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Small-town shop maintains traditional values, neighborhood feel

Monday, May 1, 2017 - 06:00
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There will always be a Mayberry, somewhere. Andy Griffith’s legendary TV series set in this fictional North Carolina town has come to symbolize Americana at its finest: gracious neighbors, honest store keeps, loyal friends; all engaged in the ethical treatment of everyone, travelers or townsfolk. And if Tal LaMountain’s description of Williston Park, NY is even partially accurate, this little Long Island village is a close approximation.

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At a Glance:
Tal's Auto Service
Tal LaMountain
Owner
Williston Park, New York
Location
1
No. of shops
60
Years in business
2
No. of technicians
4
Total no. of employees
5,000
Square footage of shop
6
No. of bays
50
No. of customer vehicles per week
$350,000
Annual gross revenue

“It’s one of those towns where you can find generations of families still living here,” LaMountain reports. “My uncle lives around the corner, my mom owned that house over there, my dad grew up over here—we joke that people never leave, they move from one block to the next. People walk everywhere; they’ll be walking by in the morning while I’m outside and ask if I want a bagel [from the nearby store]. It suits us well.”

LaMountain’s shop is itself an institution in the town; Tal's Auto Service was started by his grandfather in 1952. Three generations have run it since then—with no need to change the name since it’s always been run by someone named Tal. As the current Tal puts it, “we still have that neighborhood repair shop feel.”

But a small, intimate town makes maintaining a good reputation much more vital since a bad word can spread so quickly and completely. “The main thing with my grandparents, my parents and (now me) was always customer relations,” LaMountain explains. “That phone rings, you answer it. People walk into our office, we say hello, talk to them about how their kids are, how the car’s running; it’s just a friendly environment.

“Our main thing is that the customer must always have contact with us,” says LaMountain. “They don’t want to deal with the service manager, they don’t want to deal with a secretary; they want the guy who’s actually working on their car. (Customers) can have contact with all of our mechanics; if they want to see something they’re welcome to, we’ll walk them through. Nothing’s hidden, nothing’s behind closed doors.”

And never turn a customer away, LaMountain notes. “Once you tell them you can’t do something, you’ll be shocked how many you’ll lose.” This requires treading the tricky line between being eager to please and one’s ability to solve a problem. “You have to maintain an open mind and be able to at least tackle these problems, but be honest when you can’t do it,” he outlines.

“You have to be confident in what you can do and just own up to what you can’t. You can’t fix everything,” LaMountain reasons. “You can’t be a hero all the time. But there’s a solution: send it to somebody else who can take care of it. When you’re honest with the customer, nine times out of ten they’re going to want you to find someone that can do it so they don’t have to leave you.”

In the meantime, learn everything you can. “Any Snap-On class, any MAC class, any Mapco class, any training that comes up, you go to it--whether you think you’re going to be doing it or not,” LaMountain asserts. “Five or six years ago it was hybrids; you go to the classes anyway because you never know what you’re going to run into.”

Thus Tal’s services an incredibly wide variety of motors, from big diesels to 2-strokes. “Our tow trucks ran diesels and we had to learn how to fix them in order to keep them in service,” recalls LaMountain. From there the list grew exponentially, from Cummins and Duramax to Mercedes and BMW, from Italian exotics to light equipment, like Kubota and Case.

“I don’t do a lot of them,” notes LaMountain of the latter category, “but I’ll hop in my car and go on-site; 90% of the time it’s a simple fix.” For the rest he relies on Snap-On and Launch scanners. “Launch brings in a lot of the European makes; their software base is really good with the German cars,” he comments.

LaMountain observes that diagnostics for the higher end autos isn’t too bad these days if one uses a ‘middle-of-the-road’ scanner. “Unfortunately middle-of-the-road is still $8000,” he wryly remarks. “The days of a top-of-the-line scanner being $1100 are gone.”

The scanner updates alone cost $1100, and LaMountain does them twice a year. “I used to wait out the updates, but now it’s imperative that you do it,” he maintains. “Say I bought a scanner that goes up through 2017; mid-2017 do I really need to worry about an engine light because the car’s warrantied? But when a customer comes in and they don’t want to go back to the dealer, you at least want to be able to hook up to the car and tell them what the problem is and what they’re up against.”

And while their tow trucks are no longer on call, LaMountain will occasionally retrieve someone who is ‘stuck.’ “I come in here regularly over the weekend just for somebody to drop a car off, and if there’s a problem that I can take care of quickly, I’ll do it,” he confides. “Again, it’s that small contact customers have with you; they feel like you’re going above and beyond—which I guess I am—but its part of the business.”

Having worked fulltime in the shop since he was 17, LaMountain can also share lots of recollections with clientele. “It’s amazing to see the generations of people coming through the door,” he reveals. “I hear stories like ‘my grandfather used to bring me here,’ or ‘you guys have been here forever.’ The ones I like the most are when new people move into the house of an old customer who passed away, and his kids are telling them ‘if you need a repair shop, that’s the place to go.’ Those caught me off guard the first few times, but it’s a nice feeling.”

It’s almost as if you can hear someone whistling a tune…

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