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There’s a simple truth in the auto service business that is universal, Ernestine Voskuilen says. It doesn’t matter if you run a facility in the Pacific Northwest or in the Florida Keys or even in The Netherlands, as Voskuilen does.

This industry, she says, is all about people.

“Your [team], your customer, people are what’s most important,” she says, “and that doesn’t matter where you are.”

While a number of industries around the world are still in the midst of a slow-building economic recovery, Voskuilen firmly believes it’s the people behind, in and supporting those businesses that have allowed them to thrive. People see obstacles and find tangible solutions. People work to put those solutions into action. People don’t relent, until change is made.

While the cultural differences abound, shop operators abroad, like Voskuilen, face similar challenges to those here in the U.S. market. Ratchet+Wrench examined three separate industries and the solutions their people found to the problems facing shops here in the U.S.


The Netherlands

One shop’s culture-focused model for overcoming common shop obstacles

Think about it: What makes you feel more comfortable?

“If you want to be ‘on the same level’ as someone, would you feel better if they were behind a desk or counter with a computer or papers in between, and you have to approach them and stand there?”

Ernestine Voskuilen asks this rhetorically, of course, before pausing to explain.

The desk—or counter, or platform, or window, or whatever—creates a physical divide instinctively felt by both parties, she says. Then there’s the computer and papers, the information that one party in this process has and the other doesn’t; that’s a divide, too.

The fact is, Voskuilen explains, businesses have for years built these barriers between themselves and their customers. Why? It’s simple, really, and it’s intentional: Doing so creates a feeling of superiority, a firm juxtapositioning of the “expert” (the business) from which the “layperson” (the consumer) seeks help.

So, Voskuilen asks again, what makes you feel more comfortable? There’s that traditional setup, or ...

“You’re standing right next to the person—no computers, no desks, no papers—now you’re both the same,” she explains. “You [approach] the entire relationship differently. Doesn’t that make you feel better?”

If you haven’t guessed by now, Auto Voskuilen, the full service repair business Voskuilen and her husband, Henk, founded 13 years ago, doesn’t use desks or counters for its three service advisors. A customer walks in through the chic black-steel-and-glass front doors, and he or she is greeted right away, in person, right there.

“They talk to [the customer] in the lobby, as an equal,” Voskuilen says.

It might seem like a minor thing, but it’s not, she explains. It’s the first step in building the proper customer experience of a modern auto service business—a customer experience that is actually centered on, well, the customer’s experience.

“You have to build a relationship from the beginning,” Voskuilen says. “There are too many things that make this business so difficult today. That initial [contact] is so important.”

And if that’s the start to it all, the entire organizational philosophy, team hierarchy (or lack thereof), and systemized operations at Auo Voskuilen fill out the rest. There are a number of reasons that the shop—now part of a three-pronged auto business for the Voskuilens—has become the premier facility in a prime market of The Netherlands.

There are reasons that a team of three technicians, with just four lifts, churned out the the equivalent of $2.1 million in service last year. We’ll get to those reasons (and why they each solve problems facing U.S. repairers today), but first, Voskuilen would prefer to sum it all up very succinctly.

“Think of the greeting,” she says. “When people want to come [to your shop] … and people want to work for you, everything else is a lot more simple.”

The ‘American Dream,’ Abroad

Let’s back up for a moment. Voskuilen, despite being the face of a thriving, independent auto business, is not a car person. She has a background in hospitality—restaurants, hotels and the like.

Henk is the car guy. He was a dealer technician for more than a decade before tiring of what he says was a corporate, sterile feel, a work environment that didn’t allow he and his fellow technicians to properly service customers. So, he quit, and started repairing vehicles in the shed behind the Voskuilens’ home.

The work started piling up, and eventually, Voskuilen joined her husband in moving the business into a scaled-down version of the Houten facility it has today. It’s small at roughly 1,600 square feet of shop space, but it was plenty big for the Voskuilens to get their start.

Henk focused on the back of the shop. Voskuilen took the front, and that’s where her background came into play. “Hotels and restaurants are all about customer service; that’s the only thing that matters,” she says. “I just took that same approach.”

The goal, she says now, was to not only create an environment where the customers felt like equals and “true neighbors” to Voskuilen and her team, but also that the team itself felt like no one person stood above another—and that included the two owners.

A “flat organizational structure” has become a buzz term among many U.S.-based tech startups, often inducing eye rolls from traditionalists. But when Voskuilen sought out to create a drastically unique culture for an auto service business, she wasn’t very interested in trendy theories, or what skeptics may have thought. She had a plan.

Moving as One

Starting out, the Voskuilens’ goal was to create a business that served a purpose in their community. They wanted to be a trusted neighbor and an employer that provided a better quality of life for its team.

“We knew what we wanted,” she says. “So, when you’re hiring someone to join you, you need them to understand your [goal], because they play such an enormous role in you achieving that.”

But, Voskuilen continues, it has to go both ways.

“We want to know the goals of [each of our team members], and we want to help them achieve them,” she says. “That’s how they know we’re in this together.”

This is executed more formally than you might think. Voskuilen sits down with each new hire and creates what she calls a “personal improvement plan” that evaluates their experience, their current state and then highlights their career goals. Then, she and that team member create a tangible, actionable plan for them to achieve those. They chart out educational opportunities and technical training that can help them get there.

The company pays for all staff training, and Voskuilen says that’s as much an investment for the company’s success as it is for the futures of her individual team members. Really, that’s the entire idea behind the personal improvement plan concept.

“We buy into them and they buy into us,” she says. Even if the team member’s goals may eventually take them out of the shop, “the work they do here is that much better. The passion is that much greater. We are all working to a goal, and we can only accomplish that together. That’s what makes everyone succeed.”

Onward

The Voskuilens’ story isn’t all that common in The Netherlands—or in any auto service industry anywhere, for that matter. According to Paul de Waal, the head of press and communications for BOVAG, The Netherlands’ automotive trade association, the market for independent repairers has become more and more difficult. Technological changes in vehicles, as well as changes in consumer mobility (increase of ride-sharing, public transportation, etc.) have all put auto service businesses in a tight spot. Even dealers, de Waal says, are seeing struggles; he predicts that the number of dealerships in the country will shrink from current levels around 2,100 or so, down to below 1,500 in the next five years.

The Voskuilens don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. Aside from their $2.1 million-per-year full mechanical business, they have a tire and quick service shop now that churns out 408 jobs per month (and slightly less sales than the original facility). They also have an independent dealership component to the company—a company that, in all, has 22 full-time employees today.

“The plan is to keep growing and keep moving forward,” Voskuilen says. “We’ve come a long, long way in 12 years or so, and we’re excited to see what the next years will bring. We don’t plan on slowing down.”


Ireland

An industry-wide fix to longer vehicle service intervals and poor recruiting

The Republic of Ireland is not a big country. Tom Cullen wants to get that out there, right off the bat. With around 4 million citizens and roughly a fourth of those confined to Dublin, there also aren’t a whole lot of vehicles on the road—about 2.3 million, roughly 350,000 of which are for commercial purposes.

By comparison, there are more than 250 million vehicles in the U.S. Ireland’s industry is right on par with that of, say, Louisiana.

This can pose some drastic challenges in pushing the industry forward, says Cullen, the director for The Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI). But it can also work as an advantage, too.

“In some ways, we’re able to move more quickly,” he explains. “And we can do so with a more unified front.”

Here are two examples:

Periodic Roadworthiness Tests

The problem is the same in Ireland as it is anywhere in the world: Modern vehicles have longer, more spread out service intervals; advanced technology and designs mean fewer breakdowns; and as many budgets were stretched thin by poor economic times, many customers ended their habits of regular vehicle maintenance.

Ireland’s solution is one many have pushed for recently in the U.S.: periodic roadworthiness tests in the form of required vehicle inspections. The program in Ireland requires that a car first be tested after four years. Then, it’s every two years after that up to 10 years. Once a vehicle reaches double-digits in age, it must be tested every year.

This does two things, Cullen says. One, it requires consumers to bring their vehicles into service facilities, which then allows shops to create a relationship and service plan for that customer (and independent shops do nearly 70 percent of all work in Ireland). It also keeps consumers mindful of vehicle maintenance, as Cullen says that brings us to the second important aspect: More than 50 percent of all vehicles fail that initial four-year test for safety reasons.

Large-Scale Apprenticeship Program

Ireland has long had an apprenticeship program for those looking to enter into trade industries. In recent years, though, the mechanical repair industry’s numbers struggled. Cullen says that’s due in part to the push of four-year colleges (and away from trades) and also the economic recession when Ireland lost many of its would-be technicians and apprentices to other English-speaking countries.

But SIMI has initiated a revamped recruiting effort in the last year, Cullen says.

“If 1 million or so of our citizens are in Dublin, that means there are more than 3 million in outlying areas of the country,” Cullen reiterates. “The trade is an opportunity for many, many folks to live local and work local. That’s a large selling point.”

The Recruiting Video

And SIMI has enlisted the help of shop operators and other industry professionals around the country to act as SIMI representatives for a grassroots recruiting program. These representatives visit schools in their area and teach about what the industry has to offer, each presentation capped with a video SIMI put together with a compelling proposition. The results? According to SIMI’s 2015 state of the industry report, apprenticeships across the industry are up 25.8 percent over 2014.


The United Kingdom

Three British trends U.S. shops should watch

Terry Gibson looks at the U.S. auto service industry and sees a lot of similarities to what shops face in the U.K.

“A lot of what happens in the U.S. comes here, and vice versa,” says Gibson, head of member services for the U.K.’s Retail Motor Industry Federation, which includes the Independent Garage Association (IGA) among its subsidiaries.

And Gibson says there are three current U.K. trends that he feels U.S. shops should pay attention to:

1. Price Comparison Websites. While there are a handful that exist in the U.S. today, Gibson says the proliferation of these sites is much greater in the U.K., and used very commonly among consumers.

“We’ve had them for roughly three years now,” he says, “and it’s falling in line with a more online culture. People want to know price before they book anything.”

Many of the sites, Gibson says, also have shop recognition platforms in the appearance of certification programs, similar to those offered by companies like RepairPal in the U.S.

“It creates a difficult situation where we have people outside of our industry suggesting what makes a quality [shop], rather than us identifying that ourselves on a proper level,” he says.

And that brings up the next item …

2. The “Trust My Garage” Program. The IGA launched the Trust My Garage certification program to be able to help consumer identify shops that have the facility, training and equipment to meet the necessary standards of modern vehicle work. IGA auditors do onsite evaluations of auto businesses that include customer service surveying. In all, 2,600 of the association’s 3,600 members (there are roughly 25,000 total independent shops in the U.K.) have qualified for the program in the last few years.

“We feel it’s important to have this designation come from us, rather than a [third-party company],” he says. “It carries a different level of support.”

3. Fleet Work. There are many challenges to fleet work, as Ratchet+Wrench has covered in the past, but Gibson can’t argue with the need to look at this work as a viable business-building opportunity.

More than 50 percent of the U.K.’s 37 million vehicles are commercial, but only 20–30 percent of those are worked on by independent shops.

“That is a huge gap that exists here, and shops wanting to increase business need to look at that those opportunities,” he says.

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