that was common practice in those days, but we took it to one more level.
“And when we moved into our new building four years ago, we installed glass between the service bays and the waiting room, so that a customer can look into where the technicians are working and see what’s going on with their car. Many auto repair shops have beautiful waiting areas, but few have a view into their shop. As far as I know, we were the first in this area to offer that.”
It also makes for a great working environment, says Steve. “A business can’t have unprofessional employees when there’s a viewing window.”
How do his techs like the all-glass waiting room? “They love it,” says Steve, “because they never tire of getting comments like, ‘How great your shop looks!’ or ‘Wow, that’s the cleanest auto repair shop I’ve ever seen!’” Steve says you can see the pride and enjoyment comments such as these put on the techs’ faces. Also, he points out, the techs feel more of a connection with the car and the customer by seeing the customer come in and acknowledging them.
In addition, it helps keep customers from being in the shop during the repair because they can see what is going on through the window. “This is safer for the customer and keeps the techs more focused and productive,” says Steve.
Steve and Jurgen both believe in the importance of “giving a little something extra that is not expected.” For example, they train their technicians that when they are servicing someone’s car and a door is squeaking, put some oil on the door so it doesn’t squeak anymore. The vehicle may be there for something else, they tell their staff, but take time to do little things like that.
“That extra care is what’s going to make the experience beyond expectations,” says Steve. “It sounds so cliché, but that’s what customers want and that’s what sets us apart. Little things like that make a difference to customers.”
What’s ahead for Sun Valley Imports? “We want to increase our market share,” agree Steve and Jurgen.
Steve’s Advice on Growing Your Business
Asked to comment on his wish that business was better, Steve laughed and replied: “Doesn’t every owner say that, even when there is a line out the door?”
Steve says business is good, but not growing as rapidly as he and Jurgen would like. And he attributes that to a number of reasons.
“One factor has been the economy in general,” says Steve. “Customers are really watching their dollars. I think the economy is slowly improving, but customers are still very cautious.”
Steve points out that among other factors affecting business is the fact they specialize in European cars and most have maintenance and service packages that have been extended to five years or more and more than 50,000 miles. “We are seeing these cars later in their ‘life cycle’ and by then, many customers are already contemplating a new car,” says Steve. “Also, cars need less service and maintenance than they used to.”
Being the wise shop owner that he is, Steve recognizes that things have changed and he and Jurgen are doing everything they can to correct the situation.
“One thing we have done to combat these trends is to educate our customers on how much longer they can keep their current car with proper service and maintenance,” says Steve. “It’s not unusual to see 200,000 or more miles on these luxury models with only normal service and maintenance. For example, my car has more than 199,000 miles on it with no major unit repairs, like engine, transmission or differential.”
Also, says Steve, they have gotten more aggressive in their marketing. For example, they have hired 23 Kazoos, a marketing firm, to manage their marketing efforts.
“My advice to other shops facing a similar situation is to never get too comfortable in your position because things change; they always do,” concludes Steve. “Be proactive in obtaining new customers and never let a day pass without engaging in at least one marketing activity.” For example, Steve has had some fliers printed that advertise Sun Valley Imports and he leaves at least one in any business he visits.
Name of Shop: Sun Valley Imports
Location: Tempe, Ariz.
Square Footage of Shop: 6,125 square feet
Number of Employees: Six
Number of Repairs Weekly: About 30
Projected Annual Sales: $1 million
Website Address: www.SunValleyImports.com
Why They Are Members of ASA: “Because ASA is doing the much-needed job of protecting the interests of independent automotive service and repair shops.” – Steve Yacovone