The New Normal Operational Training: Culture

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So far this year, I have traveled from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast and many places in between. Years ago, a friend of mine told me when he travels he never eats at a restaurant he could eat at when he is at home. If possible, he tries to participate in local traditions and customs. This is good advice, and when possible, I let this be my travel rule, too.

As a result of this adventurous spirit, I have discovered some fantastic places and have met some very interesting people along the way. My friends and family have come to expect when I return from somewhere I normally start my stories with, “Someday you really need to go to…” Now, I have had some misguided adventures, a meal that was less than appealing and I waited out a longer layover than I wished for, but even these experiences have contributed to the whole story.

Some of my disappointments have been, in every major city there are the same drug stores on the corner and the same franchise restaurants and retail shopping experiences all located in the same malls. But you know what makes them different? Culture. Even when I do need to go to a familiar place, it is always a different environment from what I am used to when I am at home. Of all the things making us the same, our different cultures make us different.

On several trips, I discovered shops owned by the same owners, but are in different states or cities or have different cultures. It is our culture that makes us unique, and we should be looking at our shop culture to decide if it’s the desired environment we want.

Sometimes personality gets confused with culture, so I will try to distinguish the difference. Personality is an emotional quality of behaving with a particular person or in this case, a particular shop, where the culture is a way of thinking or behaving that exists there. When I oversaw the shops I was responsible for, I thought it was good for each shop to have its own personality, but I wanted the customer experience to be the same regardless of what location the customer went to. In other words, I wanted the culture to be the same within all of the locations.

In this era of the new normal, creating a culture where the customer is king and the staff is an expert at performing their duties starts with our policy guide and flows through the procedure manual. Both of these critical documents have been discussed, and you can go online to the National Oil & Lube News (NOLN) website to refresh your memory on policy and procedure.

The culture in the shop is the difference between you and your competition. For example, several years ago I discovered an interesting behavior when several of our customers would interact with the staff. In some cases, when customers came in, they would roll down their window about two-inches, but at other times would roll their windows down all the way. At times, customers would get out of their vehicles and visit with the guys, but the next time they’d sit in their car and not even make eye contact with the guys. After watching this for a while, I began to ask our customers what made them only sometimes interact with our crew? You know what I found out? It was about the hair.

Long hair and facial hair offended our customers. In this particular part of U.S., long hair and hairy faces were still associated with people of questionable reputations. The answer shocked me. I had gotten to know our staff, and although they may have looked a little rough, they were very kind and hard-working people with great attitudes. The problem was, they didn’t look like it. Whether you agree or disagree, the fact was my conservative community didn’t appreciate long locks or facial hair and didn’t see it as professional. As I used to tell my kids when they wanted to do something socially unacceptable, “I don’t make society’s rules, but they are still the rules.” In other words, “Sorry kids, it’s our culture.”

After some more research on shops with “no hair below the collar and no facial hair” dress codes, the evidence was overwhelming. In these shops, the customer interactions with the personnel were friendly and personal — the way you would want your customers to feel when in your shop. Needless to say, soon the dress code was amended company wide.

Soon after, I noticed customers coming in the shop, rolling down their windows and getting out of their cars to talk to the guys. In most cases, it was the same shop personnel, but with a clean face and shorter hair. We changed the “culture,” but kept the personality.

I have noticed when I am invited to a shop to conduct operational training, the culture issue varies based on where you are in the country and even where you are in your state. Not long ago, I was in one of our sunny and warm states and everyone from shop owners to the customers were wearing shorts. A few weeks later, I was in one of the mountain states and everyone was wearing long pants. In both places we discussed dress code, and you guessed it — in warm climates shorts were acceptable and in cooler climates, long pants were the norm. However, I was also in one of our desert states and although it was warm, the dress code in this shop was still long pants. Why was this? This particular location was located very close to a retirement community, and when the shop owner polled his older clientele he found out most of his customers felt a uniform including long pants was more professional looking than shorts. The community they serve affected the culture of the shop.

Most operators quickly understand if you keep the shop clean, the lot free of trash and fresh paint on the signs and building, you attract more business. At the same time, we have long discussions about the culture of the shop and why this is critical to a new customer. There are times I hear an employee or manager say, “Well, I am not offended by short pants, long hair or tattoos.” My response is, “You are not the customer.”

In today’s environment, where the customer is king and our goal is to give them what they want, the funnel for answering the culture question is this: Who benefits? Is it the shop or the customer? If it is the customer, you have it right!

Having good shop culture starts with deciding who you are going to be. After two years of consulting with many operators, from single-shop owners to multi-shop organizations, one thing everyone has in common is the desire to attract and retain customers. I have been asked, “What is the most important issue to address?” My answer is always, “It is all important.” In today’s competitive environment everyone from big box stores to car dealerships to independent quick lubes are competing for the same customer. I have discovered it is not the concept of the shop the customers are looking for, it’s the shop that truly places the customer as the No. 1 priority of the business.

A few months ago, I was in a community and saw a billboard for a locally owned and operated quick lube. The sign showed a customer sitting in the car wearing a king’s crown with a catchy slogan about how the shop loved their customers. When I went into another franchised shop in the area, they had out-of-state owners and customers in all three bays with other customers’ vehicles waiting outside. I smiled at the owners and said, “According to your competitor’s advertising they treat their customers like royalty.” The owner smiled and said, “Yeah, words are cheap and customers know the difference.” Of course, that lead me to ask what the difference was, and he said, “Our company culture is focused on the customer’s experience while in the shop.”

What is the culture in your shop? Start by looking around your community. I have found one way to research this issue is to drive by other businesses in your area with the majority of the customers in their places. Grocery stores are normally good places; everyone needs groceries, right? Which grocery store has the most traffic? Go into the store and look around. Then go to their competition. What is the difference? Normally, the biggest differences stem from culture issues. Go back to your shop. What lessons did you learn from the grocery stores? Which grocery store looks most like your shop?

As we wrap up the third quarter of what I hope has been a good year for you, I would love to hear about what your “new normal” has looked like in 2015. The holidays — the most profitable time of the year for many of us — are around the corner. As we lean into the fourth turn and race to the finish line of 2015, think about what has been your best practice this year.

RAGAN HOLT is the quick lube advisor for National Oil & Lube News. He is available for consulting and training in the quick oil and lube industry. He can be contacted at:

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