A Lesson From The Garage


I wanted to tell you about a recent small business experience.

I recently decided to stop leasing cars. I’ve leased new vehicles for the last ten years and finally came to my financial senses. So I bought a nice used car – a Nissan that’s about 5.5 years old. It’s in great shape and should easily last another five or six years. One of the benefits of leasing was that I never thought about taking care of the car. I didn’t have to, they were always new and worked great. The lease was always up before things started to happen. Never mind that I was throwing away the little equity I could have established with ownership.

So when the Check Engine light went off on the Nissan after about four months of ownership I started cussing. I knew enough to take the car to AutoZone (a local parts store that is part of a national franchise) that still reads the engine error codes for free. Once I knew the code, I simply typed that into the search engine for the Nissan web forums and within minutes I knew everything I needed to about the error. I knew what was wrong, which parts were needed to fix it, and whether or not I could do it myself. This error in particular is pretty easy to fix on your own, but I couldn’t find time during the weekend to dedicate to troubleshooting the issue. So I asked my coworkers about local garages.

Auto Alternative came highly recommended. I was told they specialize in import cars. Well that’s the first check box in my mind. I may be naive, but I still think it takes more knowledge and expertise to work on Japanese or German cars than it does American cars. So I show up, unannounced, at the garage and tell Katie, the receptionist, about my problem. She realized I’m a new customer – without having to look my name up in the computer – and points me to their monthly newsletter sitting on the shelf saying “there’s a coupon for new customers and one for a free diagnostic test. They’ll save you at least 20%.” I’m thinking WOW; she didn’t have to do that. She’s really trying to help me out. This is more than I can say for any of the three Nissan dealerships I called first. They treated me like crap, but not Katie. Then I put two and two together. They also put out a monthly newsletter. I’ve never seen a mechanic or garage do that before. Every issue has maintenance advice, coupons, customer references, and humorous stories to break it up. So I’m getting a really good vibe from this place. So I go ahead and try to schedule the repair. But first, Katie asks how I heard of Auto Alternatives since they don’t advertise. I tell the name of my coworker that recommended them and she goes into the computer and automatically credits their next service with a 20% discount.

But it gets better. As you may have read, my wife was due with our second child at any time, so I was hesitant to pick a date for the repairs. Not to worry says Katie, “take one of our loaner cars until yours is finished.” This was something that only Acura provided during my leasing years and I loved it because I wasn’t stuck at the dealership while the repairs happened and I didn’t have to inconvenience my wife or friends to provide a ride to work. So I pull off in a loaner car free to go anywhere I needed to while they worked on my car. I’m loving this place.

While the repairs are taking place, we have our baby and he is born with a heart defect. I call the garage and tell them the situation. Katie makes some phone calls and pulls some strings to get my part in the mechanics hand within the hour so that we can take our vehicle to the new hospital for surgery. I could’ve kept the loaner, but she wanted to make sure that we had our car. They also sent a “get well” card to our son that arrived a couple of days later. And they’ve called to gauge my satisfaction on their service – but they waited a couple of weeks after we got home from the hospital so as not to disturb us.

I was just looking to get my car fixed and stumbled upon one of the best customer service experiences in my life – at a garage. It doesn’t matter how big or small your business is, if you build a culture of taking care of customers, you will build a strong business. Today’s customers want help; they don’t want to be taken advantage of. And if any industry has a bad rep for taking advantage of customers it’s auto mechanics. Auto Alternative, in little Nicholasville, KY, respects their customers and goes above and beyond to ensure that they are doing everything they can to make a great experience. They proactively keep in touch by adding value (newsletter with do-it-yourself articles and coupons). They provide a level of service that exceeds expectations (loaner cars and flexible schedules). They reward good customers (referral discounts). And they really went above and beyond by getting my car done in a timeframe that fit within our family emergency.

These guys have a recipe for generating happy customers. And happy customers build the foundation of a successful business. I know they will be the first place that I think of for repairs and the first place I recommend.

Do you have a similar story? Please share it in the comments.

Nick Rice
Cre8tive Group

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  1. Hey Nick,

    You’ve got to love it when you come across fantastic customer service experiences, like that. It’s great when businesses are considerate like that. I’ve had a couple in the past few days since flying here.

    The most notable of which was not a small business but I’ll share it anyway.

    I took a Qantas 747-400 over to LA (a ~13hr flight) and it was fantastic. Despite being in economy class they fed me great food, great beer and mixed drinks – all through diligent service. I don’t know whether it was the way I was dressed or the quality of the service but the hostess could even single me out amongst the crowd of people, without taking down my seat number.

    It was better service than I could possibly have wished for. It even makes me wonder what business class (let alone first class!) could possibly have over economy.

  2. Wow! If only I could find somewhere like that in Brisbane.


  3. I agree Simon. I know that growing up we either went to the guy down the street that worked out of his own garage or to the big dealerships for service. Neither of those met all of our needs, that why we went to both.

  4. Safe travels Rob. I know that we’re all looking forward to your reports from mPlanet.

    It is surprising how receiving good service is the exception rather than the rule. We’re so used to being treated poorly that the rare great experience really stands out.

    As small business owners and employees, we have a responsibility to change that. Large Fortune 500 corporations have a hard time changing direction. They are more focused on cost cutting than service; but small business can move on a dime. It’s something that has to come from the top down and be a cultural shift in everyday activities. If you have the mindset of making every engagement pleasant and productive, good customer service will result. And as we said above, it will be noticed.

  5. Hi Nick,

    I think this is something that most business owners aim to do and yet only a fraction every really succeed at.

    Personally i am just sitting up taking note whenever i hear something like this because it goes to show you that effective intelligence building and communication with your customer base or client base builds strong businesses for years to come.

    Some businesses get it and others wish they could get it; it really separates the Pros for the amateurs.

    Excellent Read Nick!


  6. Brilliant, Nick. While it’s often illustrative to note the failures of others, it’s inspiring to see customer service done well. Fantastic post, well deserved by a fantastic experience.

    Separately, I hope all is well with your wife and new son. All the best.

  7. Good service like that is rare, at least in part, because it costs money to provide … but is hard to sell. Everybody wants good service and everybody claims to provide it. Few, however, actually deliver it because fewer still are willing to pay for it.

    Except for the thoughtfulness of the receptionist, everything you mentioned cost that small enterprise. And it may be that they are paying a premium to hire such a service-oriented individual.

    What did your bill look like?
    I notice that she did an excellent job of soft-selling to get you to make referrals by readily giving someone else a referral credit while you watched. This pretty much guaranteed that you will return there for future service ‘in case’ you have a referral discount waiting for you! Since a 20% discount off an auto repair bill can be a substantial amount, you won’t refer anyone anywhere else, will you?

    I offer my customers a similar discount for referrals and repeat business. With their first order comes a number that they or their referrals can plug into the shopping cart checkout process for discounts on subsequent orders.

  8. I have returned to the garage and experienced the same wonderful service again. It’s definitely something that they put a lot of emphasis into with their employees. They all genuinely seem to happy to help my get my vehicle back on the road as quickly as possible.