Supporting local independent shops is good business for dealers

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Last week, I visited a couple of independent shops in my hometown. I was reminded of how hard they work to earn a living. At both shops, the owners were talking at length with customers. I use the term “customers” loosely, because I also occupied some of their precious time and I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything. I’m sure I wasn’t the only stroker who wasted their time that afternoon.

My heart goes out to indies because most of them work more than 70 hours a week trying to make a buck. If they’re lucky, they have a significant other or blood relative they can trust to handle the front counter so the owner can put in more time fixing bikes — you know, the things that pay the bills. For most indies, fixing bikes means working on anything and everything that comes in the door. That alone would make me crazy. How can you become efficient when every other bike, and repair, is different than the last, and seldom repeated?

I made three stops that day, starting with a multiline dealership. As I got off my bike, the first thing that caught my attention was an early ‘80s Honda Goldwing sitting in the parking lot. It was sporting a pair of downdraft two-throat Weber carbs. You don’t see that every day. An hour later, I was at an indie where I again spotted that modified Goldwing. I believe it belonged to the indie owner who had been picking up parts at the Honda dealer I first visited. At least, I hope so, because too often I find indie support lacking in this industry. Some dealerships refuse to sell parts and supplies at a price less than retail so that indies can earn a living, too. These dealers fear they would be fueling an independent business that steals their customers. That’s usually not the case.

At most indies, the motorcycles serviced are more than 10 years old, or they’re models that are obsolete or highly customized — needing special attention just to perform routine service work. Or, worse yet, the bike’s owner is a social butt-fly who pays for an oil change and then talks your ear off for an hour afterward. Honestly, most dealerships don’t want to work on these bikes or do business with these characters. Dealerships can’t achieve the profitability they’re accustomed to, and the owner of said decrepit vehicle doesn’t want to pay the charges associated with dealership service and repair.

Realistically, dealerships can benefit from having an indie nearby because they can redirect work that’s not a good fit for their store. When I was a service manager at a Honda dealership in Phoenix, I encountered one or two customers a week who owned motorcycles we didn’t want to work on. My approach was to present the vehicle owners with estimates totaling twice the amount I thought it would cost, in the hope that they would be turned off to having our dealership do the job. At the least, I knew if I took the bike in with the estimate padded 100 percent, my commissioned techs would be satisfied with the pay.

Most of the time the customer couldn’t afford the extraordinary charges. So I would suggest they go to an indie located about two miles away. I would then close the conversation with an apology for not being able to help the customer today, and an offer to make it right when the customer brought us a newer or lesser modified bike. As long as the indie performed satisfactory work (and our local guy did), the customer felt I was doing him a favor. That kept the door open to doing business in the future if the guy ever bought a dealership-appropriate vehicle.

In talking about satisfactory work, most indies would be well advised to take a few hours each month to clean and organize their stores. If indies hope to attract a better clientele, they need to present a professional image. I know this isn’t easy; indies are spread thin for time. But when you think about it, the biggest consumption of non-income-producing time are those long-winded conversations with customers and enthusiasts. It’s possible these folks would need less convincing to have their bike fixed by the independent operator if they were visually impressed with the cleanliness and organization of his shop.

Accordingly, if the indie can develop a reputation for professional service, it should be able to increase its hourly rate. Who knows, with a little extra cash flowing, the indie might be able to hire some help so they can do what they do best — take good care of the fringe element of motorcycling.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews September 2011 issue.