What does it take to be proactive? To act on an idea. Like the notion Reed Galloway and Mike Wright had that there had to be a better way of treating customers than the disconnect they witnessed at the dealership they worked for. By 2000, they put thought into action and opened RM Automotive in Northridge, Calif. Today, Wright oversees the workflow of their technicians, while Galloway handles the business affairs of a shop that specializes in Japanese makes.
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While this northern L.A. suburb is known primarily for being the epicenter of the devastating 1994 earthquake, Galloway and Wright set about mending the chasm between the client and the front counter. “We (still) feel people are just a number at the dealerships,” says Galloway. “They don’t offer the personal touch that we as independents do. Over time, we’ve built relationships; we know the customers’ families, gone out to dinner with some of them, become friends.”
Galloway points to his service manager/writer, Rich. “He’s very personable with the customers, asking a ton of questions to make sure that he understands their problem properly. As far as consumer satisfaction goes, all of our customers receive a complimentary 30-point inspection with every service. We give out free loaner cars if theirs is staying longer than a day. We offer shuttle service without limiting it to five miles, like a lot of people would do.”
They will literally go that extra mile; Northridge has around 60,000 people, but the entire San Fernando Valley has 1.8 million within its 20-mile radius, and Galloway says they’ll go almost anywhere in that area. “In many situations if (the client) is stuck somewhere, we’ll drive the shuttle over there, jump them, and bring them and the car back to the shop. We’ll also pick up cars at people’s houses, do the work, bring them back; its things like that that sets us apart.”
What immediately gained RM traction in this highly competitive market was the fact that Wright was a winner of the 1999 Honda Top Tech contest. A rigorous trial of knowledge and skill, technicians are given a Honda vehicle with several “bugs,” problems that have to be diagnosed and fixed. “Honda’s best trained techs in the country are invited,” Galloway explains. “Only two techs get to win it every year.”
Even though they opened in 2000, the industry has changed drastically even since then. “Back then the typical model of getting a customer in the door was still the Yellow Pages, and you had pay phones everywhere,” recalls Galloway. “Now people hit a button on their phone to locate you, another to find a review. The technology is so vast that there are companies coming up left and right with new ways for you to advertise.”
But RM had an edge there as well: Wright’s father was “very computer savvy and I want to say we had a website as early as 2002,” says Galloway. “We were very much at the forefront, knowing that we would need a one; there are still so many shops today that don’t think this is a necessity.”
Of course venturing into this new realm required some trial and error. “We probably interviewed three or four different companies to put a new website together,” Galloway admits. “But now we use a guy who specializes in automotive websites, and he was very instrumental in getting us on top of organic searches.” But nothing evolves faster than the Internet, and he points out that at least on the West Coast, Yelp is overtaking Google in that domain.
“We believe our online reviews have helped us tremendously,” Galloway also notes. “We post a minimum of two Facebook posts a week, and on Twitter we engage in conversations with people who tweet about their cars.”
However, some old school ideas still work. By January 2014, L.A. County had outlawed plastic bags, and RM took advantage of this by printing up recyclable canvas shopping bags with their name and website on the sides. “We go out to the farmers market and stuff and pass out our bags and cards,” Galloway reports. “We also have them under our counter if a customer needs one. People like them because we bought the extra big ones; they can put at least two gallons of milk in there.”
Apparently this didn’t go unnoticed; “Just today a dealer brought us some engine mounts in one of their own recyclable bags,” he laughs.
Over the past 14 years, what has worked best? “A lot of things,” muses Galloway, “but more than anything, having the right staff is always critical. We haven’t really gone out and hired apprentices to train; a lot of techs came to us through our reputation. I also think it’s important to get out in the community, being part of the Chamber of Commerce.”
On a state level they are members of the Automotive Service Councils of California (ASCCA) through its fifth chapter, which was just named Chapter of the Year by the state board. They take part in the ASCCA Summer Conference, and Galloway was part of the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) panel that helps a local high school get continued funding for their automotive program and staff.
“They’re very proactive owners,” says Galloway of fellow members. “They’re always having seminars, guest speakers, etc., that help us all grow in the automotive business. They’re also very active regarding state laws; we lobby up in Sacramento on bills like one regarding unlicensed mobile mechanics advertising on Craig’s List.
“More than anything, we love what we do,” Galloway says. “We try to make our shop an example and make it better for everybody; not only the consumer but our industry as a whole. It’s not easy—just one day at a time.”