Skills, bills and jaw-aches

Hannah Gordon looks at how a garage owner needs top level skills business savvy and be a talker to succeed

Published:  27 September, 2018

I knew starting a business would never prove easy but we don’t get anywhere in life without taking a risk or two. Having been in the industry for a few years now I have learnt that the two main attributes a successful car repair workshop needs is the skill to diagnose and repair and the ability to communicate with their customers.
    
Modern car repair facilities have seen a dramatic change in recent years with the huge advancements in computer-related faults. The main tool of repair has seen the demise of the hammer and the growth of the diagnostics fault reader. I am a hands-on mechanic and much prefer older vehicles where I don’t need to locate the OBD port before the bonnet release, but I have to move with the times if I am to succeed as a business and that is why I am looking at hybrid servicing and trying to tap into that market. It is tough for me to admit that as I love working on classics and I will still have a part of the workshop for the golden oldies but it is hard to ignore the impact hybrid and electric vehicles are starting to have on the repair market.

Communication
The car repair industry has a pretty bad reputation – lets be honest. My female friends and family dread having to buy a car or go to a garage. Communication for me is so important, as with any business it is crucial that you are able to talk to customers and listen to their concerns without belittling them. The issue with car repairs is that it is a complicated process that is difficult to explain in layman’s terms and which can alienate an individual if they don’t understand. There is also the problem of distrust. If a customer doesn’t understand the problem and how you are able to fix it you risk confusion and doubt. There are so many horror stories of people being fleeced and conned as they don’t understand how a car works that every customer feels like you are going to do the same, it takes a long time to earn a good reputation and just one bad experience to send your business crashing down.

I always like to explain as simply as possible with the work I am doing, I keep the broken part so that I can show the customer what I have replaced and what their hard earned cash has been spent on, I also take pictures and probably over explain everything. It is important for my business that I gain a good reputation as word of mouth is my main advertisement. As busy as a car workshop is always make time to have a friendly chat with your customers, especially if they have a trade, you never know when you might need a plumber!

So, this month has been busy, productive, stressful and hot (I am writing this in July) but the world of car repair stands still for no-one.

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  • Unfinished monkey business 

    It’s been a while since I’ve trawled the online job pages,  but the other day I was sent a link to a job that had been advertised. A local main dealer who shall remain unnamed was in need of a NVQ Level 3 Technician, nothing too strange about that, but as I read on the salary surprised me. The role was being offered was just £16,000-£18,000 per annum. Underneath this advertised job was a vacancy for a Warehouse Operative with a starting salary of £18,500 and no experience needed.  
        
    This is a huge problem with the automotive industry and its inability to keep skilled and experienced mechanics especially in main dealers. The Level 3 qualification requires a significant amount of work and exams that can take years to achieve, knowledge needed to work on modern cars is becoming vast and learning is continuous to stay up to date with technology.

    Shortage
    Every year I hear the problem about a shortage of mechanics. Every year the industry struggles to fill gaps in its workforce due to the lack of skilled techs. And yet, as I constructed a Twitter post about the job I had seen I found how many disgruntled ex-technicians actually exist. The tweet proved to be a sore point with certain people who explained that they left main dealers to go to independents due to better pay, some even moved completely away from the automotive sector to again be paid more and be treated better.
        
    As an industry we need to retain staff and pay them according to the skills and knowledge required to work on ever more complicated vehicles. A common problem I found was the time restrictions within which techs are expected to complete repairs. From every mechanic I have met they strive to fix issues, they want to solve customers problems and provide a roadworthy vehicle in return.
        
    Primarily I entered the car repair trade because I am addicted to fixing problems and providing a great service to consumers, hourly rates are soaring and I feel customers simply aren’t getting value for money at some establishments.

    Imperative
    As a business owner it’s imperative that the mechanics are all highly skilled and customer friendly, the garage business is all about reputation and that starts with the quality of work. There are no time restrictions, for me the most important factor is returning a vehicle that is fully fixed and safe. I believe that providing a wage that reflects the mechanics skills and the continuous on the job learning they have to complete is vital, as well as this providing them with the tools required for the job.

    I find the salary of £16,000 an insult, to pay that kind of money for a skilled individual is terrible. I hope mechanics in the area know their worth and won’t apply for it, but I also hope that soon the automotive industry can start attracting and retaining more individuals. I will leave you with the saying ‘if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.’  



  • Get to the essentials 

    Marketing can be hard to grasp, even for the most experienced business operator. This made it an ideal topic for Andy Savva to cover as part of his 2019 training course schedule. Andy's one-day Marketing Essentials course provides an overview of what marketing actually is, looks at key approaches and how to apply them to a garage business.
        
    Aftermarket sat in on a sold-out session held in Crawley in February. In front of a packed room, filled with garages owners and staff, Andy dispelled some myths and misconceptions surrounding the discipline: "Marketing is one of the most misunderstood functions found in business. Whatever the reasons for any negative image that marketing may have, it is essential to realise that marketing is vital to ensure the survival and growth of any business. Marketing cannot be ignored and needs to be a part of the culture of any successful organisation.
        
    "Marketing affects everyone. We are all consumers. Most businesses depend on marketing to provide an understanding of the marketplace, to ensure their products and services satisfy the needs of customers, and that they are competing effectively."
        
    Despite running great businesses, Andy has found that garage owners often struggle when it comes to marketing: "Understanding customers and anticipating their requirements is a core theme of effective marketing, yet this is somewhat difficult for garages to fully get to grips with. So too is understanding general market trends and developments that may affect both customers views and the activities of businesses in the aftermarket repair sector. You must also be aware that a business does not have the marketplace to itself. There are always direct competitors, new entrants and indirect challengers.”
        
    Andy added: "Marketing should concern everybody in a business as it sets the context in which sales can take place. Whatever your role, you play a part in setting that context."

    Interaction
    As Andy got into the meat of the marketing matter, he led the delegates through what marketing is, and how they need to approach it and enact effective marketing within their businesses. Even the most experienced business owners and managers can get a little confused when asked to distinguish between marketing, advertising and sales. After asking attendees to pick where they would plant the marketing flag, with a few near misses along the way, Andy went through the specifics:
        
    "Marketing is a systematic approach aimed at bringing buyers and sellers together for the benefit of both. Many people confuse selling and advertising with marketing but they are not the same. Marketing is about promoting goods and services that both satisfy customers and also bring profits to the business.
         
    "Selling is the interaction that takes place on a personal level with potential customers. Marketing on the other hand is aimed at generating those potential customers in the first place. Many people confuse selling and advertising with marketing but they are not the same. Advertising is part of the marketing function, but never the other way around."
        
    For marketing to succeed, there needs to  be a goal and a way of achieving it, which Andy went on to cover: "Any marketing campaign needs to have a clear focus and this is why it is so important to make the right choices. Will the business compete across the entire market, or only certain parts? It is also a good idea to ensure all employees know the strategies being adopted, so that everyone works together to achieve the same goals." Andy then asked a question of the group: "Do you know what your garage business is trying to achieve and how it is trying to achieve it? In most cases the answer is no."
        
    The goal influences the method, and vice versa. From this point, Andy covered the classic four Ps of marketing – product, price, place and promotion – and went from there to the more recent extended marketing mix, incorporating people, process and physical evidence. Beyond this he laid out transactional marketing, which is sales-focused, and relationship marketing, which takes a much broader view including customer service, and quality presentation and results.
        
    Next he took on the thorny issue of branding as part of the marketing strategy, and why a strong brand is so important for recognition, financial value, motivation and loyalty. All of that was just the pre-lunch session. After lunch, Andy went into even greater detail on areas such as the marketing triangle, SMART objectives and SWOT analysis. It's heady stuff, but Andy made it approachable and applicable to the sector.

    Inspirational
    Those in attendance found a lot to take away from the day. Dani Comber from Thrussington Garage in East Goscote, near Leicester said: "I find Andy really inspirational. I think he's brilliant. He can come and work at our garage." Commenting on what she was learning about marketing from the day, Dani said it showed the gap between what they were doing at present, and what they should be doing: "I find it demotivating and motivating at the same time. You want to do everything, you've got the intention to do it, but you've not done it. On the other hand you are motivated because you see what you can do."
        
    Elisa Bramall from Scantec Automotive from Hailsham, East Sussex said: "I have attended several training courses with Andy. I only have good things to say about him of course. His passion being the main thing, and that he says it how it is. No beating around the bush. A lot of his values we stand by as well, i.e use of OE parts, tools and genuine equipment. When you attend his training courses, it aligns with what we want to achieve. With all of his experience, if you think you know it all you certainly don't."
        
    Tina Drayson, Operations Manager at CCM Garage, based in West Sussex and Surrey said: "I have done Andy's financial course before. It is phenomenal. I have learned so much from it. It has certainly changed the way we are doing our business. I am hoping that today with the marketing essentials will give us even more direction going forward."
        
    Terry Roberts, owner at  Witham Motor Company in Witham, Essex said: "I have just become a RAC approved garage in the last few weeks, so I am looking at changing my brand. I am really enjoying it. I am learning a lot and have picked up a lot of things."
        
    Commenting on what he was getting from the course, Billy from  Beacon Hill Garage in Hindhead, Surrey said: "It just hammers home that if your standards slip, and your marketing as well, and you take your eye off the ball, things will go wrong. I will be going back to give a few people a kick up the backside to bring standards back up. "
        
    Brothers Mahesh Vekaria and Pravin Patel own a garage each in Harrow. Mahesh, owner of Cardoc said: "What have I learned from Andy today so far? It has refocused and re-energised my enthusiasm for marketing. We do a fair bit of marketing, but coming today, you see a different angle to it."
        
    Pravin, proprietor at Harrow Service Centre, observed: "Today has been interesting. I have learned a lot. In a sense we already do a bit of marketing, but to understand what it really does mean and the ways we are doing it – is it right or wrong? – is really useful. It is something to implement when we go back to work."
        
    In that the pair are brothers and are based just half a mile apart, Aftermarket was curious as to who would get back and implement new marketing initiatives first. "I would say that I would," said Mahesh. Pravin agreed: "Yes  he would, definitely, having said that, he looks after my marketing for my garage as well. So he has double the work really."

    Information
    Edward Cockhill of Uckfield Motor Services in Uckfield East Sussex observed: "It is quite an eye-opener. I saw marketing as just advertising, whereas it is really the whole perception of my company. There is a lot of cogs that are going to be turning when I get home. "
        
    Peter Bedford of GT One Ltd in Chertsey, Surrey said: "We are an independent Porsche specialist. Our business is in need of a bit of a review in its marketing ideas, and we are looking to freshen it up. I have come along to see another angle of it. Some things I think I know and we have applied. Some I know and we have not applied, so you need a kick up the backside. Some things are brand new. On the whole it is brilliant."
        
    Cieran Larkin from Larkin Automotive in Dublin commented: "It is good to get marketing training from a professional who has been in the garage business as opposed to someone who is dealing with generic marketing. Andy's experience is brilliant in that way."
        
    Nick Robinson from Marchwoods in Folkestone had been to Andy's courses previously and was back for more: "I came to Andy's events last year for garage financial understanding and customer excellence. They were real eye-openers so I have come back for another one. I was badgering him earlier to see what is coming up next. I will be at that one as well!"
        
    Meanwhile, for Edward from Swanley Garage in Swanley, it was his first time: "This is the first one I have been to. It is really good. It is about getting all the information and having the guts to go out and do it. We are all guilty of not doing marketing properly, it is about taking that jump to rebrand yourself or say right we are not doing that any more, or we are not doing cut price work, or we are not going to let the customers bargain with us any more, and seeing where it takes you."

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