autotechnician talks to Ian Robertson, owner of The Garage Whitburn, and discovers their award-winning attitude to customer service, their views on the challenges the trade currently faces and their unique pricing structure that has placed the issue of parts quality centre stage with customers.
Established in 2010, the Garage Whitburn is a small, family-run workshop in West Lothian that strives to provide a ‘good old-fashioned service for all modern vehicles’ by prioritising customer service, establishing a fair and transparent pricing structure and becoming an active part of the local community. Giving back to a local area that supports them has earned them an enviable reputation, customer nominations to national workshop awards and winner’s trophies for the past two years.
Nicola St Clair caught up with Ian to find out about the people and values behind this successful service and repair business and discovered how they tackle complex diagnostic work, their approach to pricing and parts, and their views on the challenges the trade currently faces…
Ian’s background was in electronics, designing radar before becoming a service manager in the semiconductor industry. Any spare time was taken up with his passion for stock car racing. Unsurprisingly, he had grown up around cars – his dad had a small garage and scrap yard, but when he became ill, Ian stepped in to help for a couple weeks – this developed into a full-time position, and he opened his own garage in Whitburn in 2010. Ian now works alongside his wife and son and says the success of the family business is down to the entire team at The Garage Whitburn. “We’re just a traditional small garage, we do general repairs,” Ian says when asked if they specialise
in any area, “but we do keep our staff up to date with training,” he adds. “My son and I are IMI qualified for Electric Vehicles; we were in the first group of six Scottish garages to get trained.” In addition to IMI courses, they also undertake training with Group Auto, have completed the Gates training belt courses and brake training with Apec – Ian sees this as vital, to stay safe (“avoiding electrocution on EVs!”) to assure customers that they know what they are doing and stay up to date.
When it comes to diagnostics, they felt they have had to focus on their strengths and outsource more complex diagnostic work, a tact which seems to be on the rise, judging by our conversations with readers over the years. “The industry is quite poorly paid for the expertise and the machines you need. So, we’ve basically not invested heavily in a diagnostic bay – we do diagnostics, but it’s not a major part. We have got another independent garage nearby that has bought all the main dealers’ diagnostics equipment, so we use him. There’s no way we can afford it.”
You get what you pay for…
Ian ensures he thanks every customer that leaves the workshop when a job is completed, and the transparency of their services has worked well for them. Ian explains: “The customer can choose where to go and spend his money and we have to make them feel welcome and give them the right advice”, says Ian. “Our customer base is very good at the moment and that’s built on friendship, good luck, good parts, good work – everything’s got to be good.”
Their focus has always been on providing general repairs, servicing and MOTs, using quality parts. They introduced a pricing structure so that customers can choose between budget, mid-range and OE after considering the implications explained to them i.e., you get what you pay for. They initially received a bad review for offering three prices and were accused of trying to confuse the customer. “We want to give them the options – 80% of our customers don’t even ask now (for the three options) because they’ve come for years, and they know we’ll meet their expectations. If a new customer chooses budget parts, they won’t get a warranty – the only thing that comes with a warranty is our labour… If we fit a budget battery and three months later the car won’t start, it is not my fault, but I’m expecting a call-out to jump-start their car.”
The business has also been keen to educate customers on maintenance and safety issues as well as encouraging motorists to better understand invoices presented to them and the implication of parts quality. They regularly offer basic car maintenance workshops to customers, which have been well received. Ian also contributed information for a weekly
column in the local newspaper, advising motorists on the questions people should be asking when they take their car into a garage, such as the quality of parts being used and breakdowns of labour and parts within invoices.
Ian highlights the public’s perception of vehicle technology and a focus on price rather than value, as significant challenges. “The customers still believe that the car is a simple thing, and the reality is the car is now a very complicated machine,” says Ian. “And the biggest problem in our trade is garages fighting amongst themselves. Look at the MOT – the Government says the test should be £55 but various garages do them for £20, £25, £30… And yes, it is a loss leader to bring other customers into your garage, but for a garage like us who don’t need to encourage people in as we’ve already got a really good customer base, we’re losing £15, £18, every MOT. At the end of the year, that’s thousands of pounds. We don’t need that profit for the business, we need to put that in wages to keep our staff, because staff are leaving the motor trade to go and be delivery drivers, to go and do other trades that pay better money! If you work for Amazon delivering parcels, you earn more than being a mechanic.”
How do we attempt to fix this? “We need the profile of the motor mechanic to be raised and we need the hourly rate to go up slightly so that we can pay people who are qualified. We don’t want monkeys to fix cars, we want intelligent people!”
Part of the community…
The Garage encourages staff and friends of the business to get involved and support their local community in fundraising and volunteering. Ian explains: “We are keen and committed to giving back to the community that supports us. We take part in local Gala Days and support good causes throughout the year but the most fun is when we do the Garage Santa Sleigh Tours” The Christmas Santa Sleigh run began in 2015. Ian and his team of helpers have covered hundreds of miles in a customised Suzuki Vitara, spreading festive cheer to schools, charities and care homes along the way.
The press and word of mouth promotion this activity generates is icing on the cake to Ian and the team and it is no wonder that so many of their customers were eager to nominate The Garage Whitburn for the 2021 Garage Star Awards. The Motor Ombudsman introduced the awards in 2020 to recognise exceptional levels of work and service to customers, provided by workshops accredited to its Motor Industry Codes of Practice. Motorists submitted accounts about a business or individual that had gone above and beyond to help them resolve a vehicle issue. The team at The Garage Whitburn were crowned Scottish regional winners as well as the overall National Garage Star for their approach of putting the customer at the very heart of everything they do, and their desire to go above and beyond to help others in their local area.
Ian comments: “We were extremely honoured to have been crowned the National Garage Star. It is testimony to the hard work and philosophy of the entire team that they always look to go beyond the call of duty, and for the countless hours that they put in during their spare time to voluntarily help others and to carry out fantastic work in the community.”
The workshop is no stranger to awards and competition wins and the reason behind entering them is not just to gain recognition for the business and his team’s work behind it all. “When you enter a competition, [or become accredited for workshop programmes and associations] you can ask for the scoring criteria, analyse your scores and address any shortcomings.”And this approach is clearly working for them and long may that continue.
We’d like to thank Ian for taking the time to speak with us and congratulate the team at The Garage Whitburn on their continued success – we hope to meet you in person at The UK Garage and Bodyshop Event in June!