A wise man (Billy Joel) once said, “Take it from me, you’ll learn more from your accidents than anything you could ever learn in school.”
Fred White, owner of Miles Auto Service in Sewell, New Jersey, admits he’s learned plenty from his mistakes as a shop owner, particularly in his previous two shops. Taking a cue from Billy Joel, White has used those experiences to fuel the success of his current shop at 1007 Tuckahoe Road, where he’s been located for a decade.
Miles Auto Service, a member of the Confidence Plus Certified Service Center (CSC) network, is thriving today – thanks, in no small part, to those lessons learned. Lesson No. 1: Location, location, location. His first shop was hidden from the street, and White wasn’t as adept at marketing as he is today. So he moved the shop to a more visible spot.
When he outgrew his second shop (all three of his locations have been within a mile of each other), White landed on his current spot in 2009: a five-bay, 5,500-square-foot facility that services six to 10 vehicles a day.
One of the things he learned from his previous shops was how “to not have the phone ring.” So White challenged himself to learn some of the finer points of marketing in our digital age – such as how to reach specific customer demographics. These days, White is much more confident in his marketing acumen, and he’s even getting comfortable behind the camera. Whether it’s on the shop’s YouTube channel or Facebook page, White and his employees are reaching younger generations of customers through a series of educational – and sometimes goofy – self-produced videos.
“My main role now is marketing, not so much in repairs,” says White, a New Jersey native. “The techs fix the cars. I make sure the cars come in.”
Not that White is afraid to get his hands dirty. He started out as a tech in the early 1990s, earnings his stripes in the General Motors Automotive Service Educational Program at Camden County College. He wrenched at several dealerships and independent shops before opening his first shop in 1999.
“There’s nothing I would ask my guys that I wouldn’t do myself,” White says. “I came up through their shoes, and you never forget where you came from. Nobody’s more important than anybody else. We’re all here to complete the same mission.”
In addition to White, the shop has four employees on the payroll: two techs, both of whom are ASE-certified; his wife, Kelly, who helps out with marketing and customer service; and Fawn, the shop’s service advisor. He credits Fawn, “a fantastic listener,” for putting customers at ease when they bring in their vehicles for service.
“Every customer who comes through the shop is having a bad day,” White says. “Their car’s not working. She listens to them, understands what their problems are and does what needs to be done to take care of them.”
With the shop in good hands, White makes time to teach automotive classes at Camden Community College, which he views as a way to give back to the industry. It also frees him up to network with several 20 Groups and serve on the Confidence Plus Service Center Advisory Council (SCAC). The 10-man council, which meets in person twice a year, provides input on the Certified Service Center program. The current council includes Joe Sharp, the Arkansas shop owner who is this year’s WIX Driving Performance Award winner.
White says his experience on the SCAC has been rewarding (members serve two-year terms), as it gives shop owners a voice into the Certified Service Center program. He’s been especially impressed by the level of input shop owners have in the product formulations for Parts Master synthetic oil filters, Perfect Stop brakes and other Alliance brands. “One of the big takeaways from being on the council is I never realized that we create our parts,” he says, noting that Alliance-branded parts are manufactured to the group’s specifications for fit, form and function.
It can be hard for some shop owners to let go of the reins when they’re away for a few days. White is in a good position because, as he puts it, he has “fantastic people” who can hold down the fort when he’s at an SCAC meeting. “They know exactly what they’re doing and they tell me to stop bugging them,” he says of his staff. “They’re like, ‘Don’t worry about calling in. We got this.’”
Well-aware of the industry’s dire need for talent, White is committed to making Miles Auto Service a desirable place to work. Much to the chagrin of some customers, the shop is closed on weekends. (White insists, “Saturdays are for the kids.”) Through the Confidence Plus CSC program, White is able to offer health insurance for his employees at a much lower cost – for them and for him – than he could on his own. “I essentially got health care for half price and it’s a fantastic program,” he says.
Both of his techs are dyed-in-the-wool “car guys,” so as another perk, White lets them use the shop to work on their side projects after hours. And they enjoy attending Confidence Plus training classes. “They’re not bored,” White says of the training sessions. “They’re having a good time while they’re there.”
In November 2018, White brought the shop’s A-tech and service advisor to the Alliance Aftermarket Jackpot Convention at the Mirage Resort in Las Vegas. The event gave White’s team the opportunity to meet with parts suppliers, learn about the latest in new products and advanced automotive technology and find out about new service and repair techniques. In addition, they were able to enjoy the networking receptions, prize giveaways and live entertainment.
“As far as culture goes, it’s important to make sure you’re rewarding your employees,” White explains. “And I think a trip to Vegas did the trick there.”
Cutting-Edge Customer Service
Through White’s research, he’s learned that marketing is a wagon wheel, “and you can’t have a wagon wheel with one spoke.” In other words, a business needs to have multiple platforms for customers to find it.
That’s why, in addition to using old-school techniques such as direct mail, the shop has built up a library of videos on YouTube and Facebook. The most popular videos tackle frequently asked maintenance questions, such as “How often should I change my oil” and “Will I damage my engine if the ‘Check Engine’ light is on?” Others aren’t as serious. In one video, White and the shop’s service advisor wear fake beards and top hats in a “Groundhog Day” spoof. At the end of the video, White predicts “six more weeks of potholes” and invites motorists to check out the shop’s alignment special.
To produce the videos, White learned how to use Adobe Premiere video-editing software. Finding background music – and casting the characters – is a group effort.
“It’s just getting friends, family and techs to hang out after work, have a good time and shoot some silly videos that get a bunch of views,” he says. “People come in and they talk about them. It’s just another way of marketing other than sending a postcard that’s going to get thrown away.”
In this age of digital communication, marketing isn’t the only aspect of the business that’s changing. Technology is enabling shops to connect with customers on their terms. White estimates that 40% to 50% of the shop’s communication with customers is conducted via text messaging. He uses the Google Voice phone service to link the shop’s number to his cellphone, so he can respond to calls and texts even when he’s not there. Prospective customers are impressed when they try to contact the shop during off-hours and White gets back to them in a matter of minutes.
Technology also is helping shops educate their customers in powerful new ways. Through autotext.me software, techs at Miles Auto Service conduct digital inspections of customers’ vehicles. They present the findings on a large touchscreen monitor in the waiting room. He recalls one recent customer – a BMW owner – who was “taken aback” by the process. “He was like, ‘The dealership doesn’t even have this,’” White says. “We showed him a video of the car running and we were able to pinpoint the noise that he was hearing underneath the car. He loved it.”
Digital inspections are just as effective for customers who don’t wait at the shop, because the software allows the shop to send images and videos via text messaging.
“We don’t see most of our customers. They’ll drop the car off before we open, and we’ll check everything out. We text them our findings, they see the videos and they’ll text us back, ‘Go ahead. Fix it.’ Then they pick it up after hours. There are a lot of customers we haven’t seen in years.”
Being a Confidence Plus Certified Service Center has enabled the shop to provide outstanding service even when a customer is hundreds of miles away. Occasionally, White will get a call from a customer who is traveling out of state and having an issue with their vehicle. In those situations, White has looked up a local Auto Value, Bumper to Bumper or Confidence Plus CSC – there are more than 3,800 of them throughout the United States and Canada – to help the customer. Because they’re all part of the same network, White has found that he’s not “an unwanted pest” when he calls another Certified Service Center shop. “I’ve been able to use that and quickly get a customer back on the road – within hours,” he says.
Through the CSC network, Miles Auto Service offers the Confidence Plus North American warranty, which covers a number of common repairs and services for 24 months or 24,000 miles. White points to the warranty as “the biggest benefit” of the Confidence Plus CSC program.
He also raves about the AutoPass credit card – another benefit of being in the Confidence Plus CSC network – which enables qualifying customers to make interest-free payments on repairs for six months. Between the digital inspections and the credit card, “we have a huge close rate,” White says.
The shop’s website declares: “At Miles Auto Service, we do everything we can to take the hassles out of car repair.” Based on some of its enthusiastic Yelp reviews, the shop is accomplishing that mission. In an April 2019 review, one customer comments: “Great people, great service, honest, direct and understanding. Fawn is terrific and the service techs are personable and knowledgeable. As a person whose knowledge of cars stops once I turn the key, they made me feel comfortable and secure that I wasn’t being overcharged.”
With reviews like that one, it’s no surprise that some of White’s customers have been with him since he opened his first location in 1999. Over the years, he’s seen some customers disappear for a while after buying a new vehicle, opting to take advantage of free service at the dealership for the first year or so. But many of them come back to his shop before their free-service offers expire.
“They’ll say, ‘I didn’t like going [to the dealership]. I want you to take care of my car,’” Miles explains. “Just hearing things like that makes it worthwhile.”