While change can be good, and some might say inevitable, sticking to what’s worked for nearly 35 years is probably a good idea. Foreign Affairs Auto has served the European car owners in the West Palm Beach, FL, area since 1982, and General Manager Jonathan Ortiz says a focus on the customer has always served the shop well.
“Our customer service is exceptional,” Jonathan says. “That’s how we retain our customers. It’s very simple, our entire staff knows that once we have a customer in the door, they are ours to lose. We can then combine our strategic marketing retention efforts to keep our shop top-of-mind, but it’s our customer service that we want to embed in our clients’ minds so they think of Foreign Affairs Auto when the time comes that their vehicle needs service or repair.”
A Bosch Car Service (BCS) center for many years, the nine-bay shop caters to nameplates such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and other higher-end European makes. Foreign Affairs Auto employs 15 employees, and the shop’s five technicians are either ASE certified or factory trained. Jonathan says ongoing training is a high priority and a key element of the shop’s management style.
“We have a mutual commitment with our staff members to complete a minimum of 20 hours of training per staff member per year,” he explains. “For the most part, staff members attend single, full-day or two-day training events provided by WORLDPAC Training Institute. This year, our technicians will also be attending either the SSF or LMV Bavarian training events for BMW. We complete additional online training through AVI OnDemand.”
Since these training sessions often occur on the weekends, Jonathan says the management staff wanted to develop a way for employees to combine work and play. It’s another great example of putting people — in this case employees and their families — first.
“Since most of the training events are over the weekends, we like to find ways to provide a training perk with some leisure activities. We may find a nice hotel with great amenities near the training event location in which the staff member may elect to bring along their spouse and/or kids and enjoy the hotel amenities for the weekend.”
Jonathan says taking a proactive approach to staff development has also helped with employee retention. Happy people, both employees and customers alike, make for a successful business.
“We make it no secret that we strive to maintain a professional environment in which our technicians can be successful, earn highly competitive compensation, achieve both their personal and career goals and, most importantly, be happy,” he says. “Happiness is the key for us. Our staff knows management will always go the extra mile for them, and this creates a great reciprocal return.
“This commitment is embedded in our culture,” Jonathan continues. “It’s a cycle of commitment. Our company works for our customers, our staff works for our company and our management team works for our staff.”
To maintain that level of engagement, Jonathan says monthly staff meetings keep everyone up to date on the previous month’s performance, as well as revenue targets and housekeeping items. Regular meetings, he says, go a long way in maintaining accountability.
“When the new month arrives, we begin the discussion by first reviewing the previous month’s objectives to ensure nothing fell in between the cracks, and to ensure we did what we said we were going to do,” he explains.
Jonathan says that as an independent repair facility, Foreign Affairs Auto is unable to compete with franchised dealers or national chains dollar for dollar in marketing spend. So, instead, the management staff seeks to keep growing the shop’s customer base each week by retaining customers through superior customer service.
“Our shop generally maintains about a 20% new customer average per week,” he says. “Being a mature shop, this number proves we are still growing our customer base. Regardless of how many years we have been in operation, we never want to stop growing.”
Focusing on the customers’ needs from the moment they walk through the front door has served the shop well.
“The two biggest words I can think of that relate or describe our customer service approach are ‘transparency’ and ‘yes,’” Jonathan explains. “We want to create an atmosphere that doesn’t seem like an auto repair shop, and have a customer service team that focuses sharply on the customers’ needs. We believe if we attend to our customers’ needs first and foremost, the dollars will follow.”
To that end, Jonathan says the management staff has worked hard to create an inviting atmosphere that doesn’t feel like a repair shop. Aromatherapy scents infuse the waiting area, and background music makes it even more relaxing.
“We want our customers to immediately be at ease upon entering our doors,” he says. “We commonly hear our customers describing our reception area as ‘cool,’ ‘relaxing’ and ‘chill.’ This is a big accomplishment, as most people enter a shop with a lot of apprehension because their car just broke down or needs attention. Nobody likes spending money on their broken car.
“We use the shop appearance and environment to first calm their natural concern and make them feel comfortable,” he continues. “If our reception area alone can provide a customer with a full sense of ease and make them feel reassured that they chose the right place to bring their car, we are ahead of the game.”
But to choose your shop in the first place, a potential customer must find it. And while word of mouth still brings in friends and family of satisfied customers, more than ever, a strong Web presence is a must.
“Just as a clean, professional shop environment is critical for a first impression when a client arrives, an appealing website is your first impression when a potential customer finds you online,” Jonathan says. “You have only a few seconds to impress, so it has to look good, be relevant to today’s online standards and create an emotional connection to make customers want to call you to fix their car.
“A good, effective site could determine whether or not a customer decides to pick up the phone and call you,” he continues. “In addition to a strong webpage, develop your social media pages. We prefer to do these in-house, as we can capture the special moments every day and share them with the world. We are very active on Facebook and Instagram. We feel that publishing unique content grows our brand and emotionally connects with our customers on a social level.”
One area that can have a major impact on shop profitability is parts sourcing. Jonathan says the staff has implemented a strategy to shop smarter to ensure they’re getting the best value.
“In the past, we felt we fell into the trap of convenience, relying solely on the online parts ordering catalogs,” he explains. “Our service advisors are now required to shop every single part across both of our major parts vendors to ensure we are buying the part at the very best price available. Over the last four months, we have already seen about a 5% increase in parts profitability.”
Service advisors also plan ahead and make sure parts will be readily available for the next day’s appointments.
“Our service advisors are always committed to making sure parts are ordered and here at optimal times,” Jonathan says. “Each day, our advisors skim through the following day’s appointments to ensure we have all of the parts needed for confirmed service appointments. Small, strategic steps like this improve shop productivity by minimizing any controllable delays.”
At the end of the day, Jonathan says operating a successful automotive repair shop comes down to the “Three Ps” — People, Processes and Product.
“Your people are your No. 1 asset,” he says. “The right people take care of your customers and make the shop profitable. The wrong people won’t. Proper processes will allow the shop to grow. If you implement processes when the shop is still small, it can grow in a much more consistent and controllable way.
“Lastly, in today’s competitive environment, you have to want your product to stand out to gain a competitive advantage,” he concludes. “A differentiation strategy can deliver profits because a unique service experience cannot easily be duplicated or ‘price-shopped.’ Strive to deliver as much value as you can for your customers’ dollar.”