Dealer Ops

The Ultimate Service Experience Empowering Your Team to Exceed Expectations

Ten years ago if you gave a customer a free car wash and a vacuum they would have been thrilled. Today, service managers are faced with an ever expanding expectation of what good service is. Ron Van de Kraats, service manager for Prestige Imports of Santa Rosa, Calif., shakes his head at the rising demand but makes sure his team meets the expectations.

Prestige Imports is one of seven dealerships, with seventeen franchises which is owned by Hansel Auto Group. Over the years Hansel has developed a robust business with excellent service centers. The Hansel group generates more than $24 million annually in service center revenue.

Van de Kraat started his career as a technician but soon realized he didn’t want to turn a wrench for the rest of his life, so he took an opportunity in dispatch. After several years working in the new atmosphere he was given the opportunity to become a manager. He’s been a service manager since 1994. 

For Van de Kraat, there is a direct correlation between BMW’s old slogan of “The ultimate driving machine” - and how that has evolved into “The ultimate driving experience.” Now, the customer expects the entire dealership to be the ultimate experience rather than just the car they are purchasing.

He credits his 16 years experience coaching soccer as a major factor in his patience in dealing with both his customer’s changing expectations and his staff.

In the small hectic BMW, VW and Subaru service centers, patience is important, because catering to customers is the backbone of the organization.  When a car is dropped off in the morning, Van de Kraat has a porter waiting to tag the car, introduce the customer to the service advisor and take the vehicle out of the repair line to the back of the shop. He believes this creates the best first impression possible. 

Apparently, his decision to cater to his customers has worked. Even with space constraints, Prestige Imports has expanded from one shop with 10 technicians, to two shops with 32 technicians. This service center is now turning over $500,000 in monthly gross revenue.

“We are growing at an average rate of 10 to 20 percent each year. It’s phenomenal,” Van de Kraats said.

Until a year ago when they opened their second shop, they were buried year round with appointments scheduling three to four weeks out. During those years, the only advertising they did was service reminder letters. Lately, due to increased pressure from the manufacturers to reduce warranty repair, they have refocused their advertising efforts on the retail side of the business. They recently hired a company to mine their database to start an e-mail campaign for the coupons, advertising opportunities and service reminders.

One challenge that all dealer service centers face is retaining dealer customers after the warranty expires. He is diligent about checking competitors’ menu rates and educating his customers on the benefits of a dealer service center over independent shops.

He said that the customer’s perception about a dealer is that they will always be more expensive than that of an independent. “Reality is the opposite of that.”

He fights to educate customers on the fact that with a dealer you have the training, equipment and parts that will eliminate the extra hours. “If it takes them three hours to chase down an electrical problem, it’s probably only going to take us an hour and a half.” That time difference, plus the exceptional service is what he stresses the most.

Even though the dealership is located in what seems like an idyllic location of the Sonoma County Wine Country, it is a high stress area. “Five minutes can tick a customer off,” he said, “We can all make more money, but we can’t make more time. So I started trying to figure out ways to make things more convenient for my customers.”

Anyone who purchases a car at the dealership is guaranteed a free ride, literally. If the vehicle needs to be serviced, they ensure that the customer either has a loaner car through their dealership or they utilize the Enterprise Rental counter they recently put in the dealership.

The dealership will drive anywhere in a 60 mile radius, either to drop off the loaner and pick up the vehicle or take the customer where they need to go. Van de Kraats keeps several part-time drivers on staff just for this purpose.

“We use most of our loaner cars for pick-up and delivery, but putting the Enterprise location in there has helped us as we expanded.”

Van de Kraats believes that the free ride guarantee has been a tremendous success with existing customers as well as potential customers.  “I am confident that it has sold a lot of cars.”

That statement was backed up recently when Van de Kraats did a customer survey. The overwhelming results were that the customers got excited about the convenience and reassurance the guarantee provided.  “We polled around 100 people, and they we’re all very pleased with the program that we had put in place. It is by far the most popular process or program that we have,” he said.

Their customer service skills and detail-oriented approach to customers’ needs keep their appointment book filled. They utilize their Web site to book online, but also have two service coordinators, who handle incoming service calls.

“Like most dealerships, we were pushed by the manufactures to create a cookie cutter approach to the shops. They want customers to be able to go to any dealership, and it’s going to look and feel the same.”

Frankly, for Prestige Imports, it has worked out quite well.

“Our VW and Subaru customers don’t have time to mess around; they just want to drop their vehicles off and get to work. The BMW drivers seem to have less of a time constraint, so we cater to them.”

“The culture is teamwork. You don’t snap your fingers and develop a culture. You have to drive that home over and over.”

The Prestige Import culture is developed by empowering his team members to excel and to try to help customers from the point of initial contact. He encourages them to come up with solutions as soon as possible and to think outside the box when dealing with problems.

“When someone calls my shop and says, ‘I have a problem,’ what they are really saying is ‘Help me’,” he said.

He wants every employee he has to be able to try and solve those problems.

That theory helps him guide his employees to better serve his customers. He believes employees develop creative solutions when they are allowed to make problem solving decisions.  This authority to make decisions builds a team environment.  “My staff is fully aware that they will never be reprimanded for spending money to take care of the customers.”

He credits this attitude to the management style of owners Stephen and Henry Hansel. This duo allows managers to make decisions that affect the department without micromanaging.

“I think that our owners realize that not every dealership is going to have the same needs, goals or attainable profit levels,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I love working here. Steve Hansel has given his managers a huge amount of autonomy on how to best run the departments so that we could be most successful.”

That’s also one of the reasons he believes he is so successful. “If I want to make a decision, I make it, but I have to be smart enough to recognize if it is working or not. If it isn’t, then the plan is changed.” So, in turn he fully empowers his staff to make decisions that affect the daily business. Everyone is involved in making decisions that impact the dealership and department. He believes it gives his employees a sense of pride and ownership.

He continually reiterates to all employees how important it is to be a cohesive team on the same page.

“[Customers] trust us, and they believe we’re the most qualified. If we drop the ball on either of those things, they aren’t going to bring their cars to us, and they are going to tell their friends and neighbors.”

Van de Kraat prefers personality over experience when hiring.  “If you have someone who is outgoing, if they can make a customer leave the dealership understanding that the customer service advisor is their advocate, I’ll take that person over someone with automotive experience any day.” Developing that relationship creates the best kind of customers – returning.

The teams that he has developed over the years are measured on everything. He measures total sales, additional point of sale purchases, customer service and anything else he can analyze. He laughs a little when talking about his weekly updates. He said if a day or two goes by at least one member of his staff is asking where the results are.  He has been able to foster an environment that looks forward to being measured.

“I believe that you only manage what you measure.”  He makes spread sheets of all of his employee performances. Like a coach putting up stats, he measures and posts the results weekly so that everyone is motivated to perform better.

No one wants to come in last.

Vol 3, Issue 12


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