Go ahead, refer to Robbie Ling as “old school.” He won’t be insulted.
The native New Yorker did his first brake job at age 11 for the cab company his father worked for in suburban New York City. Nowadays, at age 59, he still loves the hands-on element of running a repair shop.
And, Ling is naturally skeptical when he hears about “the next big thing” in the repair industry.
When Ling says, “I’ve been an independent my whole life,” you get the impression he means it both figuratively and literally.
For years, his business, Robbie’s At Your Service in Merritt Island, Fla., was doing just well enough to survive, generating $250,000 in annual revenue with up to five employees. That is, until son Tommy Ling came aboard two years ago. The younger Ling, a service advisor armed with a business degree from the University of South Florida, promptly floated ideas for Facebook ads, emailed advertising blasts and, eventually, expanded use of telematics.
Robbie largely rolled his eyes at those thoughts initially.
But Tommy knew his family’s business would have a hard time ever maximizing its potential if it didn’t embrace advancements in technology. Tommy says his father had always had a consistent customer base at his shop, “but it was just time to take Robbie’s to the next level.”
That desire to take the shop to the next level involved a future in which Robbie’s At Your Service had the ability to contact customers the moment their check engine light popped on, virtually ensuring a subsequent visit to their facility. So, Tommy began to push for an expanded implementation of telematics, confident that not only were they the future of the repair industry, but also a key to the evolution of the Florida shop.
When Tommy came on board at the shop after wrapping up his business courses in Tampa, he was eager to start implementing business tactics he had learned. At the time, the shop’s marketing spend was modest and limited to tactics like the Yellow Pages. Despite his father’s initial hesitance, Tommy quickly implemented cost-effective marketing measures, such as email blasts, to spread the word about Robbie’s at Your Service.
Robbie “didn’t see the need to put that money out for marketing, because he always had consistent work,” Tommy notes. “So I had to keep it simple and cheap to start, with mainly Facebook and e-blasts. But once he noticed his reviews were growing and business was picking up just from a few simple ideas, he allowed me some more freedom to advertise however I felt.
“That’s when I started researching companies that implement telematics.”
Tommy had taken note of all the evolving technology in vehicles that arrived in Merritt Island and knew that evolution showed no signs of slowing. And, he wanted to set up his family’s shop for sustained success.
The Lings utilized a limited form of telematics nearly four years ago. For $300 per month, the product helped Robbie’s at Your Service garner an increase in online reviews in relatively short order. Still, that first telematics product didn’t dramatically alter the shop’s financial outlook, and didn’t greatly aid the repair process, leaving the Lings eager for something more advanced.
By 2016, Tommy had thoroughly researched the telematics market, in search of a tool that offered myriad features. Eventually, he settled on the Mechanic Advisor telematics device, due in large part to its ease of use, and the fact it also provided templates for email blasts. Additionally, Mechanic Advisor aided the shop’s marketing through means such as texting and postcards.
Customers that participate in using the telematics product (customers are largely sold the product at cost) download an associated app on their cellphones. The Mechanic Advisor product uses a vehicle’s OBD-II port, and includes a plug-in chip. The business receives permission from customers to access vehicle information via the device. If a customer has service due, or a check engine light comes on, the device notifies the customer, as well as the staff back at Robbie’s At Your Service.
“I find it to be an easy sale once I show the customer how simple it is to navigate the app on their phone,” Tommy notes.
After a brief walkthrough from Mechanic Advisor, even those slow to embrace technology, like Robbie, have found the product rather easy to use. Currently, roughly 25 Robbie’s At Your Service customers have the telematics device in their vehicles, and the device tracks mileage for recommended services and provides the shop with pending and confirmed diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) through the associated app. When a customer’s check engine light comes on, the Lings’ staff receives an email and then logs into the Mechanic Advisor system, and is thus capable of seeing which codes set off the warning. The staff then sends a text, suggesting that the customer check in.
From there, clients can schedule an appointment via their telematics app, and Robbie’s At Your Service goes through the usual diagnostics procedure once the vehicle is brought into the shop. Eventually, customers get an invoice loaded into their “history” in their app.
The Lings are confident more and more customers will start to use the telematics device over time. They also appreciate the fact that Mechanic Advisor is adding more features all the time, and takes care of marketing for Robbie’s At Your Service’s non-connected customers―which means the shop added telematics without having to increase its monthly marketing budget.
Robbie still fondly recalls a scenario that occurred shortly after Tommy sold his first Mechanic Advisor device to a customer, noting: “the light popped on, the lady called, and I already knew what was wrong. When it came up and I saw an O2 sensor, I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s the heater.’
“And you know what else is cool? [Customers] can read the code, too,” Robbie adds. “When it popped up and she was able to read, ‘OK, it’s an O2 sensor,’ she knew I was telling the truth.”
Robbie says the new telematics product, and especially the fact that he can use it to view customer vehicle issues, has made his job significantly easier. And, the Lings have gotten a positive response from clients.
“They contact you and say, ‘Hey, can you take care of this? I got an email that I have this service needed,’” Robbie notes. “Once you start using it, it’s like, ‘Wow, what a major difference it does make, in everything―whether it be the bottom line or the communication.’”
The Lings now spend less than $250 per month on telematics, Tommy says.
And, while a limited number of customers use the Mechanic Advisor device, Robbie’s At Your Service appears to be getting a noteworthy return on its overall investment in telematics (due, in no small part, to how telematics aids the shop’s marketing efforts). After all, that investment coincides with a spike in revenue. Since 2013, Robbie’s At Your Service has seen its annual revenue more than double―in 2016, the central Florida shop’s revenue reached almost $600,000.
The shop’s ascent has enabled Robbie to hire two additional employees in recent years, giving the longtime shop operator renewed faith in his business.
“It’s dramatic,” Robbie says of his facility’s surge.
“We have certainly seen an increase in communication with customers,” Tommy notes. “Connected customers are a lot more likely to actually engage in a text conversation or a phone call between visits.”
The main lesson Robbie took away from his shop’s implementation of telematics is to never shy away from striving for added shop efficiencies. After all, virtually everyone affected by Robbie’s At Your Service’s addition of telematics has eventually gotten on board―even experienced technicians who may have been hesitant at first.
“They’re happy to have it. They want to be able to have an easy way to do [things], you know?” Robbie says. “Having customers understand is such a key. They don’t mind spending their money if they understand what they’re spending it on.”
And, Robbie is willing to make an admission: “I embraced it,” he says of telematics.
That’s right, the old-school owner admits his son taught him a thing or two about telematics, and shop technology.
“He was like, ‘You’ve got to check [telematics] out; This is the future, this is where it’s going,’” Robbie says of his son. “And I’ve been amazed.”
SHOP STATS: ROBBIE'S AT YOUR SERVICE Location: MERRITT ISLAND, FLA. Owner: Robbie Ling Staff Size: 5 Average Monthly Car Count: 300 Annual Revenue: $650,000 (projected for 2017)