If you had told Chris Cloutier six years ago that he would be running a successful auto repair business with his brother, Patrick, he would have laughed. But that’s exactly what happened when they decided to buy an existing shop in Rowlett, TX — off of Craigslist no less – and turn it into Golden Rule Auto Care.
“I always say the Lord opens doors, and sometimes you just have to walk through them,” Chris commented. “The business wasn’t in good financial shape when we bought, but we took a chance.”
Given that Patrick Cloutier is an ASE L1 Master-certified technician who has been turning wrenches for more than 20 years, the risk was a calculated one. Add to that Chris’s experience as an entrepreneur and software engineer with time spent at Southwest Airlines, and you have a recipe for success. And while quality repairs for customers’ vehicles are certainly a priority, Chris said employees come first.
“We have tried to build a culture around the Golden Rule, treating others as you would want them to treat you,” he explained, adding that naming the shop after the belief seemed like a natural choice. “Patrick and I actually believe that the employee should be first, then the customer. That’s much like the Southwest Airlines philosophy.
“We have a retirement plan, and we give bonuses at the end of the year based off of the overall performance of the shop, not just the individual,” Chris added. “Since everyone has to work on Saturday, we always pay for lunch. We have monthly meetings where we discuss where we are at now and where we are going. We also have horseshoe pits we built behind the shop, because what better way to build morale than to throw horseshoes and talk trash with your co-workers!”
Golden Rule Auto Care employs three technicians (Jorge, Cisco and Patrick), four general service techs (Edgar, Justin, Darryl and Jacob), a service manager (Colin) and two service writers (Clifford and Demetri), as well as Chris and his assistant Christie, who audits the books and manages marketing. In addition to Patrick, several of the staff are ASE-certified in their respective areas, including Chris, who says professional development is a must.
Quality Training and Outreach
“Training is important, but more important is finding good training,” he explained. “We have done a mix of both onsite and offsite training. We have hired people to come to us, and we have also sent our techs to training facilities.
“In January, we shut down the shop for a half day for a four-hour electrical training class. We have also flown Jeremy O’Neal from AdvisorFix in several times to spend a few days with us at the shop and train in real time. That is always an adventure. We also use a local coach, Trey Finley, for personnel training. We are also just starting to dabble in online training through ACDelco.
“We are a part of the Dealer Strategic Planning Twenty Group run by Norm Gaither and Dennis McCarron; it meets every few months. We have been a member for the last three years, and I am very appreciative of us finding this group early on. Through collaboration with other members who have been in business for years, we have avoided many mistakes and picked up many best practices.”
Chris said they also aren’t afraid to showcase their employees on Facebook, one of their main avenues for marketing online. While reviews on Yelp and Google help bring in new customers, he says you have more control on Facebook, and it’s a place you can showcase your business’s human side.
“Too often, businesses think Facebook is a way to sell their product,” he said. “People don’t want direct sales anymore; they want to choose when they’re ready. Facebook is a great way to stay in front of them until they are ready. For instance, we posted a picture on our Facebook page of the crew acting goofy, and it reached more than 4,000 people, 142 people liked it, 11 people commented on it and three shared it. We didn’t mention anything about us being a repair shop, or that we have an oil change special, or that there is a recall on some car that they don’t own.”
Keeping Customers Informed
Chris’ software development background allowed him to create autotext.me, a shop workflow and communication tool, shortly after he and his brother opened the shop. The online system works like a simple flow chart with different buttons corresponding to stages of the repair process.
“Although every car repair is different, they all go through the same process for the most part,” Chris said. “You check them in, you diagnose them, you get approval, you order parts, you fix them and you deliver them. In the autotext.me software, you can click on the buttons in the flow chart and keep up with the vehicle. It’s also 100% configurable, so other shops can benefit from it as well.”
At each stage of the process, the customer receives a pre-defined text or email status update or notification. This simple notification helps prevent “losing” cars.
“We would literally overlook cars on busy days,” Chris explained. “It stunk to walk out at the end of the day and have everyone point at a car that no one talked to the customer about and no one touched simply because a piece of paper was misplaced.
“It also helps to connect with millennials and the younger generation,” he continued. “They’re buried in their phones, and they don’t answer them. But they send around 1,000 text messages a day! We’ve also built a digital inspection sheet on top of autotext.me that can easily be texted to customers.”
Rebranding and Shop Appearance
Previously Lonestar Auto Repair, Chris said he and Patrick decided to not only change the name of the shop to Golden Rule Auto Repair three years ago, but they also gave the entire building a facelift. They repainted the building, put up new signs and even obsessed over making the restroom facilities the best in town.
“We have a female parts delivery driver I would ask about our bathroom,” he said with a laugh. “I kept making improvements to it until she said we had the nicest bathroom out of every shop in the area. And curb appeal is just as important.”
Chris said the staff brings that attention to detail to every car that’s been serviced or repaired at the shop. A 15-point checklist completed by front counter staff ensures that each one is ready upon checkout.
“They make sure there are no grease prints, no tools left in the car, that check engine lights are off, that the work has been done by the technician, and that the pesky oil change sticker has been placed in the window,” he said. “I brought this process over from when I developed software; you typically have a quality-assurance team check your work. I figured it would work for auto repair, too.
“At first, my team pushed back. ‘We don’t have time,’ was the objection. Then I spent two days quality-controlling all of the vehicles we worked on, and I found that 70% had issues. And it’s not because our guys are bad at what they do; it is because we are human and make mistakes.
“Technicians forget they have greasy hands. It helps to have a second set of eyes to see those mistakes. In my opinion, you either spend the few minutes making sure a vehicle is good to go, or you have a disappointed customer. We also tell our customers about this process and even invite them to participate in it, and they love it.”
According to Chris, a shop website is a modern-day Yellow Pages ad. And it’s one that will either attract customers or turn them away. If a customer goes to your site to find your phone number, hours of operation or directions, but they aren’t on your home page, you’ll most likely lose them before they even come in for their first oil change.
“Your website should also be personalized, talk about your company, have a picture of your shop and your people,” Chris said. “I see a lot of the templated sites that look too sterile, and they become just a big sales pitch. I just don’t know too many people who care about a lot of words that describe a lot of nothing. Google has one search box, and two buttons. Brilliant. Twitter and text messaging are short, 140-character bursts. People don’t read novels anymore.
“Our website is also mobile-friendly thanks to a responsive design. And since I’m a software guy, I built our site, and we have a little bit of an advantage because we don’t have to pay an IT guy for changes; I just make them myself.”
For Chris and Patrick, training, technology, customer service and treating employees with respect all play an equally important role in running a successful shop today.
“If someone really believes one thing will make them successful, there are some truths they will have to face at some point in time,” Chris concluded. “Sometimes you are the bug, sometimes you’re the windshield; most of the time I feel like both. Being a shop owner is hard, being a business owner is hard, but if it were easy, wouldn’t we all be doing it?”