John Bridgwater thinks about it for a second, trying emphasize the gravity of what he’s about to say.
“For most general repair shops, maintenance is going to be the vast majority of your workload in the future, so you better learn how to sell it—”
The owner of Wright’s Automotive Service stops, shaking off that last bit … that’s not quite right. He rephrases:
“‘Sell it’ is not the right concept I’m trying to put across,” Bridgwater says. “If you don’t know how to present maintenance in a clear fashion to the client so they can make an informed decision, you will never reach your full potential.”
That pressure, that mindset of “selling more maintenance” (or however you choose to phrase it) has always been a tough one to live by—but to ignore it, Bridgwater says, would be to ignore one inescapable fact that is shaping the future of the industry: Engine and transmission reliability is up; fuel pumps, ignition modules and spark plugs are lasting longer; cars are, overall, more dependable than ever. And it’s all making maintenance critical for success as vehicles experience fewer and fewer breakdowns.
While a world with fewer major repairs might seem ominous at first glance, Bridgwater and several industry experts want to hammer home this one sentiment: It’s not a time to panic—it’s a time to educate the customer, and profit in the process.
Helping people make “an informed decision” has been the main focus for Bridgwater over the past year as he overhauled the selling process at his San Leandro, Calif., shop, where ARO went up 22 percent, return visits from first-time clients increased 50 percent, and total sales jumped 10 percent—despite total appointments decreasing by 33 percent—resulting in an annual revenue of $1.1 million in 2016.
Bridgwater says any shop can replicate that success through a combination of educating customers, refining the inspection process, and overhauling the way this industry sells maintenance.
Between the Lines
If you steadfastly follow J.D. Power and Associates' U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study each year, 2014 probably came as a real shock. Suddenly, for the first time in 15 years, the report—which surveys owners of three-year-old vehicles—found that vehicle dependability was actually getting worse.
Overall dependability of vehicles is tracked through PP100, which stands for “problems experienced per 100 vehicles.” Between 2011 and 2013, that number improved by 26 points to 126 PP100. Just one decade earlier, the number stood above 200 PP100.
But come 2014? It rose to 133 PP100. And just this year, for 33,560 participants surveyed, it jumped up to 152 PP100.
This means more and more major repairs should be rolling into your shop, right? Wrong, says Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. auto quality for J.D. Power. And reading between the lines tells us why.
“More and more vehicles are adding different features, such as collision protection, driver assistance, bluetooth, navigation,” she says. “As we look at the increase in that technology, we’re also seeing PP100 is going up.”
J.D. Power splits PP100 into eight sub-categories. And when you look at just engine and transmission problems, dependability has improved, going from 26 PP100 to 24 PP100 between 2015 and 2016. That increased reliability is further supported by Consumer Reports, which found engines, transmissions, suspension, exhaust, and fuel systems have experienced less repairs every year since 2007.
So, engines and transmissions are more and more reliable, yet vehicle owners are more and more displeased with their vehicles—that’s where your shop comes in, Stephens says.
“For the independent service facility, there’s a chance to educate the consumer—I cannot stress that enough,” she says. “Vehicles are more complicated than ever, and people crave guidance. The relationship doesn’t stop when they pick up the keys for their new car. And as we go into more and more [autonomy], the relationship between service and consumers is going to grow.”
Knowledge is Power
With the vehicle perched above the group of onlookers, Bridgwater points to the catalytic converter, explaining how it cleans vehicle emissions by making gases and pollutants less toxic.
For Bridgwater, this is nothing new. But for Glenda Springer? It’s creating trust that’s now turned her into a lifetime customer.
“I was taken advantage of by two mechanics who charged me an incredible amount of money. I was up to my eyeballs in debt,” Springer says. “Then [Bridgwater] showed me all these things about my PT Cruiser and gave me so much confidence.”
RepairPal’s 2014 Car Care Survey found 52 percent of respondents believe they have been ripped off by an auto care shop. Regaining that trust is everything in this business, says Kelly Grinnell, marketing manager for ACDelco.
“We found that shops, who are huge pillars in their communities, wanted better interactions with customers,” she says. “And customers wanted shops to move from behind the service counter and foster a more trusting relationship.”
The result was Knowledge is Power, a program designed by the parts supplier to bring auto shops and vehicle owners together for people like Springer to attend a car care and maintenance clinic. Grinnell says participating shops receive informational slides, marketing materials and videos to be used during classes.
The program began as the Women’s Car Care Clinic, which was a reaction to the common stereotype that women are the decision makers of the household, while also less technically inclined than their male counterparts, Grinnell says.
However, the lack of car knowledge could be less gender-based and more representative of shifting times, Grinnell says. According to Forbes, 78 percent of millennials—who will soon become the bulk of the workforce—currently own a car. Yet, 43 percent say owning a vehicle is a hassle, and 64 percent were shocked by maintenance costs.
Thus, the goal of Knowledge is Power is not to make sales—it’s to educate people about their vehicles, make car maintenance less intimidating, and secure future customers in the process. And as a participant in the Knowledge is Power program, Springer, who has now been a Wright’s Automotive customer for five years, can attest to that power.
“The problem was I couldn’t understand why it kept going through batteries like crazy,” Springer says of her PT Cruiser at the time. “Sometimes it would choose when to turn on, and other times it was like a stubborn 2-year-old.
“He was able to help me understand why it did that, what I need to be aware of, what to be prepared for, and what to keep in the car in case I get stuck somewhere. I learned so much from that class.”
A Master’s in Maintenance
Six months of presentations, note-taking and role-playing is a long, strenuous, draining process. But by the end of her Masters Service Advisor Training Program, selling maintenance is second nature, Jennifer Monclus says.
Car clinics are a great way to build trust with your community—but making them customers for life is the real challenge. And both Bridgwater and Monclus, sales and leadership trainer with industry consulting firm Elite, say it’s accomplished through a combination of improving inspections and selling. Here are their tips:
Never Use the ‘F-Word.’
Bridgwater cringes at the word—he can’t even believe this reporter suggested it as a viable option.
“Never offer free inspections,” he says. “As soon as you put the F-word into your advertising, you’re asking for clients who probably can’t afford your services, and don’t want to invest in maintaining their vehicles.
“I’m looking for clients who have discretionary income, who want to make sure their vehicles are safe and will last as long as possible, and are willing to spend the money with me to do it.”
Achieve Consistent Inspections.
Bridgwater doesn’t like mentioning “oil changes” in his marketing, either. He prefers “minor maintenance service,” which is an accurate description of his inspection checklist.
The checklist, which must be marked off entirely for each inspection, ensures technicians rotate tires, check the brakes and look for leaks, but he says constant training is the true outlet to consistent inspections.
“If you have three different techs doing inspections, you’re going to have three different results,” he says. “On a slow day, I’m going to bring in a car and do the first inspection, and then I’m going to have each technician do their own inspection individually on the same car, and we’re going to compare notes and see who catches what and why. And then we’re going to work on a process that ensures the inspection is done the same by all techs every time.”
For now, Bridgwater is grooming an entry-level technician to perform the bulk of inspections to ensure consistency.
Sell Trust, Not Repairs.
Monclus says it’s difficult getting service advisors to understand they’re not just selling repairs—they’re relaying their expert recommendations that come from factory recommendations and ASE certified technicians. That’s the answer to every customer objection.
To rephrase: Service advisors are, essentially, selling something intangible—they’re selling trust. And trust must be earned during those few minutes of one-on-one interaction.
“They have to help [customers] understand that this is an investment,” Monclus says. “We have to help them understand the value they get in return.”
Guiding conversations toward the value of repairs has helped Bridgwater and his service advisors increase maintenance sales dramatically this year, raising Wright’s ARO by 22 percent, from $403 to $492.
“I get a lot of price shoppers asking, ‘How much is it?’ because they don’t know what else to ask,” he says. “Most people aren’t really asking for a price—they’re asking for help with their vehicles, and I’m able to provide that assistance. It’s my job to guide them to what questions they really need answered, and how can I help them to answer those questions.”
Invest in Software.
While face-to-face interactions are preferred, Monclus says, they’re not always viable—and, for many millennials, not always preferred. Invest in software that allows for digital inspections and photographs to be emailed or texted to customers.
“We do inspections with photographs that can be very easily emailed in a very nice report format and reviewed at one’s leisure,” Bridgwater says. “I can do authorizations, have complete conversations by text, email, by whatever method of communication that client prefers.”
Lay It All Out.
Bridgwater says shop owners often run into trouble selling maintenance to first-time customers, who are key to win over for securing regular maintenance.
“I’ve heard a lot of shop owners say, ‘I can’t possibly present them with a giant bill on their first visit,’” he says. “My reaction is, ‘Why not?’
“I ask, ‘How would you like me to present this to you? Do you want to know everything all up front? Or do you want me to hit you little by little?’ And what I’ve found overwhelmingly is everybody wants to know everything up front. Then it’s broken down into pieces so they can digest. That is my sales techniques: I start at the bottom line and go backwards from there.”
Don’t Always Make the Sale.
Sometimes gaining customers’ trust even means turning them away, Bridgwater says, which pays off in the long run in establishing your shop as trustworthy.
“One of our secrets is we don’t always look to make the sale,” Bridgwater says. “I’m more interested in helping my client make an informed decision. And if I’m not the best shop for the service they need, I will tell them that.”
In the end, the underlying goal of improving maintenance sales is revamping your communication with customers. If you show you care? They’ll invest in you.
“I want to make sure every person is happy and comfortable with every interaction we have,” Bridgwater says. “That’s far more important than making the next sale. The sales will come automatically if I take care of people.”
Here are some Ratchet+Wrench stories that expand on topics discussed in the article:
 Maintenance Vs. Repair, July 2012, Tips for shifting your maintenance-repair balance
 Driving Home the Basics, March 2013, The basics of hosting a car care class
 A Better Inspection Process, October 2013, Create a better inspection sheet
 How to Handle the Price Shopper Phone Call, April 2016, Guide the conversation to value over price
 Inspection Perfection, February 2017, A case study in implementing digital inspections