A tale of two garages

Aftermarket inadvertently mystery-shopped some garages recently, and the accidental exercise reinforced the importance of ongoing training and investment

Published:  25 April, 2019

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.

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