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Vacant isn’t a strong enough description; the building was absolutely empty. No electrical wiring, no pipes—everything had either been stolen or taken out by the last business to lease the space some two or three years prior.

And as Travis Decker looked around the 24,000-square-foot shell of a facility that would be his business’s new home, an empty feeling settled in his gut.

“We had about 8,000 [square feet] before,” he says, “and I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’ve got three times that now. What in the heck am I going to do now?’”

Atomic Auto was a fast-growing business in the Portland, Ore., area, so fast-growing that filling the space with customers wasn’t Decker’s immediate concern. Being a smaller shop, Atomic Auto had always been the local option that customers could trust—friendly, helpful and transparent in everything they do.

“You start to wonder, ‘How can we provide that same experience at three times the size?’” Decker says. “And how do I manage the kind of staff needed to do that at that type of scale?”

The Backstory

Decker had been a certified master tech for nearly 15 years, and he could feel the ceiling approaching fast on his career. The way he saw it, he had only two choices to start “making some real money”: get out of the industry, or open his own shop.

He started Atomic Auto in 2005 with a loan and $5,000 he received for selling his car. With 4,000 square feet of rented space, Decker drew on his years as a tech for ensuring quality work. For the basis of his business philosophy, though, he went a little further back in his career for inspiration.

“One of my first jobs was as the oil change guy at a full-service gas station,” he says. “Someone would pull up, and we’d have three people run out there: one would do the gas, one would check the tires, and one would check the engine.

“I really learned what it meant to provide better customer service. Our gas was 10 cents more there, but we were always packed. That’s the same kind of image I wanted for my shop.”

The Problem

Within the first year, Atomic already outgrew its space. And, after two years in its 8,000-square-foot digs, the business was busting at the seams again.

Atomic was doing about $60,000 a month in gross sales at the time, and Decker, always focusing on systems and efficiency, believed it was maxed out in its space (it had just three lifts) and its four-person staff.

“We were turning people away, and I felt the only way to really grow was to expand our space again,” he says.

Zoning in Portland is difficult for building a new repair shop, though, Decker says. And the options available for purchase or lease weren’t exactly plentiful. Eventually, Decker stumbled upon his current building, which was being short-sold out of foreclosure.

(1) He had 10 days to purchase a $1.4 million dollar facility. Through the Small Business Association, Decker was able to secure a loan for the $100,000 down payment, and he moved into the building in 2009.

“Now that I owned the building, everything was on the line,” Decker says. “This was either going to work within two years, or I’d be crashing and burning.”

Unable to afford any large purchases right away, Decker moved over the small amount of equipment he had from his previous space. Just from the added “elbow room,” sales jumped above $100,000 a month, but his staff was forced to work at a frantic pace. Decker began to worry if he was giving customers the same, quality experience that built Atomic’s reputation and stature in the area.

(2) “We needed more people, and I needed to figure out a way to keep everyone working in the same systems and processes,” he said. “Our business had been all about customer service, and we needed to be able to do that at a larger scale.”

The Solution

At the time in 2009, smartphones were becoming immensely popular, although not overly used in business. Decker saw an opportunity.

“Between the iPhone coming out and all the apps Google was adding to its suite, it just seemed like something that we could really take advantage of,” he says.

Decker dropped his shop’s landline and bought his staff iPhones. He set each up with synchronized Google calendars to track the shop’s workflow. He took the shop’s employee handbook (a document thick with standard operating procedures for every aspect of the business) and uploaded it to Google Documents. 

“Now, everything they needed was right at their finger tips,” Decker says.

He then instituted an entirely new process to communicate with customers. 

For the previous two years, Decker had been pushing email communication with his customers. And since many of his clients were in the younger demographics, it had been widely successful. Many customers were starting to email the shop prior to calling.

The new process, though, started with role-specific email accounts for his staff—one for service, one for sales and one for management—rather than individual email addresses for each employee. This allows every employee within a department to respond when an inquiry comes in.

And, when finishing an inspection, the techs email customers the results, complete with photos of the items noted and a link to a Wikipedia reference for the issue. It gives customers a better idea of what they’re dealing with, Decker says.

(3) The final step Decker took for his shop was setting up Google Voice. The program links to a phone line (in this case, the shop’s main number) and is accessible through an online interface. It organizes voicemails, emails and text messages, while allowing users to respond in each format. Each staff member has the program on their phones, as well as the shop computers, and can access it and respond to customers from anywhere in the building.

The Aftermath

Decker feels there’s a misconception with using email and text messaging to interact with customers.

“People feel that it takes away from customer service because you’re not actually interacting with them,” he says. “But it’s the opposite.”

Email and text messages are used for the “more mundane tasks,” things customers don’t want to waste too much time with—notifications, reminders, quick progress updates, etc.
“This frees us up considerably to be able to really get one-on-one with customers in the shop that really need our attention,” Decker says.

It gives Decker more time to focus on running the business, instead of answering phone calls. And it allows his constantly growing staff to stay on track with minimal interruptions. Atomic Auto now has 14 employees, including eight technicians.

Decker recently switched his technicians to iPads, and he has three iPhones for the front office. In all, he pays the bills on three iPhones, two iPad Minis and eight iPads, totaling roughly $600 between his wireless and Internet bills.

The shop now regularly tops $130,000 in monthly gross sales. More importantly, though, Decker feels his staff has settled into a rhythm.

“It’s definitely far less hectic,” he says, “and I feel like we have tons of room to grow. We’re nowhere near maxing out our facility, and I feel like we can really get there now.”

The Takeaway

Customer service is all about transparency, Decker says.

“The more comfortable you can make a customer feel about their repair and the repair process, the better chance they’ll be coming back,” Decker says.

Everything he’s put in place in the last few years has been with that goal in mind.

“It’s hard to keep the same level of customer service as a shop gets bigger,” Decker says. “The bottom line is that you have to figure out ways to take less time doing the smaller, less important details so that you can spend more time doing what’s important.”

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