By Debbie Briggs, contributing writer
In a day and age where Internet presence is often expected, Gross & Stevens, a preeminent brake and wheel service repair shop in Visalia, CA, is bucking the trend and focusing on something else: good, old-fashioned customer service.
“I know everybody says you need one,” President and CEO John McMahan says of the pressure to have a high-profile website. “But we’re averaging 20-30% increases in sales per year.”
While they do have plans to update their current website, John says the success of the shop is really because of his, and business partner Larry Vannorsdall’s, commitment to top-notch customer service. And that really comes down to two things — convenience and honesty.
“We’re not on a main thoroughfare, and the shop is on a dead-end street,” John explains, adding that the three acres the shop sits on allows them to have three different entrances, which is ideal for RVs and larger vehicles. “Customers often tell us they love the front driveway that we put in, which allows them to pull right up to the front door.”
The shop’s location in Visalia is in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, a gateway to the Sequoia National Park. As a result, many tourists end up calling when the brakes burn up on their RV, or the trailer they’re hauling breaks down.
“The first question many people ask is, ‘Can I turn around in your parking lot, or do I have to back up?’ John says. “That’s when those three acres, and large parking lot, come in handy.”
RV, large trucks and trailers make up one division of Gross & Stevens, and started as more of a supplemental or add-on part of the business. Now that line of work has warranted a separate building with two full-time techs. Four other technicians, as well as Larry, focus their efforts on passenger cars and light trucks in the original building.
“The RV building also houses our machine shop,” John says. “If we can’t get a part in a timely manner or at a reasonable price, we make it.
“We’ve also opened up our parts department for trailer parts,” he adds. “We built up our own parts departments and we have local RV dealers buying parts from us. If you walk in and want to buy a part, we’ll sell it to you.”
John says word-of-mouth has helped lead to the success of the shop, with fair pricing and free inspections being especially appreciated by customers. While John says he often receives advice that nothing should be free, he begs to differ.
“It takes only 10 minutes, and it’s also valued by customers,” he says. “People know they don’t automatically have a $50 bill even before any work is done. I’ll do it right in our circle driveway. It’s easy, and they know we’ll be fair, upfront and honest with them.”
John says 50% of business at Gross & Stevens is fleet driven, including local utility providers and municipalities in the surrounding areas. Having enough techs — and the right parts on hand — allows the shop to offer fleet customers same-day dropoff and pickup.
“We really don’t have much downtime,” he says, adding that as the largest Moog chassis installer in the area, “I can offer big savings to my customers.”
The techs at Gross & Stevens bring various specialties that help get vehicles back to customers in a timely fashion. Techs are ASE certified, but one is a certified welder, one tech’s focus is heavy chassis, while another is regular automotive. John believes in the value of training, and will pay for any local training a tech wants to attend, even if it’s outside of the normal brake and chassis work done at the shop.
And while John currently has a skilled group of techs, he says finding new talent can be tricky in this age of technology.
“A lot of young people want to wear white coats and work on computers,” he says. “I’m sorry, but we do have to get dirty! It’s a lot of manual labor.”
Despite the fact that brake and chassis work can be messy, John says he often has customers compliment him on how clean the shop is kept. And that’s no small task when one hammer hit to a chassis can yield what seems like eight pounds of dirt!
“We get comments daily on how professional and clean it is,” he says. “It’s hard to do since we’re in a farm community, and the vehicles we work on get muddy and dirty. But we have a person who cleans in the evenings, and the shop is swept and mopped daily.”
Adding to the appeal is a front lobby that looks more like a ’50s diner, complete with a 1953 Coke machine that dispenses complimentary soda and water.
“Drivers like coming here because they can grab a free soda or water,” John says, perhaps adding some incentive to get parts quickly, but more as a way to show appreciation.
John says he also likes to give back to his community by sponsoring sports and music programs, including buying uniforms for little league teams. And it’s not just a marketing ploy.
“If one of the parents comes in because we bought uniforms, that’s great,” he explains. “But we do it because kids might not get them otherwise.”
It’s that kind of care and concern that goes into every customer interaction at Gross & Stevens, from initial dropoff to completion of service. Honesty, professionalism and the true desire to repair a vehicle for the exact price quoted are the hallmarks of service at the shop.
“We ask tons of questions at the time of vehicle drop off to ensure everyone is on the same page as far as customer concerns,” John says. “We do vehicle repair planning to make sure repairs ﬁt in a customer’s budget. We never pressure a customer for immediate repairs.
“We’re very personable,” he says in summary. “We’ll walk out and talk to customers like a friend. There’s no pressure, but we say ‘this is what we recommend.’”
It’s no surprise that word-of-mouth can be credited for much of the shop’s success since John and Larry purchased it in 1987. John says he’s now seeing second- and even third-generation customers coming into the shop based on recommendations from parents and grandparents.
“Parents will call to make an appointment for their son or daughter to bring their car in for maintenance or repairs over spring break,” he says. “We even have a couple of customers who have moved out of state, but they still bring their cars by when they’re in town visiting family.”
And while doctors no longer make house calls, John is no stranger to helping out an elderly customer whose caregiver duties prohibit taking their car in for service. “I’ll drive my car to their house and leave it there while I take their car to the shop,” he says.
A true testament to the power of getting back to basics: Treat a customer well and you’ll have a customer — and their friends and family — for life.