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Adding locations, pursuing new opportunities and excelling at customer service: In the best of times, these steps present a serious challenge for any operator. In the worst of times, they can seem absolutely impossible. Even so, these are the fundamental steps that the management team at WLR Automotive Group Inc. has followed, in good times and bad, for the past 25 years. Through the economic ups and downs of the past few decades, WLR managed to stay the course and create impressive automotive success.
Today, the company that began with a single lube location in 1987 has grown to include 16 locations and approximately 250 employees, according to Cindy Burdette, director of marketing with WLR Automotive Group Inc. Currently, WLR operates three Auto Spa carwashes and detail centers, 11 Lube Centers and two Auto Repair shops in Maryland.
After decades in the automotive business, WLR opened its first Auto Spa carwash and detail center in 2003. John Gay, managing partner of The Auto Spas, said that customer feedback from the lube and repair centers initially led the company to enter the car care market. Basically, the customers were asking for a carwash, and WLR’s ownership felt that the idea was feasible.
The first Auto Spa was opened in an existing wash that WLR took over; it was not located on-site with any of the company’s other businesses. Though WLR had experience in the automotive service and repair markets, Gay noted some challenges that the carwash management team had to overcome to find success in the car care industry.
First, the company and management needed to understand what full-service and detailing customers truly expected from the carwash. To this end, Auto Spa performed a lot of customer surveys. Survey cards were handed out to every customer at the cash register, according to Gay. The company would survey customers for three or four months at a time, trying to identify what the customers were looking for in a full-service and detailing experience.
“If you don’t listen, they’re going to go somewhere else,” Gay stated. “So we did a lot of asking, a lot of questions and a lot of interaction with the customer.”
Once Auto Spa identified what their customers were looking for, the wash set out to find the right management team to understand and embrace the company culture. “Obviously, when it comes to full serve, you have staffing, and it takes some time to find the right staffing in order to deliver,” Gay explained.
Finally, Auto Spa sought to develop a system. Gay said a system of checks and balances are used to create the consistency needed to please every customer, every time. Employees can be taught using daily checklists, a training department or manuals, and all these things are important when it comes to delivering an excellent customer experience every visit.
A few years ago, WLR debuted an all-in-one location in Gambrills, MD. Opened in 2009, this was the first WLR operation to feature a carwash, lube center and repair shop all on one site, and the company actually built the business from the ground up. Unfortunately for WLR, the opening coincided with the economic downturn.
“We built it ourselves, the project was extremely painful,” Burdette recalled. “We opened three businesses at one time, and we did it when the economy crashed. It was very hard and drained a lot out of the organization.”
Three years later, the Gambrill’s location has become a real success for WLR. Burdette stated that the multi-profit property is a beautiful operation with a number of unique features, including waterfalls, fountains and aquariums.
Today, considering the changes in the automotive industry, especially on the lube and repair side, Burdette said it is important for companies to diversify and adapt. Frequently, manufacturers will determine the overall state of the industry, but WLR has created new businesses and operational guidelines that set their operations up for success.
“Above all is really high-end customer service. I believe in customer service, I think it’s why people do business,” Burdette revealed. “I think the level of expectation is so low among consumers that we really want to blow them away, and we do.” While exceptional service may not have helped a business stand out 25 years ago, it definitely does today, and it is a big part of how WLR and its businesses differentiate their offerings from the competition.
Gay explained that exceptional customer service goes back to the idea of listening to customers and finding out what they want. In fact, interaction and engagement with Auto Spa customers has allowed the chain to create their popular “spa packages.” These packages combine Auto Spa’s top-of-the-line carwash with a la carte cleaning services. And, even though the packages include Auto Spa’s most popular services, customers can still customize their selections.
“We may have a pre-defined package that we will offer, but if a customer wants to change any of those options, they can,” Gay noted. “It’s like a buy one get one free, so it shows the customer value.”
Another tool Auto Spa and WLR businesses uses to engage and communicate with customers is their Loyalty Club, according to Burdette. Started three years ago, the club offers customers two benefits: Club points and email offers. First, a customer will earn 10 club points for every dollar that he or she spends at any WLR business. When a customer accrues a certain amount of points, they can be redeemed for rewards such as free washes and free oil changes.
“We have Loyalty Bucks, which are basically gift certificates of $25, $50 and $100. You can also get retail gift cards,” Burdette said. “Our Loyalty Club members also get special discounts that you don’t get if you’re not a member.”
When creating the program, WLR set out to offer their customers a club that had real value. Customers can actually earn points very quickly, especially if they use WLR’s carwashes, lube centers and repair locations, and the points can be redeemed for real value. Burdette stated that the customers definitely appreciate usefulness of the program.
In addition to points, Loyalty Club customers receive exclusive emails. Currently, the club has about 90,000 members, and WLR communicates with them via email three times a month, Burdette said. Customers receive a “housekeeping” email at the first of the month that reveals how many points they have and what rewards they can select. The other two monthly emails are promotional, and they include club specials. “They get email offers that nobody else gets, so we sort of treat them special, which is important.”
Using the Internet, Auto Spa and WLR’s other businesses have been able to improve customer service as well. Today, the company frequently surveys customers using email. In fact, Gay said club members receive an email after their visit that thanks them for their business and includes a survey. “It gives them the opportunity to give us feedback on what we did [well] and what they’d like to see us do differently,” he said.
Also, Loyalty Club members can log in at any time to view their account online and see what rewards they can select. Because WLR locations are repeat businesses, and they want customers to come back, it is valuable for the chain to reward the customers and communicate with them often, Burdette noted.
Finally, WLR has seen a great response to their website coupons. The web coupons are the company’s best coupon performers based on a cost to redemption rate because they do not cost anything to run. “About 15 to 20 percent of all our coupons redeemed are from our website,” Burdette said. “It also has a really high redemption of attracting people.”
In addition, the coupons help generate traffic for the business’ website. In fact, the coupons are the second most popular page on the sites, according to Burdette. The coupons attract a lot of new people to the websites, thus exposing these users to WLR’s marketing messages. For this reason, the company makes sure to move and rotate the coupons so people do not get used to the offers.
And now, after the expansions, surveys and success, WLR has decided to celebrate their 25th anniversary in a unique and charitable way. This month, the company will use the Internet to giveaway $25,000. Burdette noted that the “25K Giveaway for Good” was actually the idea of Randall S. Simpson, president and CEO of WLR Automotive Group Inc.
As the management team discussed how to celebrate the company’s upcoming anniversary, Simpson thought it was a waste to spend money promoting WLR’s years in business. Instead, Simpson said, the company should just give it away. “We really did think he was kidding at first, but he wasn’t,” Burdette recalled. “So then the idea sort of grew into, ‘What if we did give away $25,000?’”
Once the decision was made, the business focused on making sure the money stayed in the communities that WLR and Auto Spa serve. Further, the management team hoped the money could act as seed money for groups that would make a difference in the communities, Burdette noted. Since WLR businesses serve seven different counties, the team decided to make it a public voting contest where anybody could nominate a 501(c)3 organization. This designation includes a huge range of charitable groups.
The first step, nominations, ran from Nov. 5, 2012 to Dec. 14, 2012, and more than 20 charities in almost every region that WLR serves were recognized. When a charity was nominated, they explained their project and how the money would be used, and they gave a description of the services they offer.
The next step will be online voting, held this month, to decide the final five groups. Voting ends on Jan. 24, and the five groups that get the most votes will be awarded $5,000 each on Jan. 28 to fulfill their project for good.
“We actually wanted this to be wide open where everybody can participate and the public gets to decide,” Burdette explained. “We really don’t want to start excluding. We want to keep it as open as possible. It’s been well received.”