AKRON — Friendly, personal service has an enduring but undervalued quality in any retail business.
This is particularly pertinent to automotive service providers of all stripes.
This column is yet another case history of a lone, family-run operation that's capitalizing on warm, old-fashioned service — competing successfully in the face of fierce local competition.
A colleague of mine, who I'll call Mr. T, has owned and operated a gas station in the suburbs of an eastern city for 35 years. The facility began as a traditional, full-service service station.
Like those facilities I remember from the late 1960s, this one looks neat and tidy. Some consumers associate heavy automotive repairs with some kind of greasy, shabby-looking garage. Mr. T's crew performs the entire gamut of maintenance and repairs. But in spite of that, this site always looks professional.
I'd go so far as to describe this business' image as an appealing or inviting establishment — as opposed to threatening or intimidating.
The competition for gasoline sales has increased steadily within the last 20 years. The price wars among gasoline retailers in Mr. T's market have taken a toll on his location's fuel sales. Fortunately, he saw the handwriting on the wall and prioritized service sales. Mr. T realized that a percentage of the motoring public would always value first-class maintenance and repairs offered by familiar, friendly faces.
Mr. T developed this approach so well that gradually gasoline sales became incidental to the repair side of the business. Pumping a relatively low volume of fuel became almost a value-added aspect of his service station.
On the one hand, Mr. T has cultivated a loyal following from all age groups. However, the bigger surprise is growth among motorists who are old enough to remember the glory days of full-service gas stations. More and more baby-boomers and retirees are coming in solely because their peers tell them that Mr. T's guys still do things the old-fashioned way. This includes pumping fuel and checking fluid levels.
“Old-fashioned” means routinely inspecting the wiper blades and visually checking the tires for obvious signs of wear or under inflation. This means cleaning windows. The older consumers, he told me, repeatedly cite these steps as signs of legitimate concern for their well-being. Motorists believe that his guys really care about them.
Mr. T emphasized that another trend has reinforced the value of old-fashioned service to him. Many older folks — especially women — repeatedly offer to pay his staff for performing these checks that used to be standard procedure at full-service gas stations. These motorists are telling him that they no longer have the patience or ability to check things themselves. Perhaps they never did.
Ultimately, these simple kindnesses are generating more maintenance and service work, Mr. T said. When these vehicles need the state-mandated safety and emissions inspection, his shop gets the business. What's more, the car owners often say to his crew: “We trust you, take care of what the car needs.”
Sooner or later, every vehicle needs maintenance and/or repairs — regardless of the age of the owner. What's more, the marketplace offers them zillions of choices in auto service providers. You can only hope they'll choose your facility over your competitor's place.
Think about the investment automotive service providers spend trying to attract every possible prospect. Mr. T is attracting extra business — worthwhile customers — with just several minutes of personal attention per car. I call that a big return on investment, don't you?
Surely, Mr. T isn't the only boss out there who capitalizes on friendly, personal service. By all means, tell me about your favorite examples of this effective approach and how customers like it.
Dan Marinucci is a free-lance automotive service writer and former editor of two automotive service magazines who writes a regular auto service column for Tire Business. He can be reached via email at [email protected]. His previous columns are available at www.tirebusiness.com.