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What About Them?

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There is a lot going on around us. Perhaps, more than ever before. Or, perhaps, we are just more aware of what’s going on around us because of the constant and inescapable tide of information that’s quickly rising around our ears!

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Don’t misunderstand. I’m not one of those guys who longs for the past while crossing both index fingers in front of him to ward off the evil spirits bracketing the future as they all come crashing through the door.

It wouldn’t do any good. Take a look around you. Ready or not, like it or not: the future is coming. Look harder and you’ll see that it’s already here.

That’s kind of the way I feel about a lot of the technology we find ourselves immersed in. Some of it is great, like simultaneously being able to download e-mail while writing this column, rocketing along at more than 500 mph inside the belly of an aluminum tube seven miles above the surface of the earth. But, some of it’s not so great…like having someone send you an e-mail followed by a second follow-up e-mail 10 minutes later, wondering if you received the first email…and, if you had, why you haven’t answered yet.

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While slower, there was something elegant, almost romantic about actually taking the time to compose a letter, sending it through the mail, receiving it, having at least a day to think about a response and then another three before that response was received and read. Today, everything is instant and immediate. Thomas Friedman has suggested that the explosion of information we’ve experienced has “flattened” the world as we know it. If nothing else, it certainly has made it smaller. Someone cuts themselves shaving in Massachusetts and I’m headed to the medicine cabinet for some antiseptic creme and a band-aid in Simi Valley: First, because I care. And, second, because I know about it almost as quickly as the nerves that were assaulted by that razor blade are able to send their message to the brain. But, the world isn’t the only thing that has been flattened by “instant” and “immediate.” It seems that at least to some degree, our senses and our sensitivities have been flattened as well.

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Like most of us, I’ve been suffering a kind of sensory overload: A political campaign that after two years of assaulting our collective consciousness will hopefully have finally ended by the time you read this; the collapse of the world’s financial markets, and along with it the financial security that you and I can only hope we see again; federal involvement in areas of our lives the federal government has never been allowed to meddle in before…mortgaging our future in ways that you and I could never imagine, let alone allow — the same federal government that failed to see this crisis coming or regulate the crooks and thieves that profited by it; an American dream quickly turning into an American nightmare for far too many of our citizens; three hours of local news focused on trivial and insignificant events followed by 15 minutes of world news, news that is far more likely to have a profound impact on all of our lives than your neighbor’s 25-lb. cat being stuck in a chimney down the block: important news that is trivialized until none of it seems to register anymore.

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Nevertheless, I still read the hundreds of e-mails that flow through my computer every week. I still go online and try to capture as much “real” news as I can so I not only know what’s going on, but at least have a shot at understanding it as well. I still read all the “trades” and participate in a handful of online communities, and, in the long run, I suppose that is a “good” thing because you never know when that one thing — that inescapable, imminent and inevitable thing is going to smack you across the face, awakening you from your semi-conscious stupor.

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That happened to me when I opened an e-mail from an old friend: a former shop owner and current vo-tech instructor, Chuck Pearson from MassBay Community College Technology Center in Ashland, MA, who e-mailed me this past August. He wrote after reading an online article written by a colleague, Beth Skove (publisher of TechShop and Tomorrow’s Technician), and it has taken all the events sited above and the time in between for it to finally wend its way into my consciousness.

The article focused on whether or not we — shop owners like you and me — are experiencing a “Profitability Crisis,” and Beth did a great job of documenting a number of the problems facing all of us in the repair community. When she was finished, she had created a kind of “Decalogue:” a 10 Commandments of things you do not want to do in an automotive service business. She also challenged her readers to see just how many of these individual commandments they were guilty of…things like:

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  1. Low or uncontrolled margins, due to a lack of focus on profitable business or perhaps focusing on the wrong part of your business;

  2. Getting out of the habit of selling scheduled or preventive maintenance;

  3. Ineffective, mis-directed or non-existent marketing;

  4. Poor customer follow-up;

  5. Low customer visit frequency;

  6. Ineffective access to customer/vehicle and their repair history;

  7. Multi-shop customers — These customers go to a repair shop for repairs, but to their dealership for maintenance or a tire shop for tires. (This is your opportunity to get them to your shop with a maintenance schedule of your own, based on the manufacturer’s guidelines.)

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  • Bargain shopper customer;

  • Poor customer retention; and

  • Getting and keeping qualified professional technicians, service writers and counter people.

    (If you’re interested — and, I hope you are — the entire article can be found online at www.autocarepronews.com by typing in Skove in the Quick Search function on the homepage.) Just reading through this list can be uncomfortable, but knowing there aren’t many of us who can point to it and honestly suggest they’re not guilty of breaking the majority of these commandments is unbearable.

    Beth went on to suggest a number of ways each of us can work toward creating a more sustainable profit picture: suggestions that might actually keep some of us in business, if we pay attention. But Chuck wasn’t writing to discuss the article’s content as much as its implications. His concern was much deeper and perhaps even greater than the continued health and viability of the service industry and/or the people in it. His concern was centered on the people we serve, the motoring public: our customers, clients and friends.

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    You could see that concern grow out of the last sentence in the paragraph immediately preceding the list:

    “Speaking with a major supplier of diagnostic and repair information for the shop, they said the number one reason they lose customers is that the customer goes out of business.”

    While it was obvious that Beth was talking about the aftermarket’s concerns over shop owner failures, it became equally as clear that wasn’t what Chuck had taken away from the article.

    Oh, he understood that we’re all struggling with a laundry list of challenges — after all, who could know that better than someone who had spent a lifetime struggling with that very same laundry list himself?

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    But, that wasn’t what he took away from the column. He went just a bit deeper and asked the next logical question: “If shop owners are struggling with increased costs and decreased productivity, $4 per gallon gasoline and skyrocketing heating oil costs, and they actually have the power to do something about it…What are their customers, our customers, supposed to do when it’s clear they don’t have that same ability?

    What is the motorist supposed to do with stagnant economic growth, rising unemployment, $4 per gallon gasoline, increased heating oil costs, taxes, credit card debt, adjustable rate mortgages, “zero-interest” loans and a weakening dollar?”

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    The answer is not much!

    Chuck’s greatest concern was that our customers would soon be having “Going Out of Business” sales of their own. And, with the number of foreclosures we are seeing in every neighborhood across the country, who can honestly say that concern is unjustified?

    But, he didn’t stop there. He went on to remind me of the important role shops like yours and mine — shop owners like you and me — have played during times that were equally as challenging in the past. He forced me to think about all the times we bent the rules and extended credit when we shouldn’t have to people who wouldn’t or couldn’t qualify otherwise; people who would have ended up walking or on a bus, people who, nevertheless, never failed to meet their obligations. He reminded me of all the times we kept vehicles alive and on the road with nothing more than skill, ability and sheer force of will. He brought to mind all the young couples just starting out, and the seniors just hanging on; the out-of-work executive who never “remembered” to bring his checkbook when he picked up one of his vehicles, but never forgot to get me a check the following week or the week after; and the 93-year-old woman who went to work at her bible store every day believing that our labor rate was half of what it was, because for her…well, it was.

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    In the end, both Chuck and Beth were right — are right! You can’t help anyone when you’re struggling to survive yourself. You can’t help anyone unless or until you’re strong enough to take care of your own needs first. But, what responsibilities accompany that success if, or when, you ever achieve it? Where does your responsibility to yourself and those close to you end and your responsibility to others begin? I don’t think you need me to tell you that…I think you already know. In fact, I’ll bet you could actually picture just about everyone you’ve ever been able to help over the years as you read this, just as I’m willing to bet you can picture just about everyone who has ever helped you.

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    The building I’m in — the land our shop is on — was first purchased by a customer who then sold it to us.

    There isn’t anything wrong in doing whatever you can to avert a “profitability crisis.” In fact, that’s a big part of your responsibility as a business owner. But, that isn’t where your responsibilities end. Because someone spent a lifetime becoming financially strong so that they were able to help us. And, because they were able to help us, they enabled us to help others.

    There isn’t anything wrong in asking “What about me?” before you ask, “What about them?” You just have to make sure you have the right answer after the question is asked.

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