Great Garages – Times are Changing

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Service garages today fall into two basic classes: the dealership and the independent. 

The dealerships keep the sales floor full of new vehicles for sale and a service writer between you and the tech that does the actual work on your car or truck.  As a matter of fact, most independent garages work much the same way, they just don’t have the showroom full of new cars to distract you with.  Many of us who have given up on the dealership to service our car just learn to put up with the metal buildings and sounds and smells of the service bays.  It is part of the experience.

This automotive service center has made the investment to change all that. 

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I talked to Lisa and Don Frantz, the owners and operators.  They saw that the customer was changing and that meant that the way the service garage looked along with the customer experience needed to change as well. 

A few years ago vehicles were brought in for service primarily by men.  It didn’t seem to be an issue how the waiting area looked or even the outside of the building.  It was all about the relationship and could the mechanic fix the car. 

Today more than sixty percent of the cars are brought in by women and usually they have children along with them.  The customer relationship still matters, but now that relationship includes the image and impression of the shop itself.  It needs to look good and be clean and neat inside and out.  It needs to have character.

This reminds me a lot of the change the Penske style of race team management had on motor sports when he showed up at races with polished cars and organized pits.

Frankly I like this shop.  It presents a great character and image on the outside and this continues as you move into the reception area and waiting room.  Many service garages look pretty stark in the waiting area and, as a customer, you often feel like the fact that you are waiting there is an inconvenience.  The seating is usually worn, uncomfortable, and limited.  The lighting is poor and you have a choice of drinking burned coffee or watching Jerry Springer on a TV that is in need of degaussing.

By contrast the Frantz service center has a well lighted and clean waiting/reception area that allows you to feel like a special guest and that is the way it should be.  You are treated like you are valued and so is your car.

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I was very impressed that Don and Lisa made the substantial investment that they did.  They recognized that the future of this service industry is changing and they are at the forefront.

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This entry was posted in Automobiles, Care and Feeding, Cars, Garages, Life and Cars, Servicing Cars. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Great Garages – Times are Changing

  1. markitude says:

    Jim,

    Fantastic post. I agree with your analysis. The last pic was the most convincing – it was more than facade, it was thematic, so much so that it seem evocative of a 50’s soda shop. That made me wonder if you could build a larger shop as a fusion of several businesses. Perhaps some nostalgic 50’s / 60’s soda shop / cafe that could function as a stand alone business and ran perhaps late hours. Think Gypsy’s shiny diner, but done better and bigger. Add in some other activities beyond the service – maybe an aftermarket shop, with a better selection that the dealership aftermarket store stuffed with hats, T shirts, chrome do-dads and floor mats.

    The auto repair might be the core business hub, but what are the ancilliary opportunities? Shuttle service, car & truck rentals, aftermarket parts, driver education (especially if it were a race inspired shop)? Co-located food and entertainment. Who knows what else?

  2. Noel says:

    Great observations, but there’s a big “it depends” issue here. As in, it depends on what’s important: window dressing or service quality. And what a given market is like. The market has a lot to do with it.

    The place in New Jersey – Swedish Connection – I where I bought my daily driver was squeaky clean inside and out. They do great work on Saabs and Volvos and have a great following. The customer waiting area would be the envy of many dealerships. Great place and great people, catering to upscale customers in a tony suburb about 12 miles from Manhattan.

    Then there’s Saabworks in semi-rural Milford, NH where I take my Saab (and my daughter’s) for work I don’t want to or can’t do. (My wife’s 9-5 wagon still goes to the dealer since it’s under warranty). The waiting area in this hole-in-the-wall wooden garage was a couple of chairs next to the same desk where ROs were written up and you paid for your work. The parking lot was unpaved. But work coming out of the shop was top quality and priced fairly. They recently tore down the old building, paved the lot, and upgraded to a nice new steel frame building with more room inside and a waiting area with a TV and nice chairs, but most people just drop their car off and pick it up later. It’s still low profile, the decor minimal and the work quality as good as ever. Saabworks does only Saabs, doesn’t advertise, is always busy, and has lots of loyal customers (I’ve gone there for 12 years). How does he stay in business servicing only one make? “We’re in Saab country,” the owner says. “I can specialize and be a known source for Saab repair and doing quality, honest work.” There are plenty of competitors, but he has customers coming to his hole-in-the-wall from 40+ miles away. And that’s 40 miles of 2-lane rural roads.

    Sure, it’s nice to go to a shop that’s fancy, but while decor is nice, the quality of work and the knowledge of the techs is much more important. The bells and whistles don’t make my car run any better and it effectively adds to a shop’s overhead–which you pay for.
    But your car is oblivious to it. Sure, it adds image, and as a marketing guy I appreciate that, but whether that image brings a real return on investment to the business owner is another matter.

    For an all-makes-and-models general repair joint turning up the bling may be a good differentiator in a competitive market, and for franchised places like Jiffy Lube or Midas in urban or cookie-cutter suburbs having soccer-mom friendly places is important, since many people wait for their car at those shops. But overall, a car repair shop doesn’t have to be Disney World.

  3. jimsgarage says:

    Agreed Noel, a pretty face won’t make up for incompetence. I believe that you and I grew up over a period of time that taught us the value of substance over the superficial. All the clowns and plastic slides in the world don’t make a fast food burger joint’s food taste better or provide meaningful nutrition.

    The reason I highlighted this garage in particular was that they were successful prior to the makeover. They have been in business over twenty years and Lisa is one of the top technicians in the shop. This comes in handy when the women customers come in with questions and concerns. Let’s face it, most of these establishments treat women as “poor little ignorant things” at best and at worst, take unethical advantage of them.

    I think that the Frantz’s have raised the bar as high as it should be. It is not just a façade but a reflection of their attitude toward their customers. In the end the results will filter the competent from the pretenders.

  4. Noel says:

    I think their approach absolutely works for some markets, and treating female customers well is high on the “must do” list these days. I know my wife or daughter will be treated well at Saabworks and that’s important to us.

    Of course, it IS always nice to go to an attractive shop, and in most suburban and urban settings I do think it can give a shop an edge, provided they are also competent and honest. It probably helps them compete with the franchised joints that are expanding the range of things they do from specialties (tires, oil changes, mufflers) to more general repair.

    Since we kinda live out in the sticks, we’ve found that convenience also influences what you buy/drive. Since my wife and I both work at home, we don’t commute, so getting a car serviced is much more than dropping it off on the way to the office. The local garage in our town is good and is a mile away. The Saab guys are 7 miles and can be trusted, as opposed to the Saab dealer, 9 miles in the opposite direction, who can’t. There are lots of indy shops around, some good, some not so, like anywhere. The dealers of any of the non-Saab cars I’d actually buy (Audi, BMW, maybe Nissan) are not far, 15-20 miles, but too inconvenient for service, and I don’t know which indies do a good job on those makes. Since there are, IMHO, maybe 6 reputable and honest car dealers in the United States, and I don’t know where they are, I prefer to use an indy who actually cares about whether I leave the place satisfied.

    And if they have some bling with their layout, all the better. It just won’t necessarily get me in the door.

    I think an interesting issue is whether people with imported cars are better taking their cars to a shop that specializes in the make or a general shop. It does depend on the repair, but with electronics these days there’s a lot to be said for going to a specialist.

  5. markitude says:

    There seem to be several points coming out of this discussion.

    1) How an Indy positions their shop vs the dealer. How do you build a business? Yes, those 20 years in business success stories, with loyaly followings are great to point out, but they exist because of something that was done. Did what brought people in the door in the first place change over time?

    2) The future of the repair business. What are the impacts of dealer expansion, large franchise consolidations, and expansion into broader lines of work, and of course, the emergence of new players such as AAA (now doing repairs in addition to selling maps and travel insurance / roadside asistance). Looking ahead, we consider the opportunities for new specializations – hybrids coming off warranty, fuel retrofits (assumptive that E85 really became viable). A depending on new legislations, maybe retrofitting nostalgic cars to continue to be legally operable in the future.

    3) Redefining the focus. The repair experience vs the repair itself. There are other theme parks with rides – it’s not the rides that bring people to disney. It’s the experience itself. Call it hype, and I would agree to a point, but under it, there are defineable things done. Disney has “cast members” instead of employees, and as such their approach to jobs is different than elsewhere. So, given competance of the repair, how can one create a differentiable experience? Sometimes, the experience is based on character, and knowlege not found elsewhere – Smokey Yunick – “best damn garage in “, so the sign said. From the pictures I’ve seen, it was a dirty shop.

    4) The target customer demographic. I think some people who are mechanically inclined and do work on the cars themselves, actually feel better doing business with a small shop that operates out of a steel building. The shop could be dirty, but full of tools, and staffed with mechanics that will talk directly with the customer. Other customers want the clean, polished, and instituitional experience believing that they are receiving higher quality. Ultimately, perhaps the image of the shop attracts different kinds of people – it’s an image and experience they get comfortable with – what fits them.

  6. Noel says:

    Markitude,

    Great thoughts and yes, to all of them. Which is why I say it varies a lot by market area. So there is – theoretically at least – a place for everyone with a car to have it repaired and have a good repair and a good “repair experience.” S ome need or want bling, others don’t care. As long as the car is done right, everything’s good.

    Me, I just want the work done right the first time and at a fair price. I want to be able to talk to the techs or business owner and understand what they did and why. I want them to realize that I know enough that they can’t hand me a line of BS. I expect them to call me and tell me about something I should do while they are doing what I asked for, because I trust their judgment. The local stealer will do that, but since I don’t trust him as far as I can hand roll a tow truck, I question what he does and says. When my indy calls and says I was doing X and you really ought to do Y and I can do it while I’m in there, I just say go for it. Trust. This is the same guy who asked me if I thought he should raise his rate by $5/hour. Yes, I said, because he deserves to get more for his expertise and (self-serving) because I want to be sure he stays in business.

    But some shops and dealers add to the experience by calling you afterwards to ask you if everything was OK. And when you say “no,” and explain, all they can do is tell you to call service in the morning–but when you do, service never has any knowledge that there was a problem. Like when the idiots at the Saab store only did half of what they promised they’d do, or when they put in the wrong oil. Both took in person visits to sort out.

    Which is the kind of thing my indy uses to his advantage. He says his best business generator is what the dealer does wrong.

  7. Buddy says:

    You can never really tell what kind of service you are going to get when you go to a garage for the first time, be it a clean”blingy” garage or a dirty old tin shed along the side of the road. Like Noel says it all comes from trust. I say get a whole bunch of testimonials from customers before you go to any garage and talk to the people personally before you fork over any cash for work. An actual persons testimony will say a lot about the company.

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