Shop Life Repairer Profiles

Educating the Customer

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As the owner of Elder Auto in Denver, Ramon Elder fused two of his biggest passions into his business: auto repair and communication. But he soon found out that the two passions were sometimes like oil and water: Customers couldn’t understand the need for the repairs, and it was difficult to build a trusting relationship.

That’s when Elder decided to take matters into his own hands, or at least put his hands to work, building working displays of several common repairs. The displays have now turned into a separate business for Elder, Displays in Motion, which has allowed him to continue educating customers and bringing clarity to the confusing process of selling repair work.

Getting involved with your customers is the most important thing you can do. If you have tools to support your repairs, it just opens the doors for communication. If you develop that relationship, they’re going to send their neighbor, their brother. You have to make sure that when they leave, you know darn well your customer learned something. Find out what’s important to them—their needs, their wants, their budget. I want them to trust me and understand their repairs. That’s why I build what I build.

I love to communicate and I love to educate. When customers come in, I want them to feel good about what they’re spending their hard-earned dollars on.

The way I got into the display business was actually due to a mistake we made: A customer brought in a Volkswagen Passat, and we did the timing belt. We should have sold her the rollers at the same time, but we didn’t because we were trying to save her money.

About six months after we did the job, a roller seized up and took the belt right out. I ended up spending a couple thousand dollars, too, on a Passat V-6 to fix the heads. I thought, I am not going to do that again. So I made a mockup of an engine, mounted it on a big steel diamond plate, and hung it on the wall to show everyone.

That mockup was huge and made of all real parts from an old engine—a real cam gear, crank gear, water pump, tensioner, rollers. We started using it right away. We took people out there, rolled the belt, showed them where the seals were.

I thought if everyone could see this, when people call to get a quote, I wouldn’t look like I was trying to be so overpriced.

ANOTHER STEP: Elder’s brake system model uses a hand pump to demonstrate how a piston pushes into the brake pad. Photo by Crystal Allen

We’re consistent and our philosophy is that we want to do it right the first time. The quotes some customers would get from other shops were way less than mine, but that’s because they were shortcutting it. I figured, if I could build these models, I would have proof of what we do and why we do it.

In 2011, I found a manufacturer and paid about $8,000 for a prototype. A friend of mine knew the vice president of Gates Corp., and they were immediately interested in distributing it. I found a manufacturer in Canada, and Gates immediately put in an order. It turned into a business of its own pretty quickly thereafter.

Now I get to the shop at 6:30 a.m. every morning and I usually spend the first couple of hours handling the display business. I check and answer emails. I do the shipping. It can be tough to balance, but I try to get it all done in the morning.

I’m always cooking up new ideas and the best way I know how to do that is to listen to my customers. People asked all the time, How does this work? Why is this so expensive? When I see that there’s confusion or something doesn’t make sense to them, a light bulb goes off.

I’ve always loved talking with people. I started out in the industry as an engine head because I loved mechanics. I think I was just born with the desire to tear things apart. But pretty soon after that, I wanted to get in the management side. I worked my way up and eventually I was running two full-service gas stations. That’s where I really started to learn about customer service; we charged 50 cents more per gallon for gas and people would still line up for full-service gas.

With these displays, they can see it, touch it, and feel it. That’s why the timing belt made sense for the first one. Basically, when we’re selling the repairs, people ask all the time, Can’t you just check my belt? Why can’t you tell if my timing belt is good or bad? With the display, I can pull it right off the wall and show them what my inspection looks like. I can show them that I’m looking at the very back of the belt, and it’s usually the cog that goes bad, which I can’t see.

MODEL EDUCATION: Elder, far right with a technician, created Displays in Motion to help educate his customers about common repairs in the shop. The timing component system model, left, was the first the company release_notesd. Photo by Crystal Allen

The other part is that they see all the related parts; so when I say, we’re putting in a timing belt kit, they can see what that kit consists of. There hasn’t been one instance where I have shown them how the repair works and they’ve said no to the repair.

I also recently just introduced a brake display. It’s a hand pump, and you squeeze the hand pump and it pushes the piston into the pad. The caliper is see-through and you can see the piston pushes the inner pad, and the caliper pulls the outer pad, so they wear equal. It’s true to life. When calipers fail, they fail because of crazy pad wear. You can use this display to make it understood how and why they wear uneven. It’s a good teaching aid because the hand pump does what the brake fluid does.

After I finish up with the display business, I spend the rest of the day in the shop. I still love to interact with customers and educate them about our services. We’re getting more and more new customers based on our reviews, and if you look into that, it’s because we take the time to explain everything.

What I’ve noticed while doing these explanations is that it really opens up communication. You start to tell them about the timing belt and next thing you know, they’re telling you all about their lives. It gives you a chance to talk to them and form a relationship.

That helps keep those customers coming back. Repeat customers is how we have to exist. Pretty soon, they just throw you the keys and say, whatever it needs, just take care of it. That’s the kind of relationship they want.

Our industry has a black eye. I’m super proud of what I do. I want people to leave knowing that they’ve learned more. They’ll tell their neighbor, they’ll tell their friend. It goes a long way.

That relationship I have with the customers pushes me to continue coming up with new products. Now we have displays for the timing belt, a tire pressure monitoring sensor, spark plug display, drive belt, and the brake display. We’re worldwide in 14 different languages and we’ve sold more than $2 million in displays. Now I’m starting to get into videos and website production. I want it to be helpful, but also entertaining, captivating and even humorous.

Displays in Motion has been life-changing and its success is the reason I’m able to buy this new building for the shop. My vision is still to grow and spread the message that we give a darn about you and I want you to know why we do what we do. A lot of people still think we’re looking to make the most dollars off them we can. It is a business but we want to make it clear that there is a technical side to their vehicles.

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