Aftermarket magazine’s anniversary

Published:  14 September, 2017

It’s 25 years since Aftermarket was first published. Here we look back at the history of the magazine, and the sector

The automotive sector has changed a great deal since Aftermarket started in 1992. Most of the vehicles that would have been coming through the doors of the average garage 25 years ago are long gone, and some of the companies that made those cars have also gone too.

In 1992, the Rover Metro was still very much in production. Due to the legislative environment of the time, most of the Metros being seen in the aftermarket would have still been under the Austin marque. Rover finally went under in 2005, and the Metro has gone from being one of the most common cars on the road to being a rarer sight than a Morris Minor. Other cars and brands have come and gone during the period All these changes had an impact on the aftermarket as specialists in particular brands would need to re-focus their businesses to reflect the new reality.

Most of the other mainstream manufacturers of the time are still with us. Many of the vehicle names from brands like Nissan and VW still around too, like the Micra, Golf and Polo. The actual cars are quite different though.


Diesel decades
Over the years the magazine covered the changing face of the car parc, and the shift in the innards too. In 1992, diesel cars were still relatively unusual in the UK, but within a decade they had become as popular as petrol engine vehicles. Aftermarket tracked the rise of diesel, and helped readers get to grips with the technology. Many technical articles over the years were dedicated to explaining how to understand and fix problems in diesel engine vehicles. Over the last few years the magazine has been tracking its travails too following Dieselgate. Today we cover the ever-increasing complexity of diesel engine vehicles as much as we look at what might ultimately replace them.


Part of the process
Then there’s the advance of vehicle electronics. This was a growing area in the early 1990s, and it’s a growing area now. The progress from single ECUs on the more advanced vehicles to the situation today where even the most basic cars are fully equipped with a host of systems has been dizzying. The magazine has been on hand to provide advice and expert opinion from a range of sources.

The make up of parts has changed too, mostly for the better.  Until 1999, asbestos was commonly used as friction material in clutches, automatic transmission and brake linings, and gaskets. The use of asbestos in these parts was banned from 1999. There was an exception for pre-1973 vehicles, which allowed these vehicles to continue to be fitted with brake shoes containing asbestos right up until 2004.


BER
Of course, probably the biggest change came through the 2002 Block Exemption Regulation (BER) that allowed independents to work on new cars without invalidating the warranty. This came into force in October 2003. Aftermarket was fully behind the campaign to get this change made for the benefit of consumers and the industry alike. Once in law, the magazine continued to back efforts by the industry to make sure businesses and motorists were able to exercise their rights freely. The Right to Repair campaign and similar activities received strong support from the magazine through the 00s and beyond as a result.

These are just a few of the broad trends. Every year would have seen a thousand stories told about the sector. Aftermarket was the messenger bringing them to the readers.


The founder of the feast
Aftermarket was founded by Bob Sockl in 1992. Let’s examine how it all began...

Sometimes a decision can be made by someone else that affects you in an extraordinary way. Losing your job can be a springboard to do something wonderful with your life. Of course it doesn't feel like that at the time, but why let that get in the way of a good story? After all, Aftermarket magazine owes its existence to a redundancy. Bob had worked his way up the media ladder over the years. By the early 1990s  he was in a senior role at publishing company Morgan Grampian. As publishing director on a number of titles covering the automotive sector, he had what appeared to be a good seat at the metaphorical table. Big job, big company, and hopefully big money. Sounds great doesn't it? Sadly nothing lasts forever, and with the UK economy tanking as the 1990s began, no one was immune from the threat of redundancy.

Some readers may shudder when they remember the recession Britain experienced at the start of that decade. Many people found themselves suddenly out of work in what was a bleak and at times particularly nasty economic period. Sadly publishing directors were no exception: "I got made redundant from Morgan Grampian where I had been in charge of Transport Week and Auto Trade."


New title
Bob, not being the sort to take things lying down, dusted himself off and examined his options: "I looked at the situation, and knowing the people I knew from my time at Morgan Grampian I thought I could put together a team, and start a new title.

"We quickly put together an aftermarket-knowledgeable team, and we created a replacement for the old Auto Trade magazine, where I had been publishing director. We created the new magazine. When it was first launched in 1992, it was called Garage and Bodyshop Products (GBP). That name lasted about 18 months, and then we decided to change it to Aftermarket. While the name did shift, the concept was solid: "The magazine was very quickly established in the market with the highest audited circulation of all the sector publications, over 30,000 copies a month."


Great relationships
While a few things changed, many of the elements that made Aftermarket a success were there from the beginning: "We had a lot of support from top aftermarket suppliers, people like Luk/Schaeffler, people like Ferodo and Mintex on the braking side, We had a great relationship with NGK which still goes on between the company and the magazine.

The team behind the title was vital to the success of Aftermarket over the years: "We had a very good team that worked well together. We were respected for the knowledge we had of the market we were serving. Over the years, there was an average of 11 people on the title. On the editorial side there was generally four permanent staff, and some contributors as there are now.
Sales wise we had three people, then accounts and yours truly who stuck his nose into every division there was.

"We were able to act as a sounding board for what people wanted to do, as the market changed we changed with it. I think the strength of any publication is its knowledge of the industry it is serving. This can be used as a source of information for new companies coming in. They can look at what's available in the market already, they can listen to conversations and this enables them to come up with a strategy.

"Publishers are very often the holders of bulk information. You don't have to find a consultant – you can find someone who's been in the industry for some considerable time at a magazine and ask them. The publishing business is a broad spectrum information source, and you can get a lot of information from publications covering any sector.”


Strength
While the title adapted with the times, it did not fundamentally change according to Bob:"Part of the strength of the brand was it didn't change in any great way. It was designed to be the number one information source in the industry. That's what we set out to create and that's what it became. We knew what we were talking about.” While the Aftermarket ethos remained stable, publishing changed dramatically as the 1990s became the 2000s and the internet rose to prominence:

"I think the one thing that is worth commenting on is the general change in business-to-business publishing, because we were very much a magazine with a website. Meanwhile, people were beginning to spend more and more of their marketing budget online which meant that the magazines in the marketplace weren't picking up the revenues they had been, so they had a change of direction. That meant we were working online too, hence the launch of aftermarketnetwork.com, now aftermarketonline.net."

There was more to Aftermarket than just a magazine though: "We also had the great benefit of course of also having a wide knowledge of the exhibitions business.

We were working with the SMMT as sales and marketing consultant for the Automotive Trade Show. It was rather like Automechanika, although without the German spelling."

Ultimately, the time came in 2015 when Bob retired and the magazine was sold to DFA Media. Looking back on what he created and the many years overseeing his magazine, Bob observed: "We were around for a great number of years. It became an established title. We clearly had a pretty successful formula which was consistent and we were good at what we did. We achieved our ambition, which was to become the number one book in the marketplace."


Wisdom
Aftermarket is very proud to work with a number of expert contributors who have shared their wisdom with the readership over the years.

One such contributor is business guru Neil Pattemore: "25 years ago, I was running a European diagnostics business that was one of the advertisers who supported the first edition of Aftermarket, in what was then a bound product card format magazine”.

“Over the intervening years, the magazine has grown to be one of the most respected sector publications and more recently, as an aftermarket business expert with a deep involvement in aftermarket related legislation, I have become a regular contributor. My direct involvement was to help readers understand and address the changing aftermarket sector as vehicle technology became ever more complicated, allied to increasing demands that not only focused on repairing vehicles, but also in how to run their businesses in an increasingly competitive and legislatively influenced environment. This was further supported by the creation of 'Top Technician' that recognises the best technicians in the country. "In the next 25 years, these challenges are likely to become even more important and therefore Aftermarket remains an important source of news, product information and business support – so maybe nothing has changed!"


A new chapter
In 2015 Aftermarket was bought by business-to-business publishers DFA Media, and a new chapter in the history of the magazine was opened. Commenting on the decision to buy the title, publishing director Ian Atkinson said: “It was an opportunity too good to pass up on. We were aware of the reputation the magazine and the owners who launched Aftermarket had built up over the previous 25 years. “We relished the opportunity to take on this mantle and work in such an important and thriving sector of British industry.”
    

According to Ian, the company is very pleased to be able to include Aftermarket in its stable of publications: “As well as having areas of crossover with our other titles, for example compressed air within our magazine Hydraulics and Pneumatics,  it is also fantastic to branch out into new areas.”


Watch this space
On plans for the magazine going forward, Ian observed: “I’m tempted to say ‘watch this space!’  Firstly, it will to continue to be the leading source of information for the automotive aftermarket sector but also to develop new, faster and better ways of regularly communicating with our readers. Also, going forward we see Aftermarket as a vehicle to help garages with hands on practical help in a greater way through workshops for example. Some form of ‘live’ version of Aftermarket is an obvious goal
as well.”
 

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  • Hello can we talk? 

    I have been known to say that “Communication is a wonderful thing." Usually the context of this statement is that there has not been good communication and it has resulted in one or both of us missing something or being agitated with one another for not communicating well to the other what was intended.
        
    Probably sounds familiar to many of you, but in the business context it is vitally important that you can communicate with your customers in a way that conveys professionalism and instils both confidence and trust. This is ever-more difficult against a background of increasing vehicle technology and decreasing levels of technical understanding from your customers.
        
    At its most fundamental level, effective communication is the exchange of thoughts, information, ideas, and messages between people. However, it’s not communication unless the transmission is understood. Communication can happen verbally, nonverbally, in writing, and through behaviour as well as by listening and using feedback.
        
    No matter who or what audience you address, the art of communication can be a daunting task – as indeed, it is an art form. The good news is that there are seven steps to clear and effective communication for even the most challenging conversations with customers when trying to explain what is wrong with their vehicle.

    Strategies
    So how can you communicate effectively in this increasing technical environment? One of the best ways is to imagine that you are talking to your grandmother – she may be a little slow to understand, is very non-technical and is going a little deaf!
        
    Keep it simple: Think about how you can make the complicated simple. Do not use highly technical terms or technical abbreviations and explain slowly and clearly. A good example would not be to say: "Sorry, but your EGR valve is blocked by carbon build up on the pintle needle so now it can’t control the correct NOx requirements." Instead, say: "There is a valve on your vehicle’s engine which is required to control exhaust emissions and it is not working correctly." If the customer wants to know more you could always add: "Because it is blocked by carbon build up from the exhaust system, as it recycles exhaust gasses to reduce the exhaust emissions."

    Simples! – as they say.
        
    Does it make sense? Always ask yourself; Does what I’m saying make sense to the person I am speaking to and subsequently does the feedback I’m receiving confirm that they have understood?. When both parties in the conversation are truly able to say they understand or that it is all clear  effective communication has been achieved.
        
    Failure to Communicate – it’s down to you: Remember, as the primary communicator you are 100% responsible for the other person’s understanding of the communication. In other words, if you don’t feel that you are being understood, you have not completed the job of communicating. Don’t try to change what you are trying to communicate, but how you are communicating it.
        
    Stay on Message: Be clear about what ideas you are trying to express or the message you are trying to convey to the other person. What do you most want them to understand?
        
    It takes two: Try to really understand where others are coming from. What are they trying to say? What messages are they trying to get across to you? Pay special attention not just to what they are saying, but to what isn’t being said as well as their body language. Finally, if in doubt – ask!
        
    Sorry, what did you say? Do you really hear what others are saying? To really listen you should stop everything else that you are doing and really listen to what is being said to you. You should then summarise your understanding by being able to feed back to them exactly what you have understood them to have said. Good communication is a two-way thing.
        
    Respect: Recognise that your message is not just about you or what you want. It’s about what’s in it for the listener.  You must mutually understand what is being said and the corresponding implications. After all, they took the time and trouble to hear what you have to say, so it’s equally important to recognise and respect that we each have different perspectives based on our positions, motivations, and needs.
        
    Good communication for technically difficult aspects is a combination of both ‘what you say and how you say it’. In summary, keep it simple, keep it short, be a good listener and be both respectful and empathetic. Above all, avoid being condescending.

    In writing
    When communicating in writing, ensure that you are concise, that you write clearly about the specific point and consider that if you were in the recipient’s position, would they understand what you have written, especially in all the points that they need to know from you. Your audience doesn't want to read six sentences when you could communicate your message in three. Read what you have written and delete any words that are not needed to clearly explain what you need to say. Less is more, as long as you include everything you need to say.
        
    Effective written communication ensures that the audience has everything they need to be informed about, and if applicable, take action. If your message does include a 'call to action', does your audience clearly know what you need them to do?

    Good example
    As an example of good communication, I use a local independent workshop and Keith, the manager, is the epitome of how it should be done. It goes something like: "Hello Neil, your car is in today for a full service, so we will need it until around 2 o’clock. Can I have the key please? Is this mobile number the best to use so we can call you if I have any questions or to let you know when it is ready and finally is there anything else you would like us to know about that we may need to look at today?" Followed by my reply: "Great Keith, no, nothing else, so many thanks and see you later."
        
    Quick, polite and concise. When I pick my car up, he uses similarly simple and clear language to explain what was done, advice on any other issues they noticed before explaining the invoice, asking if everything is clear or are there any questions before requesting payment. Importantly, Keith never tries to baffle his customers with technical terms and avoids being condescending – important points in the key areas of creating professionalism, confidence and trust in this increasingly technical environment. It is a bit like your grandmother saying that the simple things in life are often the best and this applies to good communication when talking technical.  

    xenconsultancy.com

  • Niche work if you can get it 

    It's been a while since Aftermarket has been over to CAT Automotive. They sound out the letters you know - C.A.T. –  It is an acronym, Clive Atthowe Tuning.  The personality of the owner is stamped as firmly on the business as his name.  
    "We are specialists, mainly German cars but Volkswagen is our bigger market," explained Clive. Another side is classic cars: "Classic cars are something I've always done, probably because I am a classic age. It is quite a big part of our business. I was brought up with carburettors and have progressed right through to modern vehicles. We also do a lot of tuning and a lot of modification and remapping, I just remapped a car this morning."
     
    It is a mixed bag, but all highly specialised, as Clive observed: "We do a lot of what you could call niche work I suppose."
    It's a bit more than basic servicing and repairs, but as a previous Top Technician winner, you know he is going to know his stuff.  Clive certainly has the chops, but he had a pretty good grounding early on: "I started in an old fashioned dealership. It had been Talbot and Hillman, and I was working on Hillman Imps, Avengers and Hunters. They changed franchise after a year and became Datsun. That was pre-Nissan. I was  working on Datsun 240Zs 280Cs, Sunnys, Cherrys all the early stuff. I did a five year apprenticeship there which was excellent. We learned to do our own machining, cut our own valves, using lathes, make special tools. It was a very good background. We used to do a lot of classic car restoration there as well.

    "I had a very good background in those first five years. I briefly spent two years prepping used cars for a major car sales site, which again was everything from Minis to Rolls-Royces.  After that I started my own business."

    For those who don't recall, CAT Automotive  first opened its doors in 1982: "I started by tuning cars, in the old traditional Crypton tuning ways. Financially it was quite tough at the beginning, so it was lucky my wife Jean had a very good job. The early 1980s was a terrible time to start a business actually.  Everybody said I was mad to start a business then, but I come from a family of self employed people and business owners. My father had  a very successful restoration business in the building trade. It is still running now, my brother runs it. It is a background of self motivation I suppose.

    "Our original garage was an old fashioned dual-lubrication service bay that had been a filling station, if you can imagine that. We ran in there for 11 years. The tuning side of the business was flying, and I had always had a big interest in modifying cars and rolling road. I ended up buying a second hand two-wheel drive rolling road, but had nowhere to put it. We applied for planning permission to build a new workshop on the site but it all fell through after two years, when the landlord wouldn't give us what we wanted for the lease. So we scouted around and found where we are now, which was pretty much an empty shell and we converted that into a new workshop where we could put a rolling road in. That shows how the business changed over the years."

    Workshop
    Today, CAT Automotive operates out of a 2,000 sq2 workshop with two ramps. About a third of the space is taken up by a sound-proof airflow cell where Clive keeps his pride and joy; A four wheel drive dyno: "The rolling road is something we have been involved in for 27 years. We started with a two-wheel drive, then four wheel drive, then we built this custom set-up about 12 years ago. As a result of having it we do a lot of classic race cars particularly, and that type of work.

    "I just put the phone down a few minutes ago after speaking to a customer who just bought a MGC  that he is now going to race. We are not too sure what has been done to it, it has triple webers and cams in it. He is  bringing it in the week after next for a check on the dyno  to see what he has actually bought and what it is like. There is also a Jaguar race team we do a lot with that has E-types. That is the type of thing we get. We do get ordinary classic road cars as well, but we do a lot of race stuff.”

    Specialist
    It is one of many niches that CAT Automotive excels within. The business is also a German car specialist, leaning particularly strongly towards the VW group: "Equipment-wise, we have in the last few years gone down the dealer tooling route. We use the Volkswagen/Audi dealer tool. We also have the dealer tool for BMW.

    "We used to be a Bosch Car Service Agent. We started off in the 1990s as a Jet-Tronic agent, if anyone can remember that. Then we came out of it and went back into it with Bosch Car Service. We left that about two years ago now. We are totally independent again. However we still use Bosch equipment, such as Bosch KTS. We have also got a raft of other dealer tools which we probably don't use very much now because we have tried to guide the business down a Volkswagen/Audi route. Over the last  two and a half to three years we have chosen to specialise, we thought that was a better route to follow.

    As you might imagine, Clive is not alone all day in the workshop. Along with his wife Jean providing part-time front-of-house services, Clive also has back-up in the form of 26 year old technician Dale: "He has been with me about six years now, " explained Clive, I trained him from scratch."

    The team was not always quite so bijou though: "At one point there was four of us, including me. In the last four to five years, one key member of staff left and started his own business. We never replaced him, we just carried on. We were quite happy to do that."

    The skills shortage is the problem:  "I have looked around to try and find a technician who is skilled enough to come straight into the business, but I have not found one yet. So instead I have just run it very lean.
    "The skills gap seems to get wider every year. We do quite a lot of work for other garages and also quite a lot of bodyshop programming on their cars. The standards of work we see coming through the door is quite shocking really."

    Top Technician
    Speaking of standards, as we mentioned earlier, Clive won Top Technician in 2007. If that's not enough, he also came second in 2011. These days you wouldn't be able to do it in that order.

    "I know," laughed Clive, "they changed the rules after myself and John Tinham competed last time, where he won for the umpteenth time, with me as runner up after having already won. We enjoyed it anyway."
    Clive was something of a serial winner in his competition days: "I started off doing one of the first competitions that was ever brought into the motor trade, which was Crypton Technician of the Year. I won that twice in a row. Then I went from Crypton to using Bosch equipment, and the business achieved second place in the Bosch World Cup in 2002. That was quite a big achievement for us in quite a small garage. Then I went on to do Top Technician.  I competed quite a few times and I enjoyed it."
    Clive is a great advocate for Top Technician: "It certainly makes you analyse your knowledge, and taking part certainly tests your abilities, there's no doubt about that. I think it is a good thing for the industry."

    Predictions
    Looking ahead, the skills shortage is not the only challenge the industry faces according to Clive: "A few years ago I could usually see which way the trade was going and what was the best route to follow. Now though, it is very unpredictable. Even manufacturers don't seem to know where they are going, apart from that they are going to go predominantly electric. Even they seem unsure."

    Increasing specialisation is where Clive thinks things may be heading: "With the onset of so much electronic content, and the sheer knowledge that you need for each individual brand to repair it very well, I can't see how you can cover multi-brand at that level and keep on top of if you are a very small business. If you had a technician for each manufacturer who was trained and had the right equipment, that might work, but you have to work with it and you are talking about some serious investment in time and money. Where do you find those technicians that are trained to that level?  It is very hard at the moment to predict. I think brand specialisation will become a big thing. "

    Looking ahead for the business, Clive concluded:  "Our plan is to carry on adapting to whatever the future holds. This has always been my philosophy; Constant improvement through training and investment."

  • part two: 'You owe me!' 

    By Adam Bernstein

    There are countless cases on the government’s Employment Tribunal website, a number for garages, that relate to situations where employers have unlawfully deducted monies from employee’s pay packets. The rules are quite clear – employers need prior permission or a legal basis to deduct monies.
        
    Andrew Rayment, a Partner in the employment department of law firm Walker Morris, says that even late payment of wages still counts as a deduction. “However,” he says, “if the employer subsequently pays the wages in full, a tribunal would not order the sum to be paid again, although it may order the employer to compensate the worker for consequential loss, such as bank overdraft charges caused by the late payment.”

    How to make deductions lawfully
    So, given all of the above, how can an employer make deductions from wages lawfully?
        
    The first ‘permission’ Andrew notes relates to deductions required or authorised by statute. “This,” he says, “would include deductions for income tax and national insurance contributions under the PAYE system; and deductions made pursuant to the Attachment of Earnings Act 1971 (i.e. where the courts have made an attachment of earnings order).”
        
    The next reason for a lawful deduction would be if it has been authorised by a provision of the worker’s contract. This means one that is set out in a written contract which has been given to the worker before the deduction was made. Here Andrew says: “The contractual provision must make it clear that the deduction may be made from the worker's wages and, obviously, the employer must also be able to demonstrate that the event justifying the deduction has occurred.”
        
    It’s for this reason that employers should always make sure that their employment contracts contain a specific clause to authorise deductions from wages or other payments due to the employee in the event that the employee owes money to the company.
        
    But there is a third ‘permission’ – where a worker has given prior written consent. In this instance, a deduction will not be unlawful if, as the law details, the worker has previously signified in writing his agreement or consent to the making of the deduction. On this Andrew says: “The written consent must be given before the event giving rise to the deduction (this rules out getting the worker to sign it minutes before the deduction is made) and the written consent must make it clear that the deduction may be made from the worker's wages.”
        
    From a legal standpoint, it is always advisable to obtain prior written consent from the employee in cases where, for example, the employer pays enhanced maternity, paternity, shared parental or adoption pay but reserves the right to recover the enhanced payment if, for example, the employee does not return to work; loans the employee a sum of money (for example a season ticket loan); or pays an employee’s course fees or the cost of training but reserves the right to recover all or some of the cost if, for example, the employee does not complete or fails the course.
        
    Going back to the case of the loan to the worker outlined in part one of this story (Aftermarket, March issue), the employer should have obtained prior written consent from the employee before loaning the money. It would then have been able to rely on this to deduct the loan from the employee’s wages.

    In summary
    So, to finish, except for deductions made under PAYE or under a court order, it is vital that you ensure that you have workers written consent to make a deduction from wages before attempting to do so. Similarly, ensure that there is an appropriate deduction from wages provision in your employees contracts. And where you make an enhanced payment, offer a loan or cover course fees, it is advisable, before making the payment, to require the employee to sign a form giving their written consent to the conditions of payment and the specific circumstances in which deductions can be made from sums due to the employee.
        
    Planning ahead and ensuring all know where they stand will prevent much upset later on.


  • A tale of two garages  

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, it certainly was for a member of the Aftermarket team recently, who had a small automotive hiccup in the family.
        
    You wouldn’t expect that the need for a fresh set of sparkplugs in a top-selling mass-market runaround could expose the existential crisis facing some garages who are facing extinction as their ability to service cars fades away, but that is what we found. Luckily for our colleague, and for the sector we also found a business who was the very opposite of that type, one that was totally on the ball. A lot can be learned from this second garage in terms of what to do. Even more can be learned from the first garage, in terms of how not to run your business.
        
    The only upside was that that business had a local doppelganger who was paying heed to the kind of advice peddled here in Aftermarket every month. There is a happy ending, dear reader, but first you have to travel through the heart of darkness that can be found in a business where trundling along towards obsolescence is seen as sound business planning.

    Safe mode
    Let’s find out what happened to our colleague: “We have a couple of cars in our household,” she told us, “one is a BMW 3 Series, which I drive, and the other is a an up-until-now spritely 2014 – registered Vauxhall Corsa, which is one of the most popular cars in the UK, and has been in the top 10 highest sellers year-in-year out for decades.”
        
    As an aside, according to the sales figures for 2018 as published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the Vauxhall Corsa was the third highest selling car of the year, with 52,915 sold during the year.  
        
    Anyway, back to the story. After years of problem-free  motoring in the Corsa, a few weeks ago it switched into safe mode – with its service spanner light beaming orange on the dashboard. There were no warning signs prior to this.
        
    “As soon as we realised we promptly took it  to a local independent garage.”
        
    This is where things started to go sideways: “After a brief peek at the car, the technician announced they couldn’t access the information and that the vehicle can only be dealt with by a main dealer… which was easier said than done, as the car was only capable of travelling at  5mph and the nearest main dealer was more than six miles away.”
        
    Now, as she was part of the Aftermarket team, she already knew there was something not quite right here: “When asked the reason why the garage couldn’t access the information, the technician claimed that the manufacturer was withholding access for certain faults, so no other independent would be able to rectify the problem with the vehicle.” The technician then sent our team member off to find the nearest Vauxhall dealer, a business that runs the Griffin franchise alongside a mainstream French brand, in the next town.
        
    Now, we know that the Block Exemption Regulation is not a free invitation for everyone just to dig their hands into the big info bin at the vehicle manufacturers, that access might require payment, but withholding access from the independent sector? That would be newsworthy.
        
    At this point, our staff member was more concerned about getting the car fixed than she was about the intricacies of European competition law. Like any motorist with a poorly car being overtaken by cyclists, she just wanted it fixed: “The thought of the long slow drive to the nearest dealership, who incidentally said they would not have availability to take the car until the following week, was beginning to cause much anxiety.”
        
    Bad news all round at this point. Fortunately for our colleague, this is where the story takes a happier turn, with the entrance of the second independent garage: “Halfway on the arduous journey home we discovered another independent garage offering diagnostics on every vehicle marque. So on the off-chance this garage could help we dropped the Corsa there and they assured us they would do their best to help. An hour later we received a call from the garage to say that they have gained access to the vehicle and that it requires a new coil and set of spark plugs. Within a couple of hours the car was fixed and back to its spritely-self. Not only that, it is booked-up with this second independent garage for its MOT next month.”

    Consequences
    As we said, we did not mean to perform a regional mystery shop on random garages across Kent, but here we are. Let’s ask our accidental shopper what she though about the businesses she visited: “The first garage should have updated its equipment, especially bearing in mind that a Corsa is one of the most common vehicles on UK roads, then perhaps they would have kept the business. They also lied to us about the reason they were not able to fix the vehicle.”
        
    Long term, this was probably the most serious transgression made by the first garage during the whole experience: “By not being honest they lost the trust of the customer and looked as though they did not know what they were talking about. The first independent garage has now lost any future business from us, which includes family and friends too. All because they weren’t honest.”
         
    Let’s look at the outcome for garage number two: “The second garage has proven itself to be knowledgeable and efficient and has gained not only the trust of the customer but also additional trade from the customer’s friends and family.”
        
    As for the franchised dealer: “There’s nothing to say about them. They could not even fit us in, which again does not endear them to the customer when they are in great need of reassurance and support from a professional business.” Quite.
        
    As our mystery shopper points out, this is a market where you can lose your customers very easily, but you can also win them pretty easily, as long as you have made the required investment in training, tooling and access to data: “The independent garage sector is a highly competitive market where customer trust is key, along with the right equipment and training.”

    One last word from our colleague, who as a stalwart of the magazine is fiercely loyal to the sector: “I also want to point out that apart from having failed to have the ability to access a five year old mass market runaround, the first garage attempted to take business away from other independents as they tried to  send  the car straight to the main dealer. Whatever happened to solidarity in the world of independent garages?”
        
    What indeed?

    Conclusions
    Let’s look at what we have learned from the misfortunes of our team member. The immediate takeaway here really is the need for honesty. If you don’t have the ability to work on a car for any reason, just tell advise the customer and direct them to someone who can help. You never know who you are talking to, and what they know, and this is a classic example of why honesty is always the best policy.
        
    The deeper takeaway though is the need to invest and train, and to train and invest. In the February issue of Aftermarket, in Big Issue, we asked if our readers had paid attention to the sales figures in 2016, as this might give them a clue as to where they need to point their investment. The one thing we know for sure is that the first garage visited did not look at the top sellers for 2014, as if they had they might have realised that a Vauxhall Corsa from that year might come through the door sometime after 2017.
        
    Even if you are not marque-sensitive, all vehicles are becoming more complex, and having the right tooling, and the ability to properly use it is absolutely essential. If you can’t interrogate the third most popular car in the country, and you have to send that car down the road, you are heading for the scrapheap, whether or not you were honest with the customer or not. We know it takes money to train and buy equipment, but there is so much support out there, it would be foolish not to reach out to get a grasp on tomorrow.
        
    You don’t even have to look far to get support. You do not have to get up and walk to your computer, or even lift your hand to pick up your mobile phone. You just have to turn the page.
        
    Every issue in Aftermarket, we have a whole section devoted to business. We have another section covering training courses, and another covering technical advice. In most of the features there will be advice on the kind of tooling required, and on the new tech heading your way. Also, as much as we hate to admit it, we are not the only place to access this information. Many sector suppliers offer training, and there are specialised training companies and courses. You can attend live training courses via the IMI, or the RMI via its Academies, or you can access training online.  We have even heard that there are other magazines covering the sector, although we think that may just be a rumour…
        
    The point is, there has never been more information available, online and in print. As our regular business contributor Andy Savva, The Garage Inspector, is prone to say: “There has never been a better time to run an independent garage.” He provides business training, and as part of that training  he will advice businesses to invest in kit, and invest in people. He’s not the only one either. Leaf through and you will see a host of famous names who offer technical content in this magazine. In no particular order, except perhaps alphabetical, you have John Batten, Peter Coombes, Ian Gillgrass, Hannah Gordon and of course Frank Massey. All are either regular technical contributors, or have written for us in recent months. If you go back further there are even more names providing priceless technical content. That’s just Aftermarket. Many of our contributors run courses, and they are not too shy to talk about it, so read their articles and find out. Many of our advertisers also provide training, either at their own facilities or at various trade events like Automechanika Birmingham or Mechanex. We will tell you and point you in the right direction.
        
    Despite this, despite the investment being made by thousands of garages that receive and read Aftermarket, there are still those who don’t keep up with the technological direction of travel, let investment slide, and decide against that extra round of training that will help them keep their competitive edge. If you are intending to shut down, we can understand it, but if not, if yours is a going concern where you are looking to operate through 2019 and beyond, then you need to keep up to date with technology, and make sure you are taking all the relevant training.

    Summing up
    We call this an accidental mystery shop, and in a way it was. We are sharing the experiences of our team in a friendly way to show what a customer might experience, to point you in the right direction. Don’t forget though, there are millions of potential customers out there, and for them it is not a theoretical exercise. They will make a judgement call on your business based on your performance. If you provide a poor service they will make their voice heard by disappearing from your forecourt, never to be heard from again. A garage that can deal with their customers competently and honestly will have them return again and again. You can count on it.

  • The art of self improvement 

    All roads lead east according to Andy, as he points towards some  strategies that will help you improve your business 


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