Next to purchasing a home, the acquisition and ongoing maintenance of a vehicle is likely the next largest expense in most people's monthly budget. Depending on an owner's choice of vehicle, that cost can consume up to half of their take-home pay or more. And while technology and the Internet of Things have impacted vehicles in many ways, cars still can't fix themselves.
With the proliferation of quick lubes in the 1980s and 1990s, getting your oil changed and performing routine maintenance is easier than ever. At the same time, some operators are reconsidering not offering more than the basic oil change, air filters or wiper replacement. They're asking whether or not it makes more sense to provide soup-to-nuts car care for their customers. If so, does simply adding services to your operation translate to better car counts?
If you've been considering ways to up the ante at your shop, two owner/operators who've made the jump to total car care offer ideas and a way forward.
Walker Tire/Quick Nick's in Lincoln, NebraskaNick Vuko is president of Walker Tire and Quick Nick's in Lincoln, Nebraska. Walker Tire began as a tire store, opened a quick lube and now has transitioned into total car care.
"About five years ago, we were doing the smaller repairs at Walker Tire, when people came in for a oil change at Quick Nick's," Vuko said. "If we found a problem, we'd set them up at Walker Tire (the two stores are next to one another)."
But Vuko was concerned that they still had to send people away to other places for things they weren't doing at Walker Tire.
Vuko started by making investments in new equipment at their main store and in their other fast lube stores (they have four locations in greater-Lincoln).
"I bought a Hunter Hawkeye Alignment machine. We added some additional lifts," Vuko said, adding that he likes the Blazer 9000 lift from Devon. "Being able to properly reset the stability control is important in doing reliable alignment work - the Hunter Hawkeye really helps the technician in 'lining up the car,' as well as adjusting the camber and toe correctly on the vehicle."
But simply adding services to your fast lube thinking it will be a silver bullet is a mistake, Vuko warned. There are a number of other variables. Even then, navigating the fine line between speed, convenience and offering those additional services that fall under total car care for your customers often requires the skill and nimbleness of an athlete walking a high-wire.
"One of my biggest challenges with Quick Nick's is keeping my bay times manageable, while offering additional services," he said. "If I bottle-neck my bays, I've lost any benefit that comes with offering more."
Vuko is banking on customers appreciating these added services, however, and not going elsewhere for them. He also believes providing outstanding service keeps customers coming back.
East Ridge Fast Lube in Chattanooga, TennesseeJimmy Grant owns four East Ridge Fast Lubes in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He's a veteran quick lube operator, having begun in the industry 30 years ago. All four of his shops have made the jump over to total car care. Grant has a wealth of stories from his three decades of being "in the trenches."
"When I started, I had a two-bay tandem. My very first day, I did nine cars. Two years later on a Saturday afternoon, I was at 49 cars. I'd always opened and closed, and I wanted to hit 50 cars for the first time. I wasn't leaving until I got that 50th car. We stayed open for three hours and never did another car," Grant laughed. "The next Saturday, we did 55, though."
Grant said the transition to total car care happened because of him being there, on the floor, talking to customers.
"When people came in and I couldn't do the job, I had to send them down the street to the tire store or any other place offering a $19.95 oil change. This got me to thinking, 'I'm giving my customers away,'" he said.
Grant wasn't looking to lure customers by being the cheapest shop in the city. He says he was charging $30 at the time. He also realized that by sending them away, they might not come back. His shops began doing belts and belt tightening. Then they started doing batteries.
"At that time, we were doing 100 transmission flushes a week," Grant said. "We'd bought a machine - we were on the radio, with the car gurus talking about us. This was during that time when people's cars would 'shudder' when they'd shift into overdrive - the flush took care of that."
Grant mentioned the importance of having the proper inventory to be able to perform expanded services. In his case, it's a large inventory of tires in stock.
"I try to keep 400 tires on-hand," Grant said. "If you don't have tires, you can't sell them. So often, someone's leaving town on a trip and wants an oil change. They'll have a bald tire, or three, and if I have the tires, they'll tell me to 'put them on.'"
Grant also likes being able to get the tires off the car because that allows him to see other issues and diagnose mechanical problems related to brakes and the suspension.
"With the tires off, the car is 'naked,' and you can diagnose other issues for the customer," Grant said.
The Last WordOwning a business where you have to hire additional staff is always challenging. At the end of the day, customers want to service their car where they feel like the owner and staff cares about their car and fixing it right the first time.
Grant and Vuko are doing something right, as they've been able to keep good employees on-board. This means that when you visit one of the East Ridge Fast Lubes, Walker Tire or one of Quick Nick's, you'll recognize familiar faces. The person greeting you is also likely to know you and remember your previous visit.
"It continues to be a challenge to find good people," Vuko said. "You've got to pay a little more to get the right people working for you."
Beyond that, Vuko said that he works hard to make sure his techs are doing the right thing at the right time. In addition to pay, Vuko has been doing skills assessments, which help him make sure that his techs have the "people skills" that enhance the automotive side of the work.
"Customers want to feel confident their car is being fixed right the first time," Vuko said. "For me, that means continually modifying training, while staying current and up-to-date."
With Grant, it's not uncommon for you to visit his shop and have him being the person greeting you as you pull into the bay.
"I'm not criticizing, but some owners can't wait to get off the floor. For me, I've always been down there, talking to my customers," he said. "It's how I know what's going on, and it allows me to always keep my finger on the pulse of my business."
Grant echoes Vuko about having good people working in your shop.
"I pay well. When guys are making a good hourly wage and have food in their bellies, they're happy. I don't have a problem paying overtime. By paying good money, people stay with me," Grant said. "Eighty percent of my guys have been with me for more than 10 years."
Automotive veterans like Grant and Vuko know that a model that values customers also must include being able to offer them the services they need, at the time they need them. By making sure you have trained and certified technicians who treat customers right, and being able to provide total car care, there's no reason for customers to take their vehicles anywhere else.