It's Time to Think Outside the Box, Again

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Fast lube operators today face more challenges than in years past. Payroll costs are higher, real estate is more expensive, vehicles are more complex and there are more government regulations to contend with and competition is much more prevalent.

It’s time to think outside the box — again. You see, the fast lube industry began with pure outside-of-the-box thinking. Before opening my first facility in 1979, I discussed it with a lot of those who performed oil changes in general auto repair shops, service stations and dealerships. Every single one thought it was insane to focus on performing the one job that was everyone else’s loss leader. The attorney I consulted with thought it was insane with high liabilities and little profit. The banker — who was also my spouse — actually laughed out loud at such a frivolous concept. Well, life got a bit tense when the house, furniture and cars were used as collateral for the start-up loan.

But they were all thinking oil change, and I was thinking of putting on a show. The concept was to put on a production with such a high level of personal service and showmanship that people would come for the experience more than just the chore of getting their oil changed. There would be fast-paced music. The performers would wear sharp racing jumpsuits and do the service in a rehearsed, methodical sequence, working simultaneously both over and under the car, calling out the services as they were performed and using airline-style challenge/response quality control checklists.

The customer would be lavished with compliments, freshly brewed coffee and flowers or gifts. They would have drive-through convenience and stay seated in the car at front-row-center to observe and be a participant in our show.

We would do 36 service and inspection items on the car and, by use of the dialogue, checklists, menus and signage, ensure the customer was aware each service was performed.

We would admire their car and admire them for caring so much for their car that they would entrust it to us. We would admire their grandkids, their dogs and their fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. They were all to be treated like royalty. There would be a specific script, and their name or the words, “Sir,” “Ma’am,” “thank you” or “please” would be spoken in every phrase. We would market convenience, confidence and ego gratification and just consider the oil change a reason for them coming through our doors.

Although we made just about every mistake one could make that first month after opening, the concept proved valid, and a year later, an average of 60 cars a day came to see our show. During the next three decades, likeminded entrepreneurs fueled phenomenal growth of the industry and established fast lube services in almost every town in the country.

The point of all this is thinking outside the box can provide handsome rewards. It might be worth the time spent relaxing over a coffee and proactively think about, “How can I break out of the mold? What can I do to be more appealing? What can I do that no one has done before?”

The following thoughts aren’t specific recommendations. They are sparks to prime your imaginative processes along the lines of thinking outside the box:

1. A pick-up and delivery service? Most operators would be quick to think, “I don’t have enough time or people for that,” or “That’s too much liability,” but Bev Cavinder, a 25-year veteran manager at Oil-N-Go in Valpariso, Indiana, is an out-of-the-box thinker. She has made free pick-up and delivery a very lucrative focal point of her fast lube. She has molded herself into Genie, the business logo inspired by the TV series, “I Dream of Jeannie.” With a bevy of attractive ladies who do the pick-up — and make the phone sales presentation after the vehicle arrives — tickets are frequently more than $100. They do most every feasible add-on service, including carwash, detailing, serpentine belts, coolant and transmission flushes, tire rotations and brake service — and with no time to spend waiting, most customers opt for several.

They offer the service to customers within a five-mile radius and have a signage- wrapped vehicle emblazoned with the words, free pick-up and delivery. They even offer fuel top-offs at a nearby company-owned gas station. One vehicle takes all the drivers out for pickups. Since the pick-up customers’ cars are available for an extended period, they are fed into the line during slow periods of the normal flow. It is a fast-paced store doing some 400 cars a week, and the pick-up service accounts for about 30 to 40 of those. Vehicles are usually returned at the same time with one pick-up trip for all the drivers.

Payment is usually by credit card at the time the customer requests the service. Cavinder is enthusiastic and said, “Many of our customers have more money than time, and our pick-up and delivery service is unique and provides the highest possible level of convenience. With all we do, why would they go anywhere else?” Siri may tell them how to get somewhere, but Genie gets their car care business. Check out Cavinder as Genie in their TV ads at Oil-N-Go website:

2. The more affluent the demographics, the more people will opt for fast lube services. Affluent neighborhoods have homeowner associations. Homeowner associations have newsletters. A win/win is possible by covering the printing costs in return for including your car care article or advertising. They get free printing. You get low-cost advertising that is beneficial to the customer.

3. Do the job for $10? It might work well if the service is paid for with pre-1963 silver coins. Might give some seniors in your area with a coin jug in their closet a reason to come to you. Think of the tax benefit!

4. Have your own mint? Consider bartering using your printed pre-paid tickets. You need groceries. Their employees need their oil changed. Need plumbing? Need lawn care? Need tires? Everybody needs an oil change and would probably opt for you if they could trade their goods or services. Don’t rule out the major players with hundreds of employees. A pre-paid ticket for an oil change would make a great stocking stuffer Christmas bonus.

5. Ladies night? Senior day? An antique car show? A high school driver’s ed training day on how to care for your car?

6. An “atta-boy” letter a day? Pick one person every day who has served you well — a bank teller, waiter, or retail clerk, etc. — and send a complimentary letter to the CEO at the very top of their organization. Google has their name and address.

Every person at the top cherishes atta-boy letters, and it will come back down the line. Do one a day, and in three years, those you chose will probably make up more than 1,000 of your regular customers.

7. Send money in the mail? That’s a complete no-no, right? Nobody does that! Come on; think outside the box. The idea has to be different. Give it a try. Send 100 envelopes to addresses in an affluent neighborhood with a dollar bill in it. No letter, no advertising, nothing else in the envelope except the dollar bill and no message other than your return address on the envelope. Human curiosity is a wonderful sales tool. Every single household will discuss it and know who you are and where you are. Isn’t that the goal of advertising? Most will be curious enough to visit.

All of these are just thoughts to attract new customers. Always keep in mind, it’s pointless to attract new customers unless your crew is poised enough to put on a great show. Train and rehearse, then go find an audience.  

JOE HAGGARD writes from a customer’s point of view and is a retired fast lube consultant. He welcomes comments at 352.861.1985 or via email:

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