There can't be many business sectors that thrive by missing deadlines, failing to work to agreed quotes and not getting things right first time. And yet, those are exactly my experiences with classic car garages.
I learnt the hard way just how the classic car workshop sector operates when I set up Great Escape Cars in 2006. My skill set definitely doesn't include car repairs, so I knew I needed a network of local specialists to help me keep the cars running. That should have been easy because I was setting my business up in the heart of the Midlands, which, thanks to a once-thriving car industry, has a plethora of small specialist classic car workshops.
It wasn't. Despite paying over £100,000 a year to a small coterie of local garages, the service and treatment I received was uniformly appalling.
Of course, not all classic car workshops work this way. Many share my philosophy, which I'll go into more detail about later. My point is that too many exhibit these problems.
The main problems I experienced were:
Failure to work to agreed timescales
Getting hire cars fixed quickly and to an agreed deadline is fundamental to my customer service. Weddings and birthdays won't wait. Any delays can mean refunds, which get expensive. I was clear that this was my key performance measure. Time and time again it was missed, largely because the workshop simply didn't care.
This problem seemed to be largely of the garage's own making. With little management of work flow and resource utilisation they found it difficult to manage their time. This, coupled with a tendency to slot in other work around more complicated jobs, meant that a job scheduled for Friday slipped, resulting in a lost hire.
However, I accept that part of the problem is down to the supply chain, whereby parts are promised to arrive and don't or are out of stock. But, for the customer, such hiccups would be manageable if the garage communicated - too often they occur, push back the deadline and nobody bothers to tell the customer.
I accept that my requirements were unusual - most classic cars aren't daily drivers so working to a fixed deadline is not critical. But any business that has agreed terms with a client, should work to them. If they can't they should be clear about this at the start of the project.
Since every garage I used worked the same way, I ended up working around the problem by extending any deadline I was given by days or even weeks. This meant I had to cancel hires where otherwise it wouldn't be necessary - but it avoided unpleasant last minute surprises. But, really, shouldn't the deadline you've agreed be the one you both work to?
Quoted price is not the final price
There aren't many products or services on the market where you don't know how much they'll actually cost until you're committed to buy them. But that, too often, is exactly how classic car repairs work. I lost count of the times I was told 'we sell time' to explain an otherwise inexplicable increase in cost, when what I wanted to hear was 'we've fixed it for the price we agreed.'
Like heart surgery, car repairs can be tricky to diagnose until the problem is clear. And that often means hours of work to get there. I understand that entirely. But here's the big but: that's not a new problem. Which means there is a way to deal with it.
Where it is impossible to quote on work the garage could have offered a range of costs, from best to worst case. Or a cost to diagnose and a cost to cure. Instead I was offered an estimate and no updates. Once the work is done it's difficult to argue, so there was no incentive for the garage to improve communication by providing updates or a revised price.
Not that I didn't try to communicate. But more often than not nobody was available or I was fobbed off with platitudes.
Right first time is an option, not a goal
Heart surgeons, as a rule, tend to diagnose and then cure. Failures are kept to a minimum as providing a cure is an intrinsic part of the job. Not so with classic car repairs. Time and time again I would get a car back, only for it to fail on hire and return for the same problem to be fixed again.
In most businesses if what you promise to do doesn't work, the customer doesn't pay to fix the failure. But that isn't how it works with classic cars. Or so it seems. The new failure, despite being related to the old failure, is treated as a new project because the car is old, the part has failed and that definitely cannot be the garage's fault.
Too often the burden of proof lies with the customer. And that isn't right - sure, there are variables at work that can influence why something failed. But that risk shouldn't always be the customer's to bare.
Lack of Advice & Guidance
When you take your car to a specialist to repair, by definition it's because you can't do it. More often than was comfortable I felt I was spun a yarn to justify delays, price hikes or other problems.
It should not be like that. We use specialists to provide the skills we don't have. I have a working knowledge of how old cars work, but I can't fix them. I rely on specialists to guide me to make informed decisions and to provide their services at fair rates. I need to be told clearly what the problem is, what the options are for fixing it and what the risks and benefits associated with those options are.
That is how classic car workshops should work. But too many don't.
No Customer Perspective
What this all boils down to is a lack of customer perspective, an ability to see the relationship from the other side of the table. Too many workshops I dealt with were guided by what they do rather than who they do it for and this creates a very blinkered perspective. It means that toxic working practices that fuel missed deadlines and creeping costs don't get challenged.
This issue was most obvious to me in a very practical way, one that doubtless affects all classic car owners who use garages. Namely, dropping off and collecting the cars. Despite paying thousands of pounds each month to the garages I used, they had no facilities to help me get immobile cars to them or for me to make the opposite journey once I'd dropped a car off or picked it up. When you're running a small business this is a surprisingly big problem. Before investing in trucks and trailers I did a lot of walking. And wasted a lot of time.
I got into business to run classic driving experience. I didn't want to run a workshop because it felt like a distraction. But after working my way around many local garages I realised this issue was fundamentally undermining my business. I was dependent on people I couldn't rely on to deliver fundamental parts of my business - reliable cars available on the dates customers had booked.
So I faced an unavoidable decision - either solve the challenge of dealing with garages or get out of business. One option, of course, was to spanner up myself and get dirty. Most of my competitors tend to be run by people who can also repair cars. I felt this would limit my ability to grow by diverting me into day-to-day activities.
I bit the bullet and set up a classic car workshop in 2010. For most of the intervening time until 2019 it has maintained our hire fleet of 20 vehicles. But increasingly classic car owners asked us to work on their cars. So we did.
And I realised, belatedly, that the problems I had experienced were not unique. Other classic car owners felt the same. They came to us because they could see we had priorities they shared.
This opportunity has become so clear that we've created a new business called Classic Fixers. It's our workshop, the same one that keeps our classic cars mobile, but now open to anyone. It's guided by the principles that got me into running a workshop in the first place - a need for reliable-first-time cars, honest turnaround times and clear, up-front pricing.
We still use specialists to provide the services we can't provide, such as axle and gearbox rebuilds. And we do still experience many of the same problems. But the difference is the intermediary - us. We can manage those problems and keep the customer in the loop. It's not that problems won't occur, it's that we sort them out and communicate our solution when they do.
You can discover more about what we do at www.fixclassiccars.co.uk where we've filmed and blogged about our customer projects.
Great Escape Cars