This is a planning time of year; a time when the “lessons learned” from the past can be woven with desire and fresh ideas for enhancing success and increasing business in 2019. At the retail shop level, our business has been greatly changed over the past decade.

Looking back 10 or 15 years, transmission shops were just that – transmission shops. A great number of the readers of Transmission Digest reported that at their shop, automatic transmission repair and rebuilding made up nearly all work performed. Go back another decade or two and we’d find shops limiting themselves to domestic manual and automatic units. In a world where the powertrain is lasting much longer, shops have turned to taking in all manner of work beyond the traditional automatic transmission. With that change, the reliance on repeat customer business has increased. In the year 2000 Transmission Digest surveyed readers averaged finding 31% of their business from repeat retail customers, a figure that’s more than doubled since that time.

And thus, it is crucial to plan for turning prospective customers into customers and for turning first-time customers into repeat customers. Most large shops have achieved largeness by being aware of and planning around the factors that influence repeat business. It’s more difficult at a smaller shop. For openers the optics of 15 employees at work gives advantage over a shop that finds the owner in the shop and his wife in the office answering the phone. Still, it’s always possible for the small shop to compete as long as there is an understanding of what customers want and deploying resources to satisfy those wants.
Consider that investment in creating a positive customer experience provides a better payoff than nearly anything else. Advertising brings new people in but won’t help bring them back. Today’s tune-up, transmission or even oil-change customer, given the competitive marketplace, is but minimally profitable in a single visit. The profitability associated with that customer soars with regular visits and the referral of family, friends and coworkers.

Sign in

In the majority of cases, the business sign is the first contact between the shop and the customer. Over the years, I’ve had numerous discussions with shop owners who talk about selecting a high-traffic location for their shop. It costs more to locate on a busy street and just isn’t good business to have all those potential customers driving by without a quality signage. Take a look out front: If the sign is faded, the paint coming off, blocked by other structures or is too small to be seen, what is that first impression left with the customer?

A good sign isn’t necessarily an over-expensive one. A local lube shop has put up what is effectively a ginormous TV screen in front of the shop. It’s impressive to be sure, but in most cases, something like that isn’t the best use of investment. Experts tell us that business signs need to accomplish two major goals: The sign should proclaim what it is the business does and promote the name of the business.

While “Pete’s Transmission” meets those standards, given today’s powertrain marketplace, it’s probably a good idea to be thinking of the repeat, non-overhaul business potential. “Pete’s Transmission & Automotive Care” is a good example. This business specializes in transmission repair and offers other automotive services. Moreover, the word “Care” delivers a positive marketing message.
One final thought on the sign is that just because the builders and staff go home at 6 in the evening doesn’t mean you have to stop promoting. As long as traffic is driving by, a lit sign can be working overtime. For an unlit sign, it’s not hard to illuminate with floodlights being conscious not to interfere with passing drivers’ vision.

There’s a lot to consider

I’ve visited literally hundreds of transmission shops over the past 35 years. One recurring and nagging problem is that quite often there isn’t a place to park. Being successful at repairing vehicles means a lot of vehicles. It’s a good idea to try to keep a spot or two for dealing with incoming work and estimates. The repair shop up the street keeps three spots (one special access) for incoming work. The manager will take customer information and provide a quote. Then the manager walks the customer either to the waiting area or, if he has a ride waiting, to the front and will immediately move the car to the back lot. Once repairs are complete, the vehicles are put in other, more distant spaces out front.


Consider that your employees are at the business to work. You customers, on the other hand, should be treated like guests whom you realize have come to purchase a better functioning automobile. When you ask somebody to pay a $125 diagnostic fee, it would be a good thing not to have the technicians doing stand-up comedy and bantering back and forth in front of them. Depending on the diagnostic results, you may be asking that person to invest a couple of thousand dollars in the work those folks perform. The best way to avoid perception problems is keep the shop off limits to customers and the waiting areas off limits to non-front-end operation employees – those who work with customers. It’s also a good idea to periodically mention that when a customer is in the shop area, the staff should be on their best behavior. Realizing we are in a verbally expressive aftermarket, customers may not fully appreciate some of the sailor-inspired terms of endearment attached to working on powertrain issues.


There aren’t many times when someone will want to sit in the waiting room while their transmission is rebuilt or a reman unit is installed. Nonetheless, the waiting room is an important part of every automotive shop operation. The waiting area is where customers sit while the vehicle is road tested and, more often than not, the point where the terms of a sale are agreed to. By the way, if there’s a small area away from the waiting area, a service agreement can be hammered out without the last guy or the next guy wondering why the transmission in his 2010 F-150 should cost so much more to rebuild than the person who has a ’76 Malibu.

There have been endless articles written about automotive repair waiting areas, diagrams and artists conceptions published and even prototypes set up at trade shows. Waiting areas are important, outfitting them is mostly common sense and yet, this is one of the most often overlooked areas where customer perception counts. When we see something day in and day out the eyes become used to the torn upholstery, the catsup stain on the table, and the copies of Newsweek from 2012.

Customers notice!

While there are many aspects to turning the waiting room from a place where customers can match their posteriors to chairs into a comfortable area that encourages both trust and transactions, the common denominator that I’ve found visiting shops is that the windows (where applicable) are filthy. And it borders on the unbelievable how many of those same shops clean the customer’s windshield before returning the vehicle. Just like a toilet that hasn’t been scrubbed this year, windows are an easy fix and represent self-inflicted wounds when not maintained.

It’s natural for a customer to form an opinion of the business based on the environment. Automotive programs don’t offer a lot of classes in interior design, but then again, the waiting room isn’t a den, it’s a place to sit in comfort while waiting. Attention should be paid to:

Bathroom: Not much to think about really. Clean and neat is the overwhelming necessity. Make sure to never run out of paper goods and watch over savings in this area. We’ve all experienced the roadside gas stop with toilet paper so thin that it breaks when try to grab a piece off of the 3,000-foot industrial roll.

Floor: Vacuumed or mopped on a regular basis. Putting a mat to wipe off shoes between the shop area and the waiting area and one by the public entrance will go a long way toward maintaining a clean floor.

Walls: A fresh coat of paint is an inexpensive investment in setting a good atmosphere. The opposite philosophy from a good sign makes for good waiting area colors, that is to say subdued and warm work better than that orange favored by airline ground crews and deer hunters. Once painted there’s a tendency to hang everything one can think of on those walls. Some things to avoid here are girlie calendars, signs that threaten vehicle storage fees, and any sign that contains the words “no” or “Don’t.”

Many shops find it useful to the selling process to have a framed poster depicting the guts of a transmission so that customers being asked to spend a couple of thousand dollars can visualize what is affected and what will be replaced or repaired.

Furniture: The average customer rarely spends more than an hour in a shop waiting area. Sturdy comfortable chairs are preferred. Full-sized sofas are OK; loveseats are less desirable. Sure, a lady and her 9-year-old are comfortable on a love seat, but a 26-year old lady bringing in an ’06 Accord and a guy with an ’89 F-150 are unlikely to be comfortable sharing that same condensed loveseat.

Diversions: A television makes for a great diversion. Try to set a channel that doesn’t play to any single political or religious group. Sports of local or national interest are good; the Weather Channel is redundantly boring; news shows (not opinion shows) are always acceptable. If you regularly have kids in the waiting area, some appropriate books and toys may be an addition that parents will welcome. This is more important for toddlers as nearly all older kids now come accessorized with some form of mobile device.
As for reading materials, general newsstand magazines like People or Time work as do local newspapers. Magazines should be less than three months old; newspapers should be only the most current couple of issues. It pains to say it, but Transmission Digest is not suitable for the waiting area. A few times each year we field a phone call from someone who’s read a Transmission Digest in the waiting area of a shop and wants to know how to contact a supplier for a part or a kit mentioned in an article or ad he’s seen.
Transmission Digest, like all repair industry magazines, is for shop owners, managers, professional technicians and installers. You don’t want a customer reading a “how to” article on maximizing profits from every vehicle in the bays or one that suggests repair procedures for the transmission in his vehicle. There are people out there who have a socket set and a screwdriver and will attempt to rebuild a 5R-110 with very little outside encouragement. Don’t give encouragement; plant every copy of Transmission Digest in the employee area of your operation

One for all

Not every shop has the facility assets or the financial capability to profitably achieve every one of these ideas. The good news is that every step; every improvement you make will help increase sales and bolster your profitability.
Happy New Year!