Jan. 1, 2017

Kris Cesena
Auto Medics

“What is the purpose of a business?”

Back in 1987, as Kris Cesena sat in a training seminar, she thought the answer to this instructor’s question was quite simple.

“I raised my hand and said, ‘To make money,’” she recalls.

As the last 30 years have passed by, Cesena has moved from performing administrative and marketing duties to becoming owner of Auto Medics in San Mateo, Calif., after her husband, Dan, experienced a car accident and she took on more managerial duties. She has seen thousands upon thousands of customers and their vehicles pass through the shop. Day in and day out, she has looked every single one of them in the eyes and told them what repairs their vehicles need to keep them safe.

So, her answer to that same question today?

“The purpose of the business is to create a customer,” Cesena says. “My goal is to help people. If I help people and do it in an honest way, they’ll become a customer for life and they’ll come to us for everything.”

That attitude has truly gone on to shape the way Cesena operates each day at Auto Medics, where she performs service writing, administrative, marketing and managerial duties—always with the customer in mind.

When I open the shop each morning, I make the estimates for all the cars coming in. I check on our loaner cars, make sure there’s enough gas in them and record the mileage, and then get ready for the customers.

Because we’ve been in business for 30 years, most of the people coming in are regulars, so we’ve already documented in our management system how many miles are on their cars, what work we’ve performed, and the work we’ve recommended in the past. I try to look at that in advance, so when they’re dropping off their car, I can say, By the way, did you want to do that power steering fluid we’ve been telling you about the past two visits? and then make the sale up front instead of having to call them back in an hour to tell them something we already knew.

I look at it this way: If I’m being honest and only telling you what your car really needs and charging you for that today, you’re going to like us enough that you’ll come back for all your work in the future. And so it doesn’t matter if you do your brakes today or three months from now—you’re going to come do them here, and you’ll come for the next thing and the next thing, and that’s what’s important.

When they come pick up the car, if they didn’t do everything we recommended, we give them a printed estimate. I tell them to take the estimate and put it on the front seat of their car or on their fridge at home—otherwise they’ll throw it in the glove compartment and completely forget about it. I find that if you give them a printed estimate, as opposed to telling them verbally, 50 percent of them schedule the appointment right then or call back within the week to make the appointment.

After I’ve met with customers, I move onto whatever priorities I have. No matter what, my No. 1 priority is always the customer. And that’s not just the customers that pay to fix their cars, but also my employees. My employees are my customers, too. So anything they need comes first. My service manager, Robert, has been with us for over 24 years, and he walks around, checking in with everybody, so he lets me know if my employees need me to address anything.

Once I’ve taken care of those priorities in the morning, I can use the middle of the day for admin stuff. I have all of my tasks organized into folders, so going through my mail, I’ll check if there are any vendors that need payment. Then it’s just about getting caught up on opening other mail, getting payroll ready, posting on Facebook, and replying to Yelp reviews.

Customers pick up their cars between 4 and 5:30 p.m., so before then I like to check inventory. We check what is low and start stocking for the next day. We do that toward the end of the day, because sometimes we’ll sign somebody up for service in the morning, and then we’ll find out they don’t need an air filter or cabin filter, and we don’t want to overstock it.

We have a stocking level for everything. How many do we want to stock? And what quantities does it get down to before we reorder it? We’ll do a low inventory report on the system, confirm the quantities on hand, and then create purchase orders and either fax them to the dealers or use the vendor’s online ordering system.

Our goal is to get the customer back his or her car the same day, so we stock a lot of parts to make it more efficient for the technician. That way, you don’t put the car back together and then have to wait for the brake pads or the air filter to get here.

At the end of the day, I also like to do some general cleaning around the office so it looks nice for the next morning.

Usually, the marketing duties end up coming after hours, because I just don’t have enough time throughout the day to focus on it. If it’s responding to a Yelp review? I can do that at work. But if it requires some sort of concerted effort, like putting together a flyer to hand out at the local youth soccer tournament over the weekend, those usually end up being after-hour projects. 

I used to try a ton of different things when it came to marketing. I’d put together a spreadsheet, look at what marketing we did over the past couple years, what worked and what didn’t. I’ve constantly got vendors with me that want me to advertise with them. The grocery store wants me to put my logo on the back of their receipt. Every newspaper wants me to put in an ad. 

“Every new customer that comes through the door fills out a form and we ask them how they found out about us.”
—Kris Cesena, owner, Auto Medics

We stopped with all that because we learned that’s not how our customers hear about us. Every new customer that comes through the door fills out a form and we ask them how they found out about us. And if they skip that part on the form, I ask them. I even ask when somebody calls for a quote.

I’ve found out that pretty much all the people who come in say one of three things: They got referred by a friend; they drove by us because we’re in a really good location on a busy street that goes out to the freeway; or they found us on the Internet through Google and Yelp.

So I decided to focus my marketing efforts on those three things: I keep my building and property looking clean, because if people are finding me when they’re driving by, I want them to notice it’s a clean facility; I spend money with Yelp, and I have some Google AdWords in place; and then I give incentives for giving referrals, usually a $20 Starbucks gift card when they refer somebody to come in.

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