Bonded Transmission & Auto Repair is a family business that’s been around for 55 years and has been nationally recognized as an efficient, successful business. The shop isn’t located in a high-traffic area, and it doesn’t offer the lowest prices, but Bonded’s commitment to customer service and delivering top-notch work has earned the business plenty of loyal customers.
This month, Bonded Transmission & Auto Repair marks a milestone – 100 completed services through the Openbay platform. Even though Bonded is one of the busiest shops in its area, Bonded uses Openbay to connect with new customers when time allows.
Openbay has been fortunate to have worked with Bonded since our company began. As our founder & CEO, Rob, explored the notion of an auto-repair marketplace, he sought the advice of Bonded’s leaders, we continuously rely on Bonded as a sounding board for the service-provider’s perspective on product releases and enhancements.
We sat down with Bonded’s service manager, Bob Chandler, to find out more about his background, and what he believes Bonded does to set itself apart. Hint: it’s not by accepting the status quo.
How did your auto-care career begin?
I started off as a tech in 1974 at a small Ford dealership in Watertown Square, and then moved to other dealers. In 1988, I had the opportunity to become a service manager, and continued doing that until 2012 (24 years), when the opportunity came along here at Bonded Transmissions.
What sets Bonded apart?
Here at Bonded, I’m able to communicate with customers with a goal of keeping them happy. Most people associate getting their cars repaired with going to the dentist (painful experience). Having our customers feel that way is the last thing we want to do.
It’s inconvenient to give up your car. And especially at dealership level, customers feel they’re getting hosed all the time, and that’s because there, service advisors are working at 100% commission, meaning they’re not not going to sell.
My last company had been owned for years by a guy who had spent his career wanting to satisfy customers – even if it meant a loss – to have a good name and reputation. But once the new management took over the business, everything changed. They introduced pay plans that turned people into thieves; if you were a customer, you were going to buy something when you walked through the door. I knew I could only fight “city hall” so long. There’s a time I knew I’d have to leave either by their choice or by mine.
What I like about working here at Bonded is that I can be honest with people. I am not encouraged (as most dealers do) to oversell work to customers. I have to put my head on the pillow at night.
My boss is a second-generation owner. His father started the business in 1961. We’re one of the busiest stores around, and we got here by treating our customers right, and doing the right thing.
Up until 2012, Bonded was a transmission shop only. But nowadays, transmissions don’t fail like they used to. So the business owner chose to branch out, and diversify into general repairs. They had tried that route for few years with the previous service manager, whose skill-set was focused on transmissions, and then decided they’d needed someone with more knowledge, so they hired me as service manager.
What do you love about the business?
We might say we dislike it – there are no unions, no benefits, hours are lousy. If you’re at dealer, you know there will be a time you leave, because they’ll tell you anything to get you in the door, and then things change. …
But as they say, “Once the oil gets in your blood, you never get it out.” There are few of us who ever leave it.
When I’m talking tech to a technician, it’s like we’re talking doctor-to-doctor. And when I’m dealing with a customer who has no knowledge, and explaining why we’re charging more for service and how it will be done correctly – whereas another shop might be using used or low quality parts – there’s a value in that. I like interacting with people, and the customers.
Any great lessons from your 42 years in the industry?
One thing I learned a long time ago, in my first job as a service manager, was the importance of being able to relate to women better.
Our dealership had brought in a focus group – they took 25 customers who had complained. I was there, sitting behind the glass, and a woman jumped up and said, “I brought my T-Bird there, and it wasn’t fixed the right way,” and I knew I’d been the one dealing with her.
It turns out that, when she and her husband had come in, the husband described the car’s problems to me, but he was probably wrong about it, because she was the one who drove the car every day. And that tends to happen pretty often.
From that experience, I learned the first question to ask is, “Who drives the car?” before asking the person who actually drives the vehicle what it’s doing. That was a humbling but valuable lesson.
What’s some of the most valuable training you’ve done?
I’m trained as a technician, and had gone to a vocational high school, where I learned a lot before going out into the trade. We’d do academics one week, then head to the shop. I also received lots of training while with Ford as new products came out.
Before the opportunity came up to become a service manager, I’d been a shop foreman. The dealership owner was a mental case, and one day, he just walked up and fired the service manager, then gave me that job. At the time, I’d never written a repair order, much less dealt face-to-face with customers, and had never known anything about warranty. I took the warranty and policies book home and read it over the weekend, and took some notes. And on Monday, I opened the store as a manager. Since then, I’ve continued to learn as much as I could.
I’ve attended NADA – they are really good, and have annual meetings. It’s hard to leave the store if it’s not well staffed, but they always record the sessions, so if I couldn’t make a conference, I’d get the whole thing on tape, and I’d listen to the seminars, always picking up something relevant for the store.
Bonded Transmission is also a member of the Bosch Service Network here, and I had attended one of their seminars in New Orleans – it was useful and intense training, all about running a business.
I’d done all my previous training in a dealership, where they’d had a sales department contributing to the margins, so if I was making 40% of the cost of fixed expenses, I was exceeding the norm. Bosch provided really good, eye-opening training that explained how, in an independent shop with no sales department, I need to cover 100% of the costs to make this a profitable organization, because there’s no sales department to support the service center.
Bonded is also a member of Bosch’s “20 Group,” which is a group of owners and managers of 20 “like” businesses, in terms of size and performance. We come from different parts of the country and meet twice a year to discuss business challenges and best practices.
How are things changing for automotive service providers?
The cars are all made better, regardless of the manufacturer. They last longer and they cost more. When I first came out of high school, they’d last an average of ten years or 100,000 miles. Today, we work on cars that are 15-years old. They don’t rust like they used to.
Because of the higher-quality vehicles, on the dealership-end of things, all of a sudden, the sales department hasn’t been the breadwinner as was always the case.
Most dealership owners have come up and progressed through the sales-side of the business, so they don’t understand the importance of the service side. And most service managers haven’t progressed with time. They’d just write up the service, get the car fixed, and they always depended on those cars continuing to roll in for service.
Independent-shops’ business has slowed over the years, as the technology has changed. It can be tough to stay up-to-date with training, and for the customer, that’s not a good thing. That’s why ‘Right to Repair’ was important – manufacturers were hogging all the data and wouldn’t give it out to anybody.
It’s tougher to find good people. Many will have a hard time attracting managers and service advisors because of the pay plans, hours, lack of respect, and leadership treating people as though they’re expendable. When there’s no loyalty to employees, in turn there’s no loyalty to the employer. Small shops can keep their people by managing better. That way, when employees look elsewhere, they’ll realize that the “bigger better deal” isn’t always the bigger better deal.
How do you find and retain new customers?
There are guys out there, complaining about business falling off, and not as many jobs coming through the door. What do you do? How do you sell to a void?
When things are slow, it’s better for me to send out a $19.95 oil-change special, than to tell the guys to sweep the floors.
We use Groupon, and we use Openbay. Sometimes we’ll give away an oil change on Groupon, as a loss leader, to get new customers – that enables the initial introduction. Then it’s up to me to keep them coming through the door.
A lot of businesses are not willing to do a loss leader. I once read a short book called “Dinosaur Brains” that pointed out how many businesses that were giants in the 70s didn’t exist in the 80s. Those brands thought, “This is just what I do,” and you see that happen all the time. Ours is a business that’s evolving.
Some businesses are geographically blessed to the point where they have to turn away work because there are so few shops and so many people, so they don’t need to try new things. But there are other businesses that aren’t as well located, and the owner might be at the end of his career. When those shops run through slow periods, and refuse to try new things, that’s no good.
Most of the Groupon customers we see are price shoppers. But that’s ok. If they didn’t come through the door, I wouldn’t have met them, and that means I couldn’t have sent them an email offer when business is slow.
We get quite a few Openbay customers who have come to us after dealers have told them a job will cost between $7,500-$10K. Those high repair estimates are often excuses for a dealer to sell those people new cars. When those customers come to us, the amount often looks more like a $3,500 repair.
We have a changeover period from winter to spring, and it gets dicey at that time of year – occasionally we’ll see transmissions blowing up left and right. But even then, I try to get into Openbay at least twice a day. Even if we’re busy, I figure let’s put a quote in.
We also use a service called Demand Force. If we recommend replacing a part, but the customer wants to wait, we put in “fail to authorize.” A while later, that reminds customer that we’d seen something on the car, and we might offer 5% off the service.
We try to treat everybody right. We have a young woman who makes customer-satisfaction calls and sends thank-you notes. They work better than anything. If you soft sell with people, they appreciate it. We had a GM of a dealership come to us, remarking about how that was the greatest idea.
Have you got advice to shop owners/operators?
Share information with the whole company. Here, everybody is working toward the same goal to make the company profitable. We set up a bonus based on the bottom-line profit. It’s eye-opening for everyone to see how many extra expenses we have. That encourages our team to consider every expense, down to, “Am I going to leave heat on over the weekend? Am I going to waste this product?” By doing that, Bonded ensures every team member is a partner in the business.