Learning From the Lows

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When you’ve shared the better part of your life with an entire industry, it’s hard to know exactly where to draw the line—when you’ve shared too much or not enough.

Sharing successes is kind of a no-brainer. Most people have no problem sharing their triumphs, especially “I/me” people.

I’ve always been a “we/us” person. I know it takes more than one person to accomplish anything of significance. Consequently, I don’t care who gets the credit as long as whatever needs to get done gets done.

It’s sharing adversity and failure that cripples most people. First, no one is anxious to revisit the dark places where failure can be found, especially when that pain may have been self-inflicted. And, second, we all want to believe the effort and energy associated with accomplishing any worthwhile goal or important objective will be rewarded and not punished.

The problem is growth!

You see, I’m not sure we learn anything of consequence from what we’ve done right, especially on the first attempt. Growth is almost always the direct result of learning, and the education involved in that learning requires effort, includes risk, and is often both costly and uncomfortable.

“You take a deep breath, back away from the ledge ...
and re-examine everything you’ve done.”
—Mitch Schneider

If that’s true, I learned a lot this past December. We closed November 2012 on track to exceed the previous year’s numbers by more than five percent. Sales, gross profit, gross profit on parts and labor mix—the ratio of labor sales to parts sales—were all up. Our numbers were so good that talking about them with other shop owners not enjoying the same success was actually uncomfortable enough to simply respond with “we’re holding our own” when asked.

I was feeling good about the calendar year quickly coming to an end as Thanksgiving passed and we headed into December. We were “holding our own” well enough to feel good about everything we were doing: policies, process, procedures, marketing, customer service—everything.

Feeling good lasted until Monday, Dec. 3, when someone threw a switch, pulled the plug, closed the door and the phones went dead.

Calling December a bad month wouldn’t do it justice. A bad month is a 5 percent dip in profit or sales. A really ‘bad’ month would be a 10 percent drop. But, how would you describe a 45 percent free-fall? What do you do when the bottom literally drops out?

The first thing you do is call the shop just to make sure the phones still work. Then, you check your reviews just to ensure they’re all still positive and you’re not being unjustly crucified. Then you take a deep breath, back away from the ledge, find a quiet corner where you can sit down and re-examine everything you’ve done—or, may not have done—that might have led you to this crisis.

You look at everything, recognizing that nothing is sacred. Everything you’re doing or have ever done can be improved, enhanced or eliminated and no matter what that turns out to be, it’s your job to get it done.

There is a third caveat and that is not to do anything unless or until you are certain it will make a difference—the kind of difference you need and want it to make. Avoid the knee-jerk reaction to drop down into the middle of your problem like some kind of ninja superhero, cutting and slashing your way through your problems like you actually knew what you were doing.

That may be the most satisfying thing you could do, but I can guarantee it won’t be the most productive! It certainly wouldn’t have worked here.

You see, when all was said and done, I couldn’t take credit for the fall. Things just got “quiet.” No one was buying. Everyone was waiting, waiting until after the holidays.

Nothing was wrong. No one was at fault. It was just the perfect storm of external circumstance—the “Fiscal Cliff,” Newtown, the economy—all beyond anyone’s control.

Then Dec. 31 came, and the phone lines exploded! People started calling, and the calls haven’t stopped. The lot is so full we have to park our own vehicles down the block or across the street. Just about everyone who was supposed to come in last month is trying to schedule an appointment for this month. The first full week of 2013 booked in at one-and-a-half times the normal volume for five days!

That doesn’t mean we’re going back to “business as usual” even though “business as usual” had nothing to do with the almost catastrophic free-fall we experienced. And, while I know that it wasn’t “me” and it wasn’t “us” that caused us to lose an entire month, I never want to fall that far or that fast again without knowing with absolute certainty there is a safety net in place to catch us. I never want to fall that far or that fast again without knowing that I have a parachute that will open sooner and perform better, ensuring a drop that’s a bit less terrifying and a landing that isn’t quite as bumpy.

Mitch Schneider is a fourth-generation auto repair professional and the owner of Schneider’s Auto Repair in Simi, Calif. He is a longtime industry educator, trade journalist, author and seminar facilitator. Contact him at mschneider@ratchetandwrench.com.

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