What’s really essential

Dec 3, 2009

No matter what challenges the world throws at businesses, be it a new competitor on the Internet or an international economic meltdown, one time-tested solution has remained consistent: good customer service. However, it is also important to make use of new tools that improve that service. Automotive Essentials, owned and operated by Doug and Karla Perez in Rockville, Md., provides us with examples of just how true this is.

Doug and Karla Perez both had experience in the Restyling industry before starting Automotive Essentials. They both worked for another restyling business, with Doug in sales and Karla answering phones and taking orders.

Eventually, the couple decided the next step forward for them was to start their own business. Doug Perez dialed up an acquaintance he made while working on cars as a teenager, and together they arranged for a location to house the new business.

That was the beginning.

100 best friends

Karla and Doug Perez worked hard – and they worked smart – to establish Automotive Essentials as a premier dealer expediter in the greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area. Today they and their team serve as wholesale dealer expediters, transforming stock vehicles into dealer showpieces that, even in a tenuous new car market, help dealers make the sale.

“It’s dealing with the individuals at the dealerships. You create these great relationships and become personal friends with many of these people,” says Jon Titman, the company’s director of sales. “They support us, and we support them. People ask me what I do for a living, and I answer, ‘I work with 100 of my best friends.'”

Further, Karla Perez says, “We consider this business to be a group effort and a team. We want everyone to be successful, and we try very hard to take each individual employee further – and that raises everyone up. We will all benefit from personal growth.”

Automotive Essentials offers a variety of services and products for its vast number of clients, including body kits, spoilers, suspensions and exhaust systems, among others. Some of the other accessories include heated seats, massaging seats, Bluetooth, glassback roofs, rain sensors, rear-view cameras, Boogey Lights, entertainment centers, satellite radio and a plethora of Mustang and truck accessories. There are 34 pages worth of products to peruse on the company’s website: www.automotiveessentials.com.

Available 24/7

With highly skilled and well trained installers Automotive Essentials establishes itself as a truly professional restyling operation.

Yet another way in which the company demonstrates the measure of its commitment to its clients – and justifies its prices – is to answer its phones around the clock.

“We forward the office phones to either myself, Karla, Jason [Zapol, general manager] or Jon in the evenings and on the weekends,” Doug Perez says. “On all of our literature, we have our cell phone numbers so they can reach us directly. It is very typical that on an average weeknight, the last call comes between 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. at night.”

Karla Perez notes that Zapol takes a lot of these forwarded phone calls. Says Zapol: “You’ve got guys that do most of their business in the afternoon and evening, and they don’t have access to a price book, or they just want to be sure on a specific application, they call for prices and scheduling. I can then make arrangements for them to drop the keys with the service department so I can get the car at 7 a.m. the next morning. That’s how quickly we try to expedite things for them.”

Working late and starting early is one of the many factors that separates Automotive Essentials from its competition.

“People know that they can rely on us. We have good relationships built on trust with our dealerships, and good relationships keep your business,” says Karla Perez.

Adds Titman: “If ever there is a problem, we always tell the dealer, ‘You don’t have a problem with what we’ve installed. We do.’ We’ll do whatever we need to in order to take care of the customer.”

Sales that make a difference

Automotive Essentials handles between 60 and 70 dealerships. To help them maintain all of those accounts, they utilize an outside sales staff managed by Titman.

“We have two salesmen on the road full time, and Doug is also out there calling key accounts. We are calling on every dealer we can,” Titman says.

The goal, he says, is to get the dealer to have stock units on the showroom floor with a sunroof, leather interior, a navigation system, etc.

“They then use those vehicles to display those products to the customers. They’ll sell those vehicles, and they’ll sell accessories from the cars and trucks on display,” adds Titman.

Sales team members walk the dealer lots looking for duplicates of the same car and then go in and present different promo ideas to the sales manager or to whoever handles the restyling accessories at that dealership. “The key to this business is to develop a relationship with that decision maker, and through that relationship expand your business with that store,” Titman says.

Detailing how displays help strengthen that relationship, Titman says, “We’re going to increase our sales to the dealer and his sales of accessories to the public tenfold by having stock units on the showroom floor. What we do for the dealerships is make an investment with them. We’ll install the accessories on a consignment billing basis. All that we ask is that they pay us when the vehicles are sold and then replace it so that we can continue to grow that business together,” Titman says.

“I don’t like the idea of pictures and static displays. People buy cars and accessories on impulse. When a salesman can show a customer a navigation system with the latest features, it has that ‘awe’ factor. When that customer can buy that car right then and there with that navigation system in the car, that helps the salesman close the sale,” adds Titman.

In a way, these sales strategies are just an extension of Automotive Essentials’ commitment to their dealers that began with its participation in SEMA’s ProPledge program and use of products from aftermarket manufacturers also in the program.

In fact, it was Automotive Essentials’ sterling reputation for great customer service and reliability that led to its participation in a program that may well shape the future size and scope of the automotive aftermarket.

A pledge to the industry

Automotive Essentials, through its daily work with numerous dealerships, had a great deal of experience with the reluctance of OEMs and dealerships to work with the automotive aftermarket. For this reason, SEMA asked the Perezes to be a part of the pilot program for ProPledge, helping the association work out the kinks of their new plan to heal divisions between the two industries.

This article assumes some knowledge of ProPledge on the part of the restyler reader and will not go into details of the plan; information can be found on SEMA’s website. However, this article, with the help of Automotive Essentials, will discuss the program’s benefits for those who do participate.

Explaining why he wanted to participate from the start, Doug Perez says, “One of our guiding principles has been to never cut corners. We don’t buy off-brands, and we always make sure that we’re providing the best products and service to the dealers.”

Also, from the earliest days of Automotive Essentials’ entrance into the dealer expediter market, Doug Perez has insisted that all of his technicians be SEMA and ASE certified, one of the conditions of participation in ProPledge.

“When ProPledge came along, it made a lot of sense to me,” Perez says. “To be ASE certified and to have the guarantees and insurance to back up the products made perfect sense to me. I think it is a matter of providing the dealerships with more security and confidence in the aftermarket.”

Karla Perez adds, “It’s important to take the time to certify your technicians and have liability policies. Those are things that dealerships are looking for to give themselves peace of mind. I think we’re building a trust relationship with dealerships through ProPledge, and I think that is what has helped give us a better foothold in this industry in this area.”

Further, she asserts that Automotive Essentials’ involvement in the program has given her company a leg up on competition that have not chosen to join the program. And husband Doug notes that while his involvement in the program has given Automotive Essentials an advantage over his competitors, he doesn’t want it to be an exclusive club.

“Every restyler should participate in this program. It raises the level of the technicians, and it raises the level of the shop,” says Doug Perez. “In the Baltimore-Washington (D.C.) area, there is one other ProPledge restyler that has grasped this concept. There needs to be a bar set nationwide, and I think that’s what ProPledge has done. You just can’t hire a high-school student for the job, you have to have qualified technicians. To me, ProPledge, ASE and SEMA certifications are like a college degrees.”

It’s important to realize that while there is an expense to joining ProPledge it’s also an investment that can pay other dividends.

“It’s worth it when it ensures your dealerships won’t go anywhere else and helps establish a trusting relationship with a client,” Karla Perez notes. “We build personal relationships with our contacts at dealerships; and with personnel changes within those dealerships, we could lose a $20,000-a-month account in the blink of an eye, and it won’t have anything to do with the quality of work. ProPledge gives us an advantage to regain that business later or elsewhere.”

Certified, trained technicians

The Perezes also assert that the program establishes a level of integrity for the entire industry. Especially now, when the manufacturers are limiting their number of dealers, it’s prudent to provide every assurance possible.

“If every restyler participates in these standards, it will help the overall industry. It will help all of our businesses grow. I think that’s why [it] is so important,” says Doug Perez.

The Perezes add that they have seven technicians working toward the full certification the program suggests. That includes ASE plus the SEMA certifications that are required through the program.

“They’re all at different levels, and we’ve set it up that it’s a job requirement. However, our general manager, Jason Zapol, already holds all of those titles,” Karla Perez says.

As an example of how the program’s assurances can help, the Perezes tell the story of a local dealership that had been “burned” many years ago by a restyling company, and as a result, stopped offering aftermarket products.

“Because of our efforts through ProPledge, they now committed to stocking vehicles with aftermarket accessories. That is strictly because of the ProPledge program and its guarantees to reduce liability from the dealership,” says Doug Perez. “Our guys are MECP certified, they’re ASE certified and SEMA certified. They’re in training on a regular basis. I think that’s missing in a lot of shops.”

Doug and Karla Perez reject the idea that once technicians have a certain amount of experience that they no longer require training. In today’s world of technology the Perezes say constant education is a necessity, and one they pursue with vigilance. Despite the certifications it already holds, Automotive Essentials arranges for its employees to visit manufacturers and training facilities regularly.

“We realize, of course, that not everyone is in a position to do that. But, the effort needs to be put forth instead of on the backburner,” Karla Perez says.

Holding the price line

According to the Perezes, participation in ProPledge doesn’t help just by assuaging the concerns of dealers. It helps to maintain the perceived value of a company’s products and services, as well.

“We’re not the lowest-priced guy,” Karla Perez says. “We have not resorted to lowering prices and – this may sound strange to the rest of the country – but I think what we’ve tried to do is keep being competitive and yet maintain our standards throughout this economic time. I think if we offer good service and materials that are under warranty for longer periods of time, some of those choices will hopefully outlive this recession that we’re having.”

It will also save them the trouble of raising prices again once the recession subsides.