Running a Shop Shop Life

Making Customers Feel Comfortable in the Shop

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SHOP STATS: RAINBOW AUTO SERVICE LLC  Location: BELLINGHAM, WASH.  Operator: Larry Watson   Average Monthly Car Count: 100  Staff Size: 3 full-time (including owner) and 1-part time  Shop Size: 2,000 square feet  Annual Revenue; $500,000  

Larry Watson, owner of Rainbow Auto Service LLC, was driving his Volvo across the country when he stumbled across a peaceful pasture outside of Bellingham, Wash. A former New York city boy, Watson was looking for a new, quiet place to land and possibly even work on cars. Watson worked at a body shop for his first job and found that Volvo owners were people that he wanted to work with and assist.

“I worked on anything that would pay the bills in the early days, but I noticed that the Volvo people really love the car,” Watson says. “It’s so much easier to work for someone that loves the car.”

Watson started Rainbow Auto Service LLC, a Volvo speciality shop in 1978 because of his love for Volvos, and more importantly, his love for helping those owners. His first Volvo was a vehicle that took him across the country and provided him with so many life experiences, he says. Ultimately, Watson wanted to provide customers and employees the same sense of satisfaction when they visited Rainbow Auto Service LLC.

“Cars are one thing, but people are a little bit more complicated,” he says. “That’s why I do my best to keep my staff trained and comfortable with the process, as well as make my customers comfortable with their car problems.”

 

In the morning, I step out of the house and make my way down to the shop. My wife and I live on the property where our shop is located and it really does feel like an escape from the city life. I stumbled upon our location by accident, but it’s a beautiful taste of the country. Our building is seated on a 15-acre stretch of land that is split evenly by a pasture and a forest. The land is located on a valley and behind us we have mountains, so it’s a pretty spectacular view. My wife and I garden, so we grow vegetables as well as flowers. Out front, we typically have cattle that roam and munch on the grass.

I’m usually there at 8 or 9 a.m., depending on what we have going on for the day. You can find me in the front of the shop looking at the calendar and organizing my tech’s tasks for the day before they show up. I have a desk, but I usually walk around 3–5 miles per day, according to an app on my phone. I get my exercise. My employees will trickle in after me in the morning. I’m not a be-here-at-8-a.m.-or-you’re-fired kind of guy. The guys usually roll in one after another, which allows me to speak with each of them and hand out his or her task before they start the shift. It’s nice that they come in at different times because I’m able to assign them to their own projects right when they arrive.

The shop started out with one-half of a bay, and I built my shop one half-bay at a time, really. Today, we have around four bays, which are all stationed in different buildings. People might think it’s odd, but it allows my employees to play their own music and feel at ease in their workspace. Even though it’s a job, we want our employees to feel at ease while they’re working.

Everyone operates differently throughout the day. There really isn’t a set time for lunch; we all just eat whenever we’re hungry. If I need something to eat, I’ll walk to the house and grab a quick bite to go. I eat around three small meals per day because I want to stay energized. I don’t really do staff meetings; that’s not my thing. I probably should, but I have never operated that way. Right now, I have two full-time positions, a part-time guy, and then there’s myself. My wife is incredibly talented and works on the payroll,  billing and all-around financial planning. Everyone on staff is really close, almost to the point where I joke that it’s a distraction.

Typically we’ll have an intern around the shop who comes from the local Bellingham technical program. When interns are here, I take my mentor role very seriously, and many of our interns have worked full-time for me afterward. I would say my guys are all unique and talented, and I’m happy to have them aboard. We see around 3–4 Volvos per day, so everyone gets the chance to handle cars. We have a guy who is in his 60s who is both an artist and a technician. He comes into our shop at noon each day and will stick around until 8–9 at night. Everyone on board is very versatile, so we have guys tending to different aspects of the shop. Lately I’ve been tending to more in the shop, but my wife would like to see me walking through the door at around 7 p.m. each night. We just take pride in what we do, and we’re all looking for ways to accommodate customers that visit the shop.

Since we are located less than 10 miles outside of the city, we’re able to ride along with our customers on our empty roads to listen for the problem with their vehicle. We try to assist our customers in traveling out to our shop, as well. There are two cars on hand for customers who need a ride home and there have been instances where I’ve had customers visit from far away and I’ve personally taken them to the train or airport. We provide information for nearby bus stops, as well. Sure, it would be easier to be located in town where everything is close by, but our customers are able to get a break from the city when they venture over to us. We have customers that have hung out with the cattle, teachers that use our picnic table to grade papers while they wait for their car, and we’re in the process of getting hammocks. It’s all about being a shop that they trust and a place they can go to relax.

For the most part, customers are impressed by our services and location. Ninety-five percent of what we do at our shop is focus completely on Volvos. Some of the staff members that came onboard previously had Volvo training, and we’ve had others that had to learn as they went. While we’re a speciality shop, we actually have frequent flyers at our business. I’ve learned that Volvo owners are a special crowd; in my history, I’ve had Volvo owners bring their baby in to the shop, only to have their child later take the car to college. Volvo owners often stretch out work and focus on one repair at a time instead of multiple. The town we work on is full of Volvos, so our location offers customers a mini vacation. I’ve noticed the owners really love their cars, and I strive to make their experience at our shop one that brings nothing but ease.  

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