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Car Care 101: Repair shops help students practice basic maintenance and avoid costly repairs

Monday, September 1, 2008 - 00:00
Car Care 101

The old adage, "there's nothing new under the sun" is particularly apt in the independent repair business, where service advisors and technicians are all-too-familiar with the telltale signs of poor vehicle maintenance. But nowhere are these problems more prevalent than in the shops that do business with the college crowd — where employees are pulling double duty to provide repair and maintenance services, as well as educate their young (and often inexperienced) customers about the importance of basic car care.

"Many of the cars we see from this population are not brought in for maintenance — they are brought in for a large repair," says Larry Moore, owner of Larry's AutoWorks in Mountain View, Calif. Because of his location, Moore regularly services the vehicles of Stanford University students. "Unfortunately, we see a proportionately higher number of non-repairable cars coming from this group, too."

Interestingly enough, says Moore, these cars aren't the beaters you'd think they might be. Instead, he describes most of the vehicles he sees as "former family cars, three to five years old, everything from Toyotas to Fords." Moore feels this mix reflects the fact that parents want their children to have safe, reliable transportation while they are away at college, as opposed to "luxury transportation."

Still, even the most basic of vehicles needs to be cared for — which is often a tricky proposition for cash-strapped 18-year-olds far away from home, without a credit card in sight.

"It's a little more difficult to deal with students," says John Morgavan, owner of Valparaiso Transmission, in Valparaiso, Ind. Morgavan's shop is located a block from Valparaiso University, so he sees a steady stream of students, mostly undergraduates, in his shop. "You have to handle them differently. For example, you may have to go through more channels — for example, mom or dad, or mom and dad if they are divorced — to get permission to do the repairs. Most of the time, if the car is already at the shop, the parents will go ahead and okay the repair."

Morgavan admits, however, that it can be difficult to deal with the parents over the phone, but says that the tension stems mainly from them not wanting their children to get "ripped off." In such instances, communication is the key to making a sale — and to establishing a trust with the out-of-state party so that they can be confident repairs will get done correctly.

"It's easier to communicate directly with the person who is paying the bill," Morgavan says. "In this case, it's usually mom or dad. Otherwise, it's like a Chinese drill. If you tell a person one thing and by the time it gets to the fourth person, it's a completely different story."

Dave Justice, the owner of Parkway Auto Care Goodyear in Berea, Ohio, agrees that communication is perhaps the one factor that can help solve — or exacerbate — problems between a service provider and their customers. For the past seven years, his shop has provided service for students, faculty and staff members at Baldwin-Wallace College.

"I think the biggest thing we need to do in our industry is to be able to qualify problems and then to clearly explain what we need to do in order to repair the vehicle," he says. "As long as you can get the right information from the customer, as long as you can ask the right questions to find out what problem the car is experiencing, you're okay."

Although Justice does see a disproportionate number of vehicles needing front end or suspension work, as well as new tires — a fact he attributes, like Moore, to poor overall maintenance — he says that, for the most part, the students are fairly aware of what's going on with their cars. But for those who are not familiar with the basics, diagnosing a noise or vibration depends on service advisors who know how to ask the customers the right questions.

For Morgavan, this means relying on his 20-something service advisor, Joe, to communicate with the younger set.

"The students feel comfortable with Joe. They're on the same level with him. I mean, if you have an 18-year-old guy standing at the counter, who is he going to want to talk to — Joe, or myself? The students are just more comfortable dealing with someone closer to their own age," he adds.

Marketing 101

Once you have a car in your bay, communication is crucial. But how do you go about getting that vehicle in your shop in the first place? Is marketing to a younger crowd different than cultivating the older, residential demographic? And, if so, how do you win that group's business?

"The main thing you want to do is to make sure that when their cars start making noise, you're in front of them," says Moore. "Advertise in the local campus directory, or put up fliers in the campus center. Once you get one or two good students as your customers, they're going to tell other students about your shop. Word of mouth is a good way to grow business with this group."

Moore adds, however, that his shop does not rely on students for their business, so he limits his marketing and advertising efforts accordingly. Justice, on the other hand, cultivates student business. He advertises on the Baldwin-Wallace radio station, places ads in the football program, helps sponsor the letterman golf outing and offers a special "keychain coupon" program to his student customers.

"People, as a general rule, fix their cars either where they work or at home," Justice says. "For the students, "home" is their dorms. So we give them 5 percent off regular visits, and use our keychain promotion to give them discounts on oil changes, tire rotations and other simple services."

And, just like "regular" patrons, students receive service reminders through the mail, along with customer coupons and a regular newsletter. For Justice, this is all part of establishing a trust relationship with the students as well as their parents, and retaining an important part of his customer base.

In addition to keeping a younger service advisor on the payroll, Morgavan also says he likes to invite his younger customers back to watch the technicians repair the vehicles, or — at the very least — show them the damaged parts. That way, he says, "they can tell their parents that the technician took the car apart in front of them and showed them the reason for the repair, and the parents can feel confident that we didn't charge them a lot of money for an unnecessary repair."

Morgavan also offers students the opportunity to join his "Car Care Club," which is good for four free oil changes after they purchase a service card. He says this helps remind the students to bring their cars in at least twice a year, and allows technicians to drive the car, identify any developing problems and give the owners insight as to what maintenance needs to be done and when.

Car Care Clinics can also help educate patrons about their vehicles, says Moore, who offers clinics on a regular basis. However, students rarely attend these classes. Moore attributes it to their hectic schedules, and circumvents the poor attendance by educating them at the front counter so that they know when their car needs to come in for routine check-ups.

Morgavan has also offered car care seminars to his customers, but gears them specifically toward women.

"We like to give them a little bit of knowledge so they can feel confident checking oil, changing oil, changing wiper blades and checking tire pressure," he says. "You know, the things that will help avoid major problems down the road."

Of course, college students do not offer a shop "steady" business. Eventually, clients will graduate and move on — hopefully in the cars they learned to maintain during their college years.

"I may never see these students or their parents again, but while they're here, we can have a good relationship and I can take car of their cars," Morgavan says. "Everyone wants their children to be safe."

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