The garages, they are a-changin’

Autocar Pro News DeskBy Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 29 Feb 2012 Views icon2486 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
The garages, they are a-changin’
WAY BACK IN the late 1970s, I used to go to ‘Kaka’ garage every two months to tune the engine of my big elephant called Ambassador. I had to navigate a few lanes, vie for being there first, draw the chief’s attention, say pleasant words to him and smile sheepishly. Kaka, the master, would look beyond me, and give preference to someone who spoke the local lingo. I had to wait until he decided it was my turn. All this for a good tuning, so that my elephant would drink less petrol and return good ‘mileage’! Why? Because he was the master who had perfected the black art of tuning with two fingers and a trained ear. The change in the sector began from 1992 when liberalisation began to take root. I joined the industry sometime in the late 1990s as an insider and my perspectives developed faster and stronger. With many MNCs coming in and looking at ‘service’ as a differentiator and talking of ‘total customer ownership’, things have moved on since, and how.

Garages began coming up on main streets, had a wider frontage, presented a bold and good look, were epoxy floored, and had a reception area with well-mannered staff. Some even had a TV set that beamed channel programmes, whether there was a person in the lounge or not, and were attended by a ‘service advisor’ who was well dressed (in contrast to the paan-chewing and spitting Kaka). However, much happened even beyond these cosmetics. Even in the mid-1990s, many garages used to repair cars over a pit. I recollect the days when I used to sit in front of owners justifying how wise and essential it was to invest in two-post hoists, stressing safety, a good working environment, quality of work, speed and productivity. A polite owner used to nod but postponed the investment or at best placed an order for one or two hoists for a large workshop, that too because the OEM would have insisted he have that. Attitudes have changed hugely since then.

Now it has become mandatory in the minds of garage owners, so much so that no one has to ‘sell’ the idea. Garage owners now know it pays to invest in this type of equipment. This is true for almost everything -– wheel aligners, balancers, body repair systems, MIG welders, dent pullers, special tools, or paint booths, among varied garage equipment.

The situation now is vastly different as customers look for modern equipment to assure themselves that a garage is ‘superior’ and ‘knows its job’. If a garage does not have these, they are quick to brand them as ‘inferior’. Such is the customer preference that even in a place like Karaikudi, in remote Tamil Nadu, I could see a garage aggressively invest in all this equipment, the cost running to almost

Rs 30 lakh in 2002. Within five months, the garage reached a financial break-even as customers came in droves, while another Chennai-based garage which had invested only Rs 6 lakh in equipment was still struggling to make ends meet several months later!

There has also been an attitudinal change. Garages have come a long way in terms of customer friendliness and interaction skills compared to the disdainful look that was always part of Kaka’s face. Today, garages have been tutored to respect customers and listen to their complaints. The ultimate aim: total customer satisfaction.

Seeing tomorrow today

So where does one go from here?

• Today, customers have to seek appointments to get even a small service. Appointments have to be taken, sometimes seven days in advance; in comparison, meeting a dentist seems a lot easier! But the situation is going to get worse. What is the remedy? Good garages have to come up in a dispersed manner. Not a 300-bay workshop in one place that provides everything from Coke to an O2 spa, but smaller ones that could be literally everywhere, where customers can just drive in and get the service done.

• Many customers feel their cars get a good wash and not a good service. So customer distrust is developing, if it has not developed already. That becomes stronger if a three-page bill is given to him/her, equaling a good fraction of the car’s price.

• Garages will have to learn how to use costly tools and equipment. One way is to ask “how much am I getting from this piece of equipment?” Not that there is no need to invest in these gadgets, but to look at “where and how they can be used effectively for doing quality work and render professional service? And to search the missing links and put them in place, to increase the productivity of workshops.

• Garage technicians particularly need to become adept in electronics and scan tool usages. This is a must. If this is not happening or driven to happen, things are going to get worse for vehicle owners in the future. Maintaining a car is going to be a costly and nightmarish experience.

• Many garages look well organised from the outside but customers intuitively know that such facades often mask a lot of confusion and disorganisation. Missed delivery times, refusal of service personnel to discuss estimates in advance, failure to take customer approvals before taking up a new repair, and residual problems left unattended can only result in customer dissatisfaction. For all these problems to disappear, garages have to have good planning systems in place, predictability in terms of parts availability, and quality and time consciousness on the part of service technicians. I have seen in the West that once a job begins, a technician is like a bee swarming around the car, speedily doing jobs and in methodical steps. I do not see it here. For instance, the job cards do not give processes to be carried first. While good service advisory is given to customers, but later the job is left to the mercy of technicians’ skills and aptitude.

• Job planning and internal organisation are an important area that will come into focus.

• From a customer perspective, there is too much of unwanted replacement of parts. An average customer wants to know why a small tear in a bumper cannot be repaired and why the entire bumper needs to be replaced. Why does a whole assembly need to be changed in pairs when only a small part on one side is missing. The customer is unable to come to terms as to why the bumper of a premium car is more premium than that of a compact car. The list is endless.

• Though some time is required to provide the right reasons, replacements are often being carried out too far and invite suspicion. There is a distrust developing and the regulator is taking note. It will not be long before restrictions come into place.

• Garages should only carry out the necessary repairs. They should not use safety and reliability as veils to push parts and subsequently impose costly labour charges.

• Garages need to invest in training, catalogues, if possible in electronic catalogues, and manuals. To reach there, vehicle manufacturers should come forward to share these as resources that enhance delivered quality against a suspected practice of using these as ‘assets’ to keep customers loyal to themselves.

• Skill development on a large scale, particularly of diagnostic skills and ‘first time right repair’ are paradigms that will require large investment in human resources. The government could also think of introducing personnel training into the workshop’s culture by adequately incentivising such training expenses with liberal and accelerated tax write-offs. This is one of the few areas that cannot be left to market forces.

With the Indian vehicle population growing and middle-class aspirations driving this growth, there is room for everyone and a need for quality garages that care for customers. Garages as a whole have come a long way but they have a much longer route to cover if they are to bring prosperity to millions and satisfaction to every vehicle user.
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