Back to Basics

A few years ago I returned to the “bell-to-bell” daily grind of operating a lube shop as my partner and I began our latest adventure in the wonderful world of quick lube craziness.

Prior to this new chapter in my life, I served as the corporate director of Training for a very large multi-unit chain for about seven years. My time there was wonderful, and the exceptional and consistently high level of managerial skill, talent and positive attitude utilized on a daily basis by all of the supervisory staff was truly an amazing achievement, considering what unfortunately and all-too-commonly passes for management in far too many lube shops within our industry.

While I was instrumental in developing and implementing training programs that would increase the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the hundreds of employees there, I also reaped the benefits of being an employee of such a large and well-run organization, and as such I learned a tremendous number of new skills and thought processes — the kind of thing that you can only get from exposure to the kind of detailed minutiae that most corporations excel at.

My years there certainly kept me busy and active within the lube industry, but not in the way that I had been used to beforehand. Most days were spent conducting classroom training, developing new training procedures and materials, researching new technical aspects of our business, etc.; every now and then I would be able to actually spend some time in a store working with employees, customers and managers. The one thing I missed the most was being able to spend a lot of time talking to customers and ensuring that the famous “Kit Sullivan Experience” was being served up full-force to each and every customer. (Well, maybe one day it will be famous!)

As the new chapter unfolded and the prospect of actually being “boots on the floor” every day loomed closer and closer, I was terrifically excited about actually being able to recreate the great times (not to mention the great success) I had as a store manager all those years ago.

And to be as open as I can, I was a little scared, too. Did I still have what it takes to get the job done? I am certainly older, slower and, unfortunately, fatter than I was in my prime, but would those things really hurt me? Could I still keep up the pace with the youngsters in my shops like I used to? Are the customers the same today as they were before?

These thoughts and many like them plagued me daily up until the very day I opened for business and greeted my first new customer in more than seven years.

Of course, it is not in my nature to let those around me know this, so my outward appearance then was what it has always been: supreme and unshakeable confidence in customer service.

I am happy to say that it all came rushing back to me full-force within the first two minutes of the first customer, and I am now convinced that today’s customers are even easier to please than those of years ago. I don’t know exactly why I feel that way, but I do.

So, you might be asking yourself: “What does this have to do with ‘back to basics’?”

I’m glad you asked.

It’s the basics of customer service that have for years and years delineated an exceptionally well-run organization from the throngs of mediocre businesses out there.

Our industry is no different.

It’s time for a real, down and dirty honesty test for yourself. How many of the following things happen in one or more of your shops, even if only once in a while?

• Unshaven employees.

• Lifeless, boring greetings from your employees to your customers.

• Mopey, unsmiling and lethargic employees.

• No sense of urgency within your shop.

• No sense of pride for the cleanliness and organization in your shop.

• Employees in improper, incomplete or dirty and disheveled uniforms.

• Customers who are never referred to by name.

• Unsupervised, untrained employees performing poor presentations to customers.

This list can go on and on, obviously. I have been witness to many lube shops that displayed one, or even several, of these traits and the attitude was, “Yeah, we gotta work on that.” And then it was back to business as usual.

If you want to be successful, you can’t let any of these things, or any other mediocre procedure enter your service envelope for even a single customer.

The simple truth is that the customers have to have faith and believe that we are actually doing a good job on the oil change, simply because they have no way of knowing the actual details of what we are doing under their car. Basically, if the car runs correctly and doesn’t leak after they leave, they assume we did it correctly. If it does leak, or worse, they assume we are at fault.

However, the customers are most certainly aware of the level of customer service we display. Who better to judge the quality of your customer service than the actual customers who come into your shop every day?

There is no belief system when it comes to customer service. The customers know if you gave them good service or not. And it is only the customer’s opinion that matters, not ours.

Remember this: The customer’s perception is our reality. That has been one of my most-often repeated phrases for many years, as many will attest to.

There are many things you can do to improve your business, but none are so effective and cost so little to deliver as exemplary customer service.

The following is just a partial list of the many little extras that make up the great customer service in our locations:

• Every single customer is greeted by an enthusiastic employee who introduces himself or herself by name and then asks the customer for their name. This is mandatory before any oil change info can be discussed.

• Every customer is offered a complimentary bottle of chilled water. Without fail, they are nearly unanimously and pleasantly shocked that anyone would just give them a bottle for free. The cost to me is mere pennies a bottle, but the goodwill I get in return is priceless to me.

• I make it a point to talk to each and every customer before they leave and let them know in no uncertain terms that I appreciate their business. I usually say it like this: “I know there are several places for you to choose from, and I just want to let you know how much I appreciate you coming into our shop today.” The reaction from the customers is usually astonishment that someone actually appreciates their business. If I am not in my shop for any reason, my managers have been well trained in exactly this aspect, and they diligently keep up the pace.

• When a car pulls up outside, we don’t just direct them in, we move quickly outside to greet them with a big smile, make them feel welcome and let them know that the other employee standing at the front of the bay will be guiding them in. It’s all about sense of urgency.

• If at any time I have an employee with nothing critical to do, they are to go out front and stand on the sidewalk and wave at passing cars. The attention this garners from passing motorists is amazing. It is astonishing how much you can increase your car count from this one simple procedure. It is also amazing to me how many former colleagues of mine think I’m nuts for standing outside and waving at cars, clearly convinced that it does no good. If only they knew what I know.

• After the customer is cashed out, I always ask, “What else can we do for you before you leave?” This is like the fresh red cherry on top of the sundae. They are usually at a loss to ask for anything, as they are still impressed by the service they have received so far. Saying this after the cash-out is critical, which reinforces the idea that this is just more great service, not an attempt to sell them something else.

• I make sure to mention to the customer at least a couple of times that they are welcome to return at any time for the free fluid top-off. Like most lube shops, I top-off any fluids free of charge except for oil, brake fluid and gas.

• When a customer brings in a coupon, I make a big deal of how valuable it is and how much money it saved them. I also make sure I take it from them and attach it to my paperwork at the end of the cash-out process. However, right before I put the paperwork in my bin next to the cash-out stand, I ask them if they have another car at home. If they say yes, I yank the coupon off and give it back to them and say, “Go ahead and use this on that car, too.” They are almost always impressed by this gesture. It may be a bit more difficult to track your coupon redemption and validity that way, but it is well worth the effort.

• This one is my personal favorite: If a customer comes in with an especially nice vehicle — an old classic car or maybe an exotic newer one — they are clearly enamored of their vehicle. I know exactly how they feel, simply because I am also a raving car-mad lunatic, and I love cars, too! I ask them if they want to be on our “Customer Wall of Fame,” and, if they do, I take a picture of them and their car in front of my shop. I then simply print out a picture on the office computer, frame it and hang it in the waiting area. As customers sit and wait for their car, they marvel at the cars on the wall. When they know theirs is going to be added to the lineup, they feel like part of the family.

These are only a few of the many, many things we do in our shops that we think give us a decided edge over our competition. Our prices are fair, but not always the least expensive. And our coupons are not crazy in the amount we give off if you use them.

I am a firm believer in the supreme value of customer service over all else, and in the 20-something years I have been in this industry, there is nothing to come along that has even come close to convincing me otherwise.

So, what is today’s lesson?

If you want a lot of great customers, give them a lot of great customer service!

Kit Sullivan

KIT SULLIVAN began as a lube tech over 25 years ago and is one of the most knowledgeable and respected experts in the fast-oil-change arena. From location manager to general manager of a 50-plus unit chain, to owner of his own six-unit chain of lube shops, Sullivan has mastered every area of successful lube shop operation. Known for his excellent training seminars, as well as assistance in developing new products tailored to the industry, Sullivan is a popular consultant and can be reached at: quicklubekit@aol.com