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Enhancing the Customer Experience

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Everybody likes unexpected perks—from a free bottle of water while you wait to a seat upgrade on a cross-country flight. Giving customers something they didn’t see coming can help build loyalty and create a story around which a business can define itself within its community, says Bogi Lateiner, owner and president of 180 Degrees Automotive in Phoenix and trainer with the Institute for Automotive Business Excellence. 

Her fast-growing shop north of downtown Phoenix doubles as an art gallery, and is just one example of an auto repair business that has uncorked its creativity with customer service initiatives beyond quality repairs.  

The goal, Lateiner says, is giving your shop a larger story to tell, because, as she sees it, repairing cars properly the first time is just the “bare minimum of what we do.”

To show ways shops can improve their customer service with atypical add-ons, Ratchet+Wrench spoke with owners of two more facilities that, like Lateiner, are thinking differently to the delight of their employees, customers, communities and bottom lines.

While-You-Wait Massage

Chip Vance is president of Auto Assets, a performance-focused shop north of Columbus, Ohio. Beyond installing racing chips or go-fast exhaust systems, Vance’s shop offers customers something they can’t get at many, if any, other auto repair facilities—a therapeutic massage. 

After buying the company in 2005 and starting a family, Vance’s wife, Mindee, sought a job that would offer her more flexibility. With an interest in natural and homeopathic healing, she became a licensed massage therapist. The pair decided to build her a massage studio in the shop, rather than renting a remote location somewhere else in town. 

“I think we approach customer relations and customer service differently than [competitors] do and I think that’s where our success comes from.”
—Chip Vance, president, Auto Assets

Now, customers can get a massage while they wait for their vehicles. The unusual combination of spousal skills has allowed them to build a one-off business that refers customers to and from both sides, while generating discussion and interest within their service area. 

“It’s one hand washing the other,” says Vance of the combo. “Massage clients that she’s gotten from referrals are introduced to our repair business, so that’s one more person who walks in and sees our facility, sees the kind of cars we work on and then refers other people they see [who may own] a Porsche or BMW.” 

Garage Massage is a separate business unit, located in its own corner on the second level of a new building, with its own serene decor, and it is purposely placed far from the sound of impact wrenches and revving engines.

The normal rate for an hour-long massage is $70, although shop customers can get an hour’s worth of stress relief for $50. Vance estimates that two to three of his clients opt for a massage in a typical week, not enough to transform the bottom line of either business. The benefit, he says, is in providing a unique perk to the customers, while giving his family greater flexibility. 

“As a business, we look for ways to differentiate our business from all of the other places that customers go,” Vance says. “Massage is an added component that no one else has, so we are different than our competition. I think we approach customer relations and customer service differently than they do and I think that’s where our success comes from, doing what’s best for the customer and being honest with them, documenting what we do, sharing information and educating them so they can make good decisions.”

Gathering Around the Table

Nannette Griffin is the owner of Griffin Muffler & Brake Center, located in the historic downtown district of Fort Madison, Iowa, just two blocks from one of the widest stretches of Mississippi River that separates the town from neighboring Illinois. 

A tire shop that expanded into full-service over the years, Griffin says most customers have a “wow” reaction upon walking into her 4,200-square-foot location for its homey atmosphere, picture windows overlooking Riverview Park and a large kitchen table strategically placed in the waiting area to encourage people to sit down, enjoy a beer or glass of wine and converse as if they were visiting a friend’s house. 

Beyond furniture, drinks and domestic decor, her shop has cultivated a reputation as a community gathering spot for many of the area’s annual events, and also because customers are offered beer and wine while they wait, in addition to the more typical offerings of coffee and water. 

After a previous career as a door-to-door insurance sales person, where she was encouraged to sit down with prospective customers at the kitchen table, Griffin chose to incorporate the table when rebuilding after a catastrophic fire in 2007.

“That’s where most important decisions are made, and that’s where people feel their most comfortable,” she says. “When you go to visit a friend, you don’t sit in their living room or formal dining room, you usually sit at the kitchen table.”

That central design element has become a symbol for a shop that aims to truly treat its customers like old family friends. 

While Griffin saves the wine and beer for afternoons and impromptu after-hours gatherings, she is careful  to use drinks as a casual customer perk, rather than sending motorized customers out the door with a buzz. 

From participating in Oktoberfest celebrations to being a stop on the town’s annual Main Street Wine & Beer Walk, the Griffins’ community engagement and low-key, hometown feel has helped them get to know their customer base, attract and retain new customers and craft a facility that’s a pleasant place to hang around. 

“It brings in new customers, and helps retain customers when they find out that these are some good people to deal with,” Griffin says of the complementary wine and beer, as well as many events hosted at the shop. “We try to give back to [the community] as much as we possibly can and … we’ve got a lot of new friends that we can now call old friends from being in business. When you’re here 10-12 hours a day, you’ve got to try to make it fun.”

Keeping it Classy

Taking a more holistic approach, an ode to her work as an industry trainer, Lateiner’s 180 Degrees Automotive is designed to be the polar opposite of every loud, greasy, testosterone-driven shop the auto repair industry is known for. 

After starting the business in her driveway in 2006, then cycling through a series of temporary locations, her new “forever home” is a beautiful shop with an open, urban feel that looks, feels and, she says, smells like no other repair facility. 

The cherry on top of that industry-leading ambiance is an art gallery space inside the shop lobby. Lateiner charges the rotating local artists a much lower commission than traditional galleries—15 percent versus the common 40—and kicks off each new showing with receptions that typically attract 40-50 people, a mix of the artist’s friends and family, as well as local art patrons and 180 Degree’s clientele. 

While she originally dreamed of a shop with a built-in coffee shop, Lateiner decided against the extra work of a separate business unit and, instead, decided an art gallery was the perfect way to utilize the building’s excess lobby space, while connecting with one of her personal passions and also providing waiting customers with a more pleasurable experience. 

“Having a space that involves art, the community and supports local artists is partially a selfish thing, because it allows me to combine all of my interests into one neat little space in my life and makes it fun for me,” she says. “There are some really great business benefits for it as well … it sets a really clear identity for who we are and what we’re about, and I believe that’s so crucial in marketing and branding.”

In her work as an educator for the Institute of Automotive Business Excellence, Lateiner advises business owners to think creatively to engage both customers and the community for the countless significant, yet intangible, branding effects. 

The add-on feature, plus-one or service for your individual shop could be any idea big or small, she says, as long as it’s done with authenticity and enthusiasm. 

“It’s going to be different for everybody, and I think that’s where it’s really fun,” Lateiner says. “There is no one size fits all, no magic bullet, no magic pill, it’s really digging deep to figure out what your ‘why’ is, what your story is and then get creative and have some fun and find ways to think outside the box and be about something bigger than replacing alternators and doing power steering services.” 

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