Auto service businesses need to immerse themselves in technology as a way to improve their bottom line and their profits, according to Chris Cloutier, co-owner of Golden Rule Auto Care and founder of autoflow, a digital shop management provider in Rowlett, Texas.
He urges shop owners to consider how their customers live in 2018 — how they communicate today and how they conduct business using modern technologies.
"When was the last time your customer at their job was able to turn in a hand-written piece of paper to their boss? So we need to communicate with them in a way that they understand. The way the technology is today," he said during a seminar at the Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo last November.
"We're always talking about increasing productivity and efficiency with our technicians. That's what we want — productivity and efficiency. Why don't we think the same way about our shop?" he asked.
"When I text my customer updates throughout the day, am I saving conversations that I would have to have with them on the phone about, 'Hey, what's going on with my car?' Something that simple makes your shop more productive and more efficient because you want your guys at the front counter dealing with the customers walking through the door and selling."
He encouraged businesses to adopt workflow and communication technology sooner rather than later as a way to create a gap between themselves and their competitors.
Mr. Cloutier outline three degrees of shop technology adoption:
The majority of automotive service shops are in stage one — They have a website, they order parts online and they may offer online resources for their technicians.
Mr. Cloutier said a small business can be very profitable without technology — "Technology doesn't have anything to do with money right now." But the majority has been forced into technology (i.e. Facebook, cell phones, etc.) in recent years.
"We react. We're forced into this stage one," he said.
Website: There are still businesses without a website, he noted.
"I think for the majority, a website is very important. It's your little ship out on this thing we call the Internet. And there's a billion ships out there, so if you're not represented with your one little ship, you're lost," Mr. Cloutier said.
If a business doesn't have a website, it should still be aware of reviews on online sites, such as Yelp, Google and Facebook.
Even if a business owner doesn't acknowledge online reviews, they do happen, "whether you want it to or not," he said.
"Yelp is a fantastic place for us to drive leads to our business. We can't bury our heads in the sand anymore, even if we wanted to. I don't care if you have a website or not, your presence is out there. Your reputation is out there."
Mr. Cloutier said that nearly half of Golden Rule Auto Care's customers are generated from online referrals and reviews on Google, Yelp and Facebook. The next highest source is customer referral.
"These are people reading random notes about other people talking about your business. I don't hate it. I learn to accept it. I learn that I need to own it," he said.
He urged owners to obtain Google analytics reports to see what is driving business to their websites.
Online scheduling: "People like to schedule. They're busy…. You're selling a perception to your consumer — when you give them the ability to book online — that you're open for business. And that's what your consumer wants," he said.
But he warned that shops should never say they are too busy for walk-in customers.
"A customer doesn't care how busy you are," he said. "They want you to take care of their needs right now, right then. I'm not saying you can't schedule out, that you can't ask for a drop-off, but you can't tell them you're busy. They don't care. They're busy, too.
"So online scheduling shows that, 'Hey, you're open. Hey, come schedule. Come give us some time.' "
Online parts ordering: Time is wasted calling three or more vendors for prices on parts, Mr. Cloutier said, so online ordering speeds up the whole process. All parts vendors have websites where a business can set up an account, he said.
Online resources for technicians: "You should be giving your techs access to these tools (Indentifix, Mitchell 1, Alldata, Google etc.). These tools should be in their toolbox.… If you don't have tablets in your bays, get tablets for your bays," he said.
Tablets are an important tool because the techs have on-the-spot access when they need to solve a problem. He admitted that sometimes Google is the best resource for a technician to solve a problem.
A minority of auto repair businesses have adopted additional technology tools and strategies, he said.
Real-time consumer communication: Providing vehicle service status updates via text message is quicker and easier and cuts down on phone calls. Mr. Cloutier surmised that about half of the inbound phone calls to a repair shop involve customers asking for a status on their vehicle service.
"You could cut out 50 to 60 percent of your phone time just by texting your customer," he said, adding, "Texting is how people want to be communicated with these days. Ninety percent of people read a text message within the first three minutes of receiving it. That's powerful."
He suggested that a shop have a dedicated cell phone number with two-way communication ability so that employees can respond quickly to customers' text messages.
"If you don't respond to text messages, people are going to stop texting you, and then it becomes a dead way of communicating in your shop."
Online tool kits: These provide key performance indicators to help an owner understand the health of the business and enable sharing of information online with other people in the industry.
"I say 'online' because I think as an industry we should collaborate a lot more. I'm not saying that we should all share numbers,…but I think if you're not part of a Twenty Group or some other type of collaborative group where you're sharing ideas and you're sharing numbers, then I think you're missing out...," Mr. Cloutier said.
Automated workflow: "If you're not managing your workflow, then you're going to lose cars."
He said such programs can track the workflow in the shop and the status of jobs at any given time during the day.
Everyone in the shop should know where everything is and the job statuses, he said, and customers should be getting notifications on what is going on with their vehicles and the status of the service.
"So make sure you're managing, you're automating your workflow. A lot of times this is done on a whiteboard…. I prefer technology. Technology is fast."
Automated follow-ups: This involves texting or emailing "thank you" notes and coupons and asking for reviews.
"My only warning here is to make sure you're not spamming your customer. You can talk to your customer, you can email your customer, you can text your customer. It's OK. Once you start overdoing it, your customer is going to hate you," he said.
He noted that shops should only occasionally send follow-up messages or coupons.
"You have to be careful about how and what you choose to send your customers."
Digital vehicle inspection: When technicians use digital tablets loaded with repair resources (like Identifix), a digital inspection enables efficiency over paper forms and a better customer experience.
"When was the last time that your customer was able to hand in a handwritten piece of paper to their boss? And here you are handing (a paper inspection report) to them…. Communicate at the level that they want to be communicated with," Mr. Cloutier said.
By texting a customer a digital inspection report, the shop is able to increase service sales.
He explained that customers are conditioned to immediately say "no" when salespeople in a store ask them if they need help.
In the digital sales process, the shop inspects the vehicle, writes up the services that are needed, then sends a text message to the customer with the digital inspection, along with photos and video.
"I gave them all the information. I let them digest it. I gave them time to consume it. And then they get to decide, putting it back in the consumer's hands," he said.
About 1 percent of repair shops are considered very early adopters of new technology, he said. These technologies include:
Digital work order: The program is able to send a work order to a technician's tablet, mark what was good on the vehicle and send a video or photo of the repaired parts to the customer.
Customers sitting in their offices may not be able to take a phone call, but they can get all the information they ever wanted through the shop's text message, he said.
"This is the way they communicate and we need to communicate with them at this level," Mr. Cloutier said.
Automated customer rewards: This is a way to reward the occasional customer who provides a referral, and it improves the customer experience, he said.
The customer who comes in three or four times a year for an oil change may be a better customer than the one who spends a lot of money, because he may be referring others to your shop, Mr. Cloutier said.
"You're giving the guy who spends a lot of money a year, you're probably washing his car or doing something nice for him….But the person who referred you customers, you may not be tracking that….it would be nice if you did recognize them and appreciate them."
There is a lot of software that allows businesses to track customer relationships but not necessarily customer-to-customer relationships, he noted.
Digital vehicle quality control: Before the customer gets the car back, a follow-up inspection of the vehicle will spot any oversights, such as a cap left off or a tool left inside.
"You can trust a tech to fix the vehicle but someone else should be looking over the vehicle other than the technician — another set of eyes for possible mistakes," he said.
A software solution doesn't exist yet but a form can be created in Google Docs to track each month's quality control problems that were found and how often, he said.
Cloud-based SMS (shop management system): By using a cloud-based system for data storage, businesses can avoid the impact of ransomware and hackers on their office computer systems.
When a business has a cloud-based shop management system, it can reinstall an operating system if a company desktop/laptop gets encrypted with ransomware or a virus that locks up all the files, Mr. Cloutier said.
He encouraged businesses to keep backups of files offsite every night. Putting them in the cloud allows a business to leverage technology with the data there and use it anywhere.
"Wherever I go I can pull up my shop management system. I can pull up my workflow. I can pull up my digital inspections," he said.
Online customer receipts: "Why are we printing out receipts? Why are we printing out any paper?" he asked, noting that by emailing receipts and keeping a digital copy, a shop doesn't have to ask a customer for a paper invoice the next time they come in.
Virtual training: There is still a lot of growth that needs to happen in learning management systems (LMS) that would include 3D animation, virtual reality and augmented reality, Mr. Cloutier said.
He said he believes this type of training would be ideal for automotive technicians, who have a penchant for learning by touching and doing.
This platform would allow technicians to sit at a computer or put on 3D glasses and take vehicle parts apart and put them back together in a gamified situation, he said.
This type of learning would improve employees' knowledge and it would help the business by not having to send employees away for training, he said.
Telematics/connected car: Another technology, still in development, would provide repair shops with a level of connectivity to customers they've never had before, according to Mr. Cloutier.
"How cool would it be, as an independent auto repair shop owner, to say, 'Mr. Jones I've fixed your car. We have diagnosed your car. We solved the three check engine lights, we put new lights in....,'" he said, noting that a shop would be able to track what is happening with a customer's vehicle, conduct remote diagnostics and build trust with the customer.