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A Leader In Service

If you've got a high-performance Volvo, Toyota or Lexus and you live in Birmingham, Ala., chances are you know Frank Polhill. And if your car's engine is humming, you're probably one of his customers.
In a business often plagued by public distrust, Polhill's Franklin Automotive constantly finds new ways to polish a reputation for honesty and integrity. Catering to a group of car lovers with a well-developed taste for the finer things in life also calls for plenty of pampering in the kind of pristine facilities that would pass the toughest inspection. And maintaining that regional reputation for craft and upscale caring has turned out to be the best customer relationship management tool he has, building a base of loyal customers who in turn inspire the vast majority of his new, drive-in accounts with their praise.

Polhill has repositioned himself to keep growing in the years ahead by adding the top-selling brands of luxury vehicles in his market. And his crew of technicians in two facilities now collectively service about 800 cars a month, making it easy for a new software program to create a database of thousands of local car owners who turn to him to keep their cars in top shape.

"We don’t practice to be the cheapest in town," vows Polhill. "We do practice to be the best: only high quality parts, only high quality personnel."

Ever since he set out in business in 1992, Polhill has been emphasizing that commitment to quality as a way to build a reputation as the local go-to guy for service. Originally just a two-man operation, Polhill and a helper—with both men rolling up their sleeves to fix Volvos—he has engineered his growth customer by customer. And he's stayed flexible. He followed his high-end clientele by joining the "over the mountain" migration in Birmingham by relocating near the intersection of Acton Road and Cahaba River Road and Altadena Square, the part of town where the most affluent Birminghamians live. In 2001 he took another big step, branching out to Toyota and Lexus and staying one step ahead of the inevitable service problems and declining brand reputation he anticipated from Ford's acquisition of Volvo. Last May he took over a sprawling empty Lexus dealership in downtown Birmingham to get closer to the lawyers, bankers and medical school doctors who work nearby and drive the kind of cars he specializes in. Between the two locations he now supervises a crew of 10 technicians, all devoted exclusively to the fine art of servicing Toyota, Lexus and Volvo—1980 models or newer.

Polhill inherited a prime showroom when he moved into downtown. That's helped him boost sales of late model, low mileage cars. Sales are up to about a dozen a month now, and he keeps an updated list on view through his Web site. But he makes it crystal clear that car sales are really just a sideline. His heart—and his success—lies on the service end of the business.

"I feel like I'm a leader in service," says Polhill. "That’s what I brag on. And customers are willing to pay just a little extra to have their car worked on by experienced, knowledgeable technicians."

It didn’t happen by accident, either. Polhill credits his success to years of careful study and meticulous planning.

"I planned eight years prior to ever opening a service facility," he says. "And I did all my homework before opening the doors. I went to a technical school, started off doing all the work myself."

But Polhill feels that what really sets him apart is that he earned a business degree from The University of South Alabama before he signed up for The Wyoming Technical Institute, one of the best automotive repair schools in the country. That classroom background makes him feel comfortable both running the business as well as fixing the cars. And while he reserves most of his time these days for managing the business, he can still lean under a hood and show a master mechanic what needs to be done when they hit a steel wall.

"I'm kind of unique," observes the soft-spoken Polhill. "I did things backward." And it's helped him avoid the kind of trouble that often besets a top mechanic who tries to run a business as complex as a pair of service centers.

It's been straight ahead ever since graduation day. And by giving his workers the authority to do the right thing by customers, he's gained a lot of front-line help in building his reputation.

"We rely on 90 percent of our new customers from word of mouth," he says. And what they hear, he says, is about honesty and integrity—and cleanliness. Everyone who works there knows that the job comes with a mandate: do the right thing by the customer.

"There are no rules for taking care of the customer," says Polhill. Technicians "don’t have to check with their supervisor about doing what is right. If they need to 'no charge' an item because of a situation, they can on the spot do whatever is necessary to take care of the customer."

In part, Polhill asserts, technological advances in these high-end cars have made it easier to distinguish himself in the market. In order to diagnose and fix one of these vehicles, you have to be trained in the work. A shade tree mechanic can't really compete. But he's also understood that he caters to a unique and demanding group of people. High performance cars are often owned by high performance drivers with great expectations for everything they do. And that includes where they take their cars to get fixed.

That helps explain Polhill's motto: "We take care of the customer first and fix the car second."

That means offering customers a shuttle service to work, or loaner cars when they're needed. And he can just about guarantee that any routine maintenance and repair work can be done on the same day. "Whatever it takes," promises Polhill. "We will stay late."

There's a start-of-art facility—“it doesn’t even look like a repair shop"—that he describes as "aesthetically appealing.” “It's very clean," he adds with characteristic understatement. For those who can stick around while their car is being worked on, there are comfortable surroundings. "Women feel very comfortable here." There's cable TV, Internet access and a computer room, and a cappuccino machine. "We make it as nice as possible."

And did he mention that it was clean? Extremely clean?

"Gleaming" might be a better description, as even a casual observer can see just by walking in.

The way Polhill runs his business has been constant, but he's also been ready and willing to change with the market to keep in tune with his customers. Back in 1999, Polhill decided that his business needed to recalibrate if he wanted to keep his clientele. Even though he had trained on Volvo and dedicated his business to the brand, Polhill felt that Ford's takeover would likely lead to the kind of deterioration that would drive his customers to other cars. Two years later, he was trained and ready to start servicing Lexus and Toyota.

"I saw the writing on the wall that (the buyout) wasn’t a good move," he says. "I didn't want to have all my eggs in one basket." He scored a coup by recruiting a friend who was a Lexus specialist. And as problems with Volvos began to creep up in recent years, he saw a distinct shift in the market toward Lexus. Now 100 new Lexuses are sold in his market every month, and he has the best Lexus mechanic in town.

Meanwhile, he adds, Volvo has taken a hit. "Their sales are off and their quality is off."

It just goes to show that if you can maintain peak performance without wavering, or changing, this group of customers can be doggedly loyal. One of the best ways any service operation can retain customers is by keeping key personnel in highly visible positions, says the service master.

"All my front help has been here 10 years or longer," says Polhill. "We don’t have any turnover. It's very comfortable for these customers to see the exact same face over the years. And I get to hear that a lot—‘you have a great staff.’"

So does everyone else living in the area. And that's the kind of advertising a service group/dealership can't buy. And that's good, because the kind of advertising he does buy hasn't produced business nearly as well.

"We've tried advertising," he adds, "but it just doesn’t work." Television, radio and print ads, he said, have all failed to measure up. Not that he's given up on finding new ways to retain old customers and bring in new ones. His Web site——outlines his service philosophy in simple terms and provides practical information on directions to his facilities and hours of operation. And Polhill hasn't gone without any kind of formal customer program. A new computer program has created a database of 4,000 car owners in his area, and now it's a piece of cake to send service reminder cards.

"The new computer program I have does it for us," he says. "There's no effort in doing it. A couple of strokes of the key and it prints out on the computer."

That may be the only easy part to his business. But the whole high-performance operation is a credit to years of careful planning and intense dedication.

Vol 2, Issue 3



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