“This is just how we roll,” says Ernie Lanning, service manager of Phil Longin Colorado Springs, CO, whose 18-member team worked 24/7 to help firefighters and rescue workers combat widespread Waldo Canyon wildfires in June and July.
The blazes burned 18,000 acres (7,284 ha), destroyed about 350 homes and forced the evacuation of 40,000 residents. Amid the scorching heat and punishing brush, emergency vehicles took a severe beating.
“It was so hot out there in the woods the engine seals were cooking, seeping oil on the ground, risking more fires,” Lanning recalls.
“These trucks had to come out immediately for repair and get fixed fast to go back in service. We did double duty for a couple weeks to keep everything going.”
Phil Long, a flagship store near Pikes Peak, has won praise from the American Red Cross, Ford and local officials. In particular, the dealership’s service department was lauded for going above and beyond.
“If the fire trucks were unavailable, that would put everyone at risk,” Lanning says. “Helping out was a no-brainer.”
The store once again is on the WardsAuto Dealer Service 150, a list of the top dealership fixed operations in the U.S. For many service departments, helping worthy causes is part of the job.
Like the biblical Good Samaritan on the ancient roadway, notable service managers throughout North America lend assistance to their communities, stranded motorists and distressed tourists as a regular part of doing business.
Some have emergency vehicles cruising busy highways; others maintain a fund to pay rental-car costs for special situations. Many will bend over backward to get parts in a timely manner to a customer who needs a car fixed fast.
It has paid off.
Total franchised dealership service, parts and body-shop sales topped $80 billion in 2011, with average sales up 4.7%, according to the National Automobile Dealers Assn.
Nearly 90% of dealers offer evening and weekend service hours, helping accommodate customer and community needs.
“One of the most notable things about dealerships is their sense of community,” says Les Silver, chairman and CEO of Mobile Productivity, a provider of service-department software.
“Part of the reason is they (service managers) are grateful for sustained business and partly because it is good business,” he says. “People talk about good deeds, they refer others, and that is the best form of advertising.”
Phil Long Ford had $5.1 million in service revenue and a total $22.5 million in fixed-operations income last year.
Other dealers interviewed by WardsAuto have scores of grateful customers, as evidenced by their customer-satisfaction scores.
Brian P. Womack, national fleet officer for the American Red Cross, sent a letter to Phil Long co-owners Jay and Mike Cimino, thanking their service staffs for immediately repairing vehicles involved in the fire fight.
The Red Cross sent in 27 emergency response vehicles from six states.
“What many people do not know is that these vehicles are piloted by volunteers,” Womack says. “Being volunteers and not professional drivers, many times they push them way beyond their limits, and many times until they just will not go anymore.”
Whenever those vehicles went to the dealership for repairs, “we were treated with first-class service and were pushed in front of other vehicles just like you did for the great firemen who saved your community,” Womack tell the Ciminos.
“I never caught his name, but the gentleman with the tattoos all over was always right there, ready to move our vehicles back into the bays as soon as we pulled up, many times before we could even get a chance to talk to any of the service advisers.”
The reputation of good dealers is enhanced by ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
spokesman Ralph Kisiel singles out Allen Samuels Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram Alliance in Fort Worth, TX, for attention.
Six months ago the dealership put into service a bright-orange Jeep rescue vehicle with yellow roof lights and all-terrain tires. It is used for roadside assistance and kept stocked with first-aid supplies, cold water and snacks.
“The most recent mission took place in over 100-degree weather where one of their customers who was pregnant and had a small child in her car called in asking for assistance,” Kisiel says.
Sales manager Jason Scott stayed on the phone with the customer until the rescue Jeep came to get her and her child. A tow truck brought her vehicle to the service department. Within a short time she was on her way home. And the dealership’s quest for helping customers went on.
“We want to show people that we will be there for them after the sale,” says Mimi Garza, dealer coordinator at Allen Samuels.
Service or sales personnel also drive the vehicle in parades, staging areas for off-road rallies and at schools. When at home at the dealership, the Jeep is displayed on a platform adorned by boulders.
Staffers from Hamiltonin Hamilton Square, NJ, wowed a pair of customers so much they wrote a letter to VW’s corporate headquarters.
“On Easter Sunday evening, while driving our 2010 VW Golf TDI on the New Jersey Turnpike, we saw that several engine malfunction icons were lit . . .We checked into a nearby motel. The next morning we showed up at Hamilton VW without an appointment,” wrote Margaret L. and Paul J. Grupposo of Hollis, NH.
Customers like the Grupposos find Hamilton VW on their smartphone, from roadside assistance or by asking at a gas station. When they drive or are towed to the dealership, service manager John Lynch does his best to relieve their anxiety.
“When customers are on a road trip they are excited,” he says. “If their car breaks down it ruins everyone’s plans. It takes understanding, what it feels like to be stuck on the side of the road. Make people feel good. Someday they will come back.”
As a top-performing VW dealer the store has goodwill money from VW to spend on warranty customers. Another man’s car broke down outside Hamilton Square while traveling to Manhattan from Baltimore. Lynch secured a rental car for him to continue north while his team remedied the minor repair and had the car ready for him to drive home on Monday.
Service managers often step in to fix a problem, even if another dealership employee doesn’t. Saying he didn’t have a key in stock, a parts staffer at Maher Chevrolet in St. Petersburg, FL, turned away a harried customer who came by tow truck to replace a lost key on a rented Chevrolet Aveo.
Service manager Richard Moench interceded. In the pouring rain he sent a parts runner to another dealership to secure the proper key.
“‘Don’t tell people what you can’t do,’” he says he tells his employees. “‘Come to me and we’ll try to find a solution.’ We get a lot of tourists, especially winter season, and we stay close to the top of the CSI (customer-satisfaction index) chart by relieving people’s anxiety.”
The main mission of many service departments is to help customers roll with life’s circumstances, says Michelle Hill, a spokeswoman for the Phil Long group that also represents Ford, Chevrolet,, Kia, Lincoln and Mercedes.
Managers took a two-pronged approach when the crisis in Waldo Canyon threatened employees and the community at large.
The dealership provided an employee emergency hotline to help channel money for shelter and food to those affected by the enormous blazes.
The dealership group authorized a 24/7 service schedule at its Ford and Chevy stores to get broken vehicles back on the road and swapped parts from inventory when they couldn’t wait for factory shipments.
They provided the free use of 30 cars and trucks to assist the firefight. They also supplied cold water to the workers.
Even with fears the fires will hurt tourism, a strong source of income for Colorado Springs, dealership optimism prevails. “We are resilient and strong and we will recover,” Hill says of the community.