It doesn’t get much bigger than this; at 23 bays with 15 hydraulic lifts, Rick & Ray’s Auto Plaza has positioned itself as a top contender not only in Fort Worth, TX, where it’s located, but also in the surrounding areas where the shop’s notoriety continues to bring in business.
Is Bigger Better?
Ray Konderla, who co-owns the shop, got his start 25 years ago with his friend and now business partner, Rick Bradshaw. Ray has always enjoyed working with cars, and when the owner of the shop he previously worked at was planning to sell, Ray teamed up with Rick and went into business together as Rick & Ray’s Auto Plaza. With Rick mainly managing the business operations side of the shop and Ray handling the shop operations and repairs, the two go together seamlessly.
“It’s a good balance,” says Ray. “He’s [Rick] kind of the ying to my yang because I’m not afraid to do stuff and he’s cautious. It helps us stay grounded.”
Within their new 16,000-sq.-ft. building, the shop boasts a total of seven technicians and three service advisors. For 20 years, the shop was based along a main street in Fort Worth, but when the city declared eminent domain on the property, Rick and Ray had to relocate to a less prime industrial area. Despite the move, Ray says business is stronger than ever and, instead of losing customers, they actually gained more.
“I would have never planned to move,” Ray says, “but when we started looking for a new location, I specifically looked for something bigger than we originally had.”
Almost doubling the shop’s space lead to higher productivity for his technicians because they’re not constantly trying to share one lift and fight for work space.
“Unless you measure it, it will not be improved,” Ray says. “There are many things that five years ago I was not measuring, but I’m measuring today. So, every one of my technicians has a time budget.”
Ray explains that monitoring a technician’s time and productivity, makes it easier to assign out tasks and make sure the job gets done quickly and effectively.
“A lot of the business side of it is measuring customer satisfaction,” Ray says. “If I have a customer waiting for an hour and a half for an oil change; who’s responsible? I’ve set certain goals and we meet those goals. If we’re not meeting those goals, we have a meeting about how we’re going to fix it.”
Ray stresses the importance of having procedures in place from the moment the keys are dropped off, to when the customer comes to pick up the vehicle, so employees know how to handle certain situations and designate who is responsible.
A Big Shop and a Big Reputation
Rick & Ray’s Auto Plaza can do just about any type of service, including custom exhaust, tires, air conditioning or any other maintenance services. While the shop works on all makes and models, including diesel engines and hybrid electric cars, the shop is best known for its diagnostic work. With three ASE-certified technicians and four ASE Master-certified technicians, the shop is known for tackling difficult diagnostics that other shops are unable to figure out.
One offering that allows the shop to step up its diagnostic game is free digital courtesy inspections or “health inspections” for each customer.
“We have a 21-picture policy,” Ray explains. “So, each vehicle that comes in gets 21 pictures of both the good things and the bad things we find. We’re able to focus on the good things like, ‘your tires and brakes are in good shape,’ so they know it’s worth investing in, but also let them know any concerns that we have.”
The photos from the inspection help show customers what their vehicle looks like and any problem areas are coded with a green, yellow and red color system, with red being an area that needs to be repaired as soon as possible.
“It’s a great selling tool, plus customers can pull up that email with the inspection report six months later and review it to see what needs to be done on their vehicle,” Ray explains.
The report acts not only as a customer resource, but also as a marketing tool for the shop. Ray says the shop sends personalized follow-up emails to customers after a visit to the shop, with the report to remind them to come back in for maintenance.
In addition, the shop strives to have a top-ranked online presence on both Google and Yelp search results for its area. Recently, Ray says he’s been focusing on Google reviews and has dramatically increased the number of reviews the shop has in the last two years.
“I don’t know how you can operate in this world without having an online presence,” Ray advises. “It’s amazing how many shops are not online; I couldn’t imagine my business without the Internet.”
Ray says that while the shop doesn’t rely on social media to bring in business, it does serve as another messaging tool to get the word out about the shop and associate it with professionalism.
Professionalism to Ray is also about having a nice, clean-looking shop for customers. He stresses that if an independent shop offers things like a nice bathroom, free WiFi and drinks, and a clean waiting area, customers are going to have even more of a reason to come back.
“All of those things speak quality to the customer and it will make a decision for a customer,” Ray says. “The expectation bar is very low in the automotive industry, so the higher I move that bar, the more likely I’m going to be retaining that customer.”
Beyond first impressions, a lot more goes into keeping customers around than just cleanliness. To show their appreciation to their loyal customers, Ray says the shop uses a rewards program to give back. This includes anniversary and holiday discount coupons about four times a year that are mailed out to the shop’s repeat customers.
“Any time that I can reach out to my existing customers, I know it’s going to benefit me,” Ray says. “I’m going to do something to go above and beyond because I know what their value is to me for their lifetime. There are a lot of guys in this industry who are very much penny pinchers; That’s not my attitude. I will go above and beyond to make sure that I take care of that customer and have that customer leave satisfied and very excited about doing business with us.”
Finding and Training Techs
While some shops are having issues filling technician jobs, Rick and Ray’s Auto Plaza is accumulating resumes of potential techs and keeping them on file. The key? Creating a reputation in which you’re known for treating your employees well, according to Ray.
“I think one of the biggest things is to make sure that they [your techs] realize they’re valued,” Ray says. “I think personal attention and their needs outside of work are important. If I can help them or take an interest in who they are — that goes a long way in retaining employees.”
Ray says most of his technicians are recruited by word of mouth and all go through a rigorous interview process. He emphasizes that the more you can find out about a candidate during interviews, the better.
The last tech the shop hired was first interviewed by Ray one-on-one, and then sat down for a group interview with the shop’s three service advisors for more questions. In addition, each candidate has to take a test made up of questions from two sample certification tests to make sure they really know their stuff.
“Somebody can say, ‘yes, I do diagnostics,’ but until they’re tested, how do you know?” Ray asks.
Once a potential employee’s skill set is confirmed, the candidate is given the Wonderlic personality test to weed out people who wouldn’t be compatible for the job. Skeptical at first before implementing this new test, Ray and his employees took the test themselves and were amazed at its accuracy.
Another skill to keep in mind when hiring new techs is their second language knowledge. Being in Texas, Ray says while being bilingual and speaking Spanish isn’t a necessity to work at his shop, it sure is a plus for both the shop and its customers.
“The more diverse your employees are, the more diverse your customers will be,” Ray says. “For instance, there may be a segment of your community that you really don’t even know is out there until you have somebody who speaks Spanish or Vietnamese. Sometimes, I think you can limit yourself because you don’t have that employee who’s going to reach that community. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, everyone wants to be treated professionally and serviced properly.”
In order to ensure the shop is properly servicing all of its customers, each technician and service advisor goes through various training, both in-house and outside of the shop. Ray, who is a strong believer in continued education, pays for his employees to attend training across the country to make sure they’re up to date on everything new, and to refresh their memory on all of the basic procedures.
“I do think investing in your employees and their continued education is critical,” Ray says. “It keeps them challenged and keeps them motivated.”
Knowing Your Worth and Pricing Services Accordingly
Ray says a large part of being a co-owner is figuring out what your shop is worth, and how to price the shop’s services accordingly.
“If I’m overcharging a customer, then all I’m doing is asking them to pay me more than the guy down the street,” Ray explains. “But, if I’m better than the guy down the street, then should I not charge a higher price? What is the value proposition that I’m offering my customer? If I’m expecting to get paid like a top-rate shop, then I better be delivering on that to the customer.”
In his experience, customers are generally willing to pay whatever you ask, as long as they’re being properly taken care of and feel that they are being professionally serviced. It’s the same reason why Ray doesn’t compete with dealerships, or try to match or beat what they charge.
“Customers will say, ‘well you’re more expensive than the dealer,’” Ray says, “and my response to that is, ‘Then, why are you coming to me instead of the dealer?’”
Ray says although he won’t always beat the dealer in price, he believes that the service provided at his shop is quality, personalized service that customers won’t get at any dealership. So, Ray strives to make sure his customers are charged a fair price for any and all services they receive.
“If I take care of the customer, and better than they expect, then I hope that customer will never go anywhere else, regardless of price,” Ray says. “But, they have to see the value in the price.”
Running a Modern-Day, Successful Shop
“In any business, you have to be courageous and not be afraid to fail,” Ray says. “Because if you’re afraid to fail and that keeps you from trying to do something different or something bold, then you’re just going to be stuck in mediocrity.”
There’s a lot that goes into running a shop, especially a growing one. Ray’s personal goal for his shop in the near future is to have three more techs in order to further utilize the amount of space available.
“As an owner, it’s important to be aware of your employees’ talents and limitations, as well as being aware of your customers’ expectations,” Ray advises.
One of the things Ray has worked hard to create is a culture of professionalism within the shop. He believes that, as an industry, shop owners should focus on making sure they not only treat auto service professionals with dignity, but their customers, as well.
“I think there are a lot of guys out there who are trying to make a quick buck or don’t know how to treat people with the respect that they deserve, and that gives all of us a bad name,” Ray says. “I don’t know how many times a customer has come in and is already defensive because they’ve been run through the ringer by a bunch of different places that are unprofessional. I have a hard enough time fixing cars; it’s even more difficult to fix people’s image of the automotive industry.
“So, I hope that everybody gets on board and starts treating people with respect and professionalism and, when they do — it will benefit all of us.”