Carolyn Coquillette is a true specialist.
Her shop, Luscious Garage in San Francisco, doesn’t just dabble in hybrids; between 90 and 95 percent of her repairs are hybrid vehicles.
“In terms of specializing, it’s not like we’re doing 10 percent,” Coquillette says.
Take one look at Coquillette’s website (lusciousgarage.com), and it’s apparent that her shop has a genuine environmental focus. But according to Coquillette, the green pitch is not what has grown her boutique specialty shop into a $1.5-million-a-year operation.
Her primary asset (besides the know-how to fix technologically advanced vehicles) is recognizing and catering to the needs of her customer base.
“They like the way they’re treated,” Coquillette says. “The customer service experience is really our other weapon.”
Coquillette knows what her hybrid-owning clientele desire from the repair process—understanding and involvement. And she has designed multiple facets of her business to meet those needs.
Coquillette graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Michigan. Although she describes her four-year education as a “formative experience,” she says it left her with very few practical skills, a realization that became all too apparent when she couldn’t figure out how to fix her vehicle’s dome light that wouldn’t turn off.
Intrigued by her car’s ever-burning light, she started taking tech classes at a community college in Ann Arbor, Mich. The work immediately satisfied her intellectual curiosity.
“There’s a band of us, these kind of philosopher mechanics … it’s such a stimulating, interesting job,” Coquillette says.
After taking more than 10 courses at the community college, she went on to become an ASE Master Certified Technician.
Interested in hybrid work, Coquillette eventually made her way to San Francisco, the city with the highest concentration of hybrid vehicles. She worked at a couple shops in the Bay Area, and through a mixture of self-education and outside mentorship, she gained a significant amount of knowledge about fixing hybrids.
“[I] ultimately decided I had enough experience on hybrids that I shouldn’t be replacing timing belts anymore,” she says. “I should be doing something specific with those skills.”
So Coquillette came up with an idea: She would carve out her own space and create a shop that specialized in hybrid repair.
Like many who take the leap into ownership, Coquillette had her doubts about whether her highly focused concept would take off.
But she wrote a business plan, determining that, at the time, there were around 70,000 hybrids in the Bay Area. Out of that total hybrid demographic, she believed she could bring in 2,000 jobs a year, enough to sustain a modest operation. With her plan in hand, she opened Luscious Garage in 2007.
In the wake of the recession, a number of local businesses were forced to close their doors, freeing up available rental space at a reduced cost, which presented Coquillette with a unique opportunity.
“It’s kind of like a forest when the big trees fall down,” she says. “All of the sudden, there’s all this light for the saplings.”
In 2010, Coquillette relocated to her current 6,500-square-foot shop, which is over twice the size, but cost a total of $500 less in rent than her original space.
That year, she added a night shift to service hybrid taxis for independent operators in the city, further boosting her business. Since 2010, Coquillette’s revenue has continued to climb as her daytime customer base has grown.
With repair orders now topping 1,014 per month (half of which she estimates come from taxi repairs), her shop has shattered her original target of 2,000 jobs a year, showing that her customers are using their dollars to support Coquillette’s brand of specialized care that not only caters to their unique vehicles, but to their own specialized needs as well.
Knowing Her Clientele
In many ways, Coquillette’s customers are like the cars she specializes in. She says that her typical customer is young, tech-savvy, slightly more affluent and better educated than the majority of the population.
Coquillette determined these demographics the old-fashioned way—customer interaction.
“Auto repair is a personal business; you interact with your customers firsthand. You learn what they do, what they like, where they work, what music they listen to, how many kids they have, how many gadgets they use, how best to reach them—you name it,” Coquillette says.
Most of her customers own vehicles that are made exclusively as hybrids, which Coquillette says tells you about their personalities. According to Coquillette, a customer who buys a car that is exclusively made as a hybrid sees themselves as different, meaning they look for a different kind of shop.
Kevin Donohoe, an Educational Seminars Institute (ESi) consultant and owner of multiple shops, agrees with this assessment. Every demographic has a different set of needs, he says. “It is critical that you learn how to identify and communicate with your client base effectively and efficiently.”
Coquillette says that her customer base—and hybrid owners in general—are a demographic that has put time and effort into researching their vehicles. So her customers are generally more savvy about vehicles.
In Coquillette’s opinion, “people who own hybrids tend to know a lot more about how they work and tend to have much stronger opinions about how to fix them.”
In short, Coquillette’s customers want to be involved in the repair process.
With this in mind, Coquillette created Hyspace—a Web-based software program that allows customers to monitor and interact with the repair process.
“It was named Hyspace because it was meant to be like Myspace for your hybrid,” Coquillette says.
Coquillette has always had a strong web presence. Since the shop opened, she has kept a regular blog on her website. It covers a wide range of topics, including shop information, repair advice, the latest in green industry developments, and hybrid vehicle news. The blog not only lets Coquillette showcase her expertise, it helps market the shop through search engine optimization.
For Hyspace, Coquillette came up with the concept and hired mostly freelance developers to do the programming.
Through a personalized page, customers view all of their vehicle’s work history. They can access past repairs, view live work orders, read technician comments, write comments of their own, and sign off on work, to name a few features.
There is no separate page view for employees. Technicians look at the same information as their customers.
The intention is “to see what’s happening and not feel like that information is in the possession of the shop,” Coquillette says. “It’s a shared experience.”
She says she is looking at making Hyspace available to other shops.
An Empowering Space
For customers who prefer to wait at the shop rather than monitor repairs online, Coquillette designed her facility to help them feel at ease.
“So much of auto repair in my opinion is way over-stimulating for people, and it’s very easy to get overwhelmed,” Coquillette says. “Our approach is just try to clear all that away, including any additional signs or signage or extra stimulus.”
Coquillette believes that her clutter-free space, similar to the Hyspace software, allows her customers to invest in the repair process by giving them a clear mindset.
“The idea is to really let people calm down and relax and think about what you’re telling them, so that they can understand it, come to their own decision, and ultimately agree to have you do the work,” she says.
What It Boils Down To
According to Donohoe, no matter whom a shop serves, quality client relationships are built on a single principle: trust.
“That’s the difference,” Donohoe says. “When you establish trust with a client … that’s the golden relationship we’re after. That’s a lifetime relationship.”
According to her customers, Coquillette has earned that vital component. As of March, out of 122 customer reviews on Yelp.com, a consumer review website, Luscious Garage received 120 five-star ratings, the highest ranking a business can receive.
One review on the site sums up how Coquillette’s highly catered service speaks to her customer base: “The finest operation, of any kind, with which I’ve ever done business.”
For Coquillette, that sort of customer loyalty is one of the most rewarding parts of the job.
“The mission of the business is to prove that doing things the right way can be a viable business,” Coquillette says. “And you don’t have to cheat. You don’t have to lie. You can treat customers well, and you can still make a living.”