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Professionals Enhance the Industry's Image Despite Negative Stereotypes

From September 1998 Auto Inc.
by Ken Roberts


Automotive service is a favorite whipping post for national television news magazines, such as ABC's "20/20" and "Dateline NBC," as well as local television stations with aggressive consumer advocate investigative reporters. Their goal: catch the industry's bad guys, the incompetent mechanics and the purveyors of costly, unneeded repairs.

The broadcast media's hidden-camera and mechanically altered car sting operations have been played out so many times on our televisions that there's no need to recount their tactics here. We know them all too well. It is maddening to honest, well-trained technicians and shop owners when this negative stereotype is further embedded in the consumers' minds, reinforcing their belief that automotive repair professionals are not to be trusted.

What's even more maddening is when businesses and franchises within the automotive industry perpetuate this stereotype through their advertising. Recall the Pep Boys commercial which, until recently, was airing nationally. The commercial showed a car sitting at a garage day after day, touched only when the "grease monkeys" sat on it to eat pizza. "Three of my best men are on it right now," the owner said in response to the customer's phone inquiry. He was telling the truth. The mechanics were literally on the car.

Other commercials running regionally portray auto repair professionals as thieves. In the Southeast, Florida-based Tire Kingdom runs a commercial which shows a silhouetted tire technician. In the shadows, the impact wrench he is carrying looks like a pistol. "Every year, over 70,000 customers are robbed at gun point. Don't let it happen to you," the commercial voice-over says.

Similarly, a chain of brake shops, Brake Check, is running a commercial in Central and South Texas. In it, a brake repairman comes out from behind the car and tells the customer that her car needs a great deal of brake work. The repairman/robber is wearing a stocking mask. The voice-over says, "Take your car to Brake Check for honest repairs."

These and other similar commercials running regionally throughout the nation are designed to generate additional traffic into the advertisers' stores. While they may be successful in that regard, they are also successful in perpetuating the stereotypes that most in the industry are trying diligently to change.

What can be done to combat the news media and industry colleagues seemingly bent on showing the auto service profession as being comprised of bumbling incompetents or crooks? Is it likely that such a deeply rooted stereotype can be changed? Turning the Titanic before it hit the iceberg quite possibly could have been a much easier undertaking.

Because people's perception about the industry has been nurtured for years by the television news programs, negative portrayals in commercials and their own encounters with inept mechanics, the image cannot and will not be changed by rhetoric. As such, a national advertising campaign touting the honesty and competency of auto service professionals might prove fruitless.

If a national advertising campaign is not the solution to improving the industry's image, what is? Changing people's perceptions one person at a time.

This is accomplished by having well-trained technicians providing quality service in a clean environment and for a fair price; courteous and knowledgeable write-up personnel working with the customers; and, when there is a problem, the willingness to correct it quickly.

Consider your repeat customers. They value your skills and those of your technicians because they continue to bring their cars to your shop. As a repeat customer, their image of you undoubtedly differs from that of the negative stereotype.

There will always be customers who want to pay "Wal-Mart prices" for "Neiman-Marcus service." Those individuals will always be with us and we'll just continue working for them. Take an extra dose of patience when they walk in your shop because nothing you say or do is likely to change them.

With most customers, however, you can take strides to improve the industry's image. Every day, shop owners and their employees are working to that end. Some in little ways and others on a larger scale.

Mark Decareau of Asian Auto Services Inc. in Plaistow, N.H., said that for eight years he was working in a shop with a "4 foot by 2 foot" waiting room and "so much dust you couldn't clean." He said, "I just moved into a new building to give my shop a clean and well-run image. Now, there's so much room in my waiting area, I am lost."

Decareau believes in maintaining contact with his customers through frequent communication. He sends a "thank you" card after every service and he has a quarterly customer newsletter. Additionally, Decareau mails handwritten oil change reminder notices.

In Colorado, Donny Seyfer of Seyfer Automotive Inc. hosts a radio call-in show, "The Auto Answer Man," which airs Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Denver's largest talk radio station. Through his participation in the radio broadcast, Seyfer said he is able to reach many more people than he could otherwise and he is always working to improve the listeners' impression of automotive service.

"We have had excellent response from listeners. It has been my continuing effort to be sure that each guest technician demonstrates a positive image to the listeners. I think we are doing a really good job promoting ASA shops," Seyfer said.

Importantly, he is careful not to degrade any individual, franchise or dealer in the industry. That would be counter to any gains he has made in elevating the industry's image, Seyfer added.

At Sam Giammalvo's Auto Sales and Service Inc. in New Bedford, Mass., brothers Mark and Glenn Giammalvo author newsletters and fliers designed to educate their customers about common problems most motorists encounter with their cars. The correspondence is also used as a vehicle to communicate to their customers that they are knowledgeable, well-trained technicians. "We believe this instills confidence in our customers that we are at the cutting edge," Mark said.

The brothers are also active in the industry, writing technical articles for Motor Age magazine and taking leadership roles in the local chapter of ASA.

Efforts to improve their expertise demand the investment of countless hours, Mark said. "Generally, at home each night, my brother and I are reading magazines, automotive service text books, and the like, trying to further push our understanding of this ever-changing industry.

"It also means putting time aside to attend association meetings like our ASA chapter's general meetings and board meeting." Mark said. "I don't mean attending one or two meetings a year. I mean every single meeting, if possible. It's a total commitment to the industry."

Just as individual shop owners, technicians, and service writers all have a role in improving the auto service image, so do industry associations. Nancy Guzik, director of consumer relations at the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), said they have implemented a number of public awareness activities to enhance the industry image. One such program focuses on women motorists.

Responding to national trends which show that women account for more than half of all service and repair customers, ASE has concentrated its efforts in reaching and educating women about car care, repair and maintenance issues by participating in women's and consumer shows, Guzik said.

The consumer shows cover a broad spectrum of subjects, from home design to financial planning. "They give ASE the opportunity to reach thousands of female, and male, motorists."

ASE uses association staff members and local certified technicians to man their booth at the shows in which they participate. So far this year, they have been to shows in Washington, Arizona and Texas.

"At the booth, not only do we distribute 'Glove Box Tips,' ASE's consumer car care brochures, but we have the chance to talk one-on-one with consumers about vehicle maintenance, the auto repair experience, and, of course, ASE and what it means to them," Guzik said.

Members of ASA have agreed to adhere to the association's Professional Code of Ethics. ASA encourages its members to post the code in their customer waiting area as a method of communicating their commitment to professionalism in automotive service.

ASA works to combat negative representations of the industry through its electronic Image-Network. Membership in the network is free. The only stipulation is that individuals and shops who join must agree to assist ASA in its efforts to improve the industry's image.

Subscribers to the Image-Network receive periodic e-mail messages from ASA about industry news and events - both positive and negative. The messages also include ways to take action relative to the news and recommend steps to follow. Currently, there are nearly 800 subscribers to this network.

Whether it's working individually, interacting with customers one-on-one or collectively through industry associations, there are innumerable opportunities to improve the consumers' perception of automotive service.

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