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Joe’s Garage: Customer Service Never Goes Out Of Style

At Joe’s Garage in North Little Rock, Arkansas, customer service and core values are reminiscent of an earlier time.

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As senior editor of Tire Review magazine, Denise writes feature articles on various tire segments and columns on boosting dealer profits, as well as managing and editing the magazine's various featured columns. She also manages Tire Review Online, the magazine's well-read Web site. Prior to joining Tire Review, Denise served as feature section writer and news reporter for the Medina Gazette and was a reporter for the Barberton Herald, both located in the Akron area. She is a graduate of the University of Akron with a degree in communications.

At Joe’s Garage in North Little Rock, Arkansas, customer service and core values are reminiscent of an earlier time. After being in business for 33 years, owner Joe Sharp still makes a point to greet as many customers as he can, and dispatches roughly 75% of repair orders himself.

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“I’ve been doing it like that for a long time, and I still do that today,” he says. “It’s my name on the building. If customers call or come in, they want to talk to Joe.”

In addition, the shop is closed on weekends; techs are not paid on commission; and customer information is kept private, with no email addresses even collected.

While these aspects of the business may seem old-fashioned, the technician training, work performed, and shop equipment is cutting edge. It’s this mix of traditional values and attention to modern details that makes Joe’s Garage, with $1.9 million in annual sales out of 11 service bays, a successful multi-generation business.

Background

For Sharp, automotive repair began at age 14 when he bought his first car, an old Rambler. After fixing it up and selling it, he got a job at a Ford dealership where he washed cars, swept the floor, and eventually moved up to oil changes, then maintenance on the used cars, and finally a full line mechanic. He worked on commission in that role for two years before moving on to an independent tire shop, followed by a Lincoln-Mercury dealership.

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“All those places I worked, everybody was paid commission,” he recalls. “So, it was always a situation where you can sell work that needs to be done, and then you can sell marginal work. It never sat right with me and I wanted to be in control of that. I felt like I could do a better job taking care of the customer and sell them what they actually needed — not sell him stuff that he might need in the future, but it’s not worn out yet.”

Because of that experience, Sharp has never operated his business on a commission-based pay structure.

In 1986, after working in the industry for 12 years, Sharp opened his own shop — at the time, just a four-jack stand under an awning in his backyard.

“I never really thought that it would grow into what it is today,” he says. “Like every beginning business, I had the fear of showing up to work and not having anything to do, and no way to pay the bills. I had a few wholesale car dealer lots that provided me with a steady stream, enough to keep the lights on and the rent paid.

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“As time went on, it just grew by word of mouth,” Sharp continues. “This was years ago; they didn’t have Facebook, the internet, or smartphones. Today, my challenge is, ‘How am I going to get all this done?’”

After moving into a building and operating Joe’s Garage there for roughly nine years, the company moved to its current location 22 years ago, where the shop and offices make up about 8,800 square feet. Today, Sharp and his wife Susan, who serves as office manager and oversees finances, employ a staff of 11.

Taking Care of Employees

At Joe’s Garage, employee loyalty is readily apparent: three technicians have worked for the company for more than 20 years, while the service writer has been on staff for 25 years.

“The fact that I don’t use any commission to pay my techs is important because they have no reason to not help each other,” Sharp explains. “It’s very cohesive. If one tech doesn’t know, he can go ask another tech. (That tech) will stop what he’s doing because he’s not under the constraints of, ‘My paycheck depends on how quick I get this job done,’ he’s under the constraints of, ‘I need to go help this guy so at the end of the day, we get both these jobs done.’”

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The pay structure enhances loyalty because it evens out the highs and lows commonly experienced throughout the year. For example, business typically is booming in the spring and summer, while Thanksgiving through New Year’s is slower as people place less importance on vehicle maintenance near the holidays.

“My guys know that every Friday, their paycheck is guaranteed,” Sharp notes.

In addition, technicians at Joe’s Garage can expect a heated shop in the winter and air-conditioned shop in the summer, plus mid-morning and afternoon breaks and an hour for lunch each day. The shop’s hours — Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. (techs work until 5 p.m.) — ensure a healthy work-life balance.

Over the years, Sharp has experimented with being open on weekends, but he found that productivity did not increase much and employee satisfaction is more important.

“For one, if you’re open on a Saturday, employees either have to be off sometime during the week to make the 40 hours, or you’re going to have to pay them overtime to be here on a weekend,” he says. “I never got it to be profitable where the guys that worked Saturday weren’t worn out and tired on a Monday or Tuesday. I’d rather them be off on weekends and come in Monday morning fresh and ready to go. The production level goes up.”

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Investing in the latest equipment and training also is the norm at Joe’s Garage. Technicians regularly attend Vision Hi-Tech Training, Standard Pro Training, and various traveling programs that make stops at University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College, located nearby.

“I have some of the best technicians in this town who work for me, and I provide them with the very best special tools and training they can get,” Sharp adds.

Customer Service Philosophy

As expected, at Joe’s Garage, customers are treated just as well as employees. The shop offers complimentary rides to and from work or home; a clean, comfortable waiting room; hot and cold drinks; and free Wi-Fi and a charging port for electronic devices.

Communication is the cornerstone of customer care, according to Sharp, who emphasizes “We test, we don’t guess” when it comes to performing repairs.
“If I can’t prove a vehicle needs a part, I’m not selling it to anybody or putting it on,” he says. “I do a lot of road testing with the customer in the car to verify what noise they’re talking about.”

The goal at the end of the day is for all customers to pick up their vehicles with a complete understanding of the work performed and the reason for doing so.

“I like to make sure they understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Sharp explains. “It makes it a lot easier if they fully understand … they’re not taking the invoice and saying, ‘Well, what’s this part? Why did you put that on there?’”

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Marketing and Community Involvement

When it comes to advertising, Sharp relies on word-of-mouth referrals.

“I don’t do mailers, I don’t do flyers. I don’t do anything in the newspaper,” he says, adding that Joe’s Garage did have a Facebook page for a while, but Sharp decided it wasn’t beneficial to the business. He also doesn’t collect customers’ email addresses, place their street addresses on repair orders, or send them mailers as a respect to their privacy.

“I think their information is very private to them; I know that mine is to me,” Sharp says, explaining that if a customer’s contact information was ever obtained through the shop’s software and they began to receive phone calls or mailers, he does not want Joe’s Garage to be to blame.

“If you ever get caught in that trap, I feel like you’ve done a disservice to your customer because you let his information get bundled and sold,” he says. “It may sound like I’m still back in the Stone Age, but I’m not. I have never lacked in communication as far as getting ahold of customer, selling the job and getting it done.”

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Aside from word-of-mouth, the shop’s marketing is done via twice-weekly radio call-in segments on the Dave Elswick Show Live at 101.1 FM The Answer. On Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, Sharp and other Bumper to Bumper Certified Service Center program members go on air to answer listeners’ questions about their vehicles, maintenance and repair.

“If anybody calls in anywhere in the state of Arkansas and asks question, we’ll see where they’re calling from, and we’ll refer them to a certified service center in their area,” Sharp says. “We direct business toward them because we know they’re honest, good shops.”

Because he’s been on the show for about 16 years, many customers come into Joe’s Garage and say they heard Sharp on the radio.

The shop also uses its involvement in the Bumper to Bumper network to co-host an annual car show at the Conway Expo Center, with all proceeds going to Ronald McDonald House Charities. For the past 10 years, the show has grown in the number of cars on display, as well as the prizes raffled off and money donated, according to Sharp.

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“I think it’s important for us to show the community that we’re just like they are,” he says. “We’re shop owners, we work on cars, we fix cars, and in doing that, part of our philosophy is: If we can help you, we’re going to.

“We can’t go out and sponsor every charity that everyone would want us to,” Sharp continues, “but we can take everybody who has a car or wants to show a car, get them all in the same building and do some good for the Ronald McDonald House.”

Looking Ahead

In addition to Sharp and his wife, the couple’s daughter and one grandson currently work at Joe’s Garage. Between his family and his loyal employees, Sharp plans to pass down the business in the next decade.

“I’m hoping to let those folks, who have been here with me for so long, get together and keep this place going,” he says. “If you put something up for sale, you never know who will buy it. You don’t know how they’re going to treat your staff. My guys have been loyal to me, so I want to be loyal to them.”

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After 33 years in business, Sharp says the goals he has for the company ultimately are the same: provide quality service, make the customer happy, and make them a repeat customer. “If I can keep my customers happy and my techs busy, then everybody is happy.”

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