You can’t build a customer base without developing relationships, and for Ronnie Smith Transmission in Abilene, Texas, relationships with general-repair shops in the area are responsible for a significant portion of the 27-year-old company’s business.
“About 90% of the general-repair shops in this area bring us their transmission work,” said Kenny Smith, co-owner of the business with his father, Ronnie and Wilson Medina. “I imagine 70% of our work is referral from these general-repair shops.”
In turn, Ronnie Smith Transmission refers all it’s general repair work to those shops, and concentrates solely on transmission service and repair. Not only is that relationship mutually beneficial in terms of bringing in work, but it also helps build trust with retail customers, Kenny said.
He gave this example: The shop rebuilds a transmission and the customer comes back two months later because the transmission is shifting hard. Diagnosis shows the cause to be a malfunctioning throttle-position sensor and not an internal transmission problem.
“I could easily put a TPS on the customer’s vehicle and tell them to come get it and charge them $115, but I don’t do that,” Kenny said. “I set the customer up with one of these general-repair shops.” The general-repair shop confirms that the TPS is causing the problem, fixes the vehicle, “…and then the customer never thinks, ‘Why, I bet they just got under there and tweaked something and charged me for something that should have been under warranty to begin with.’ That’s one of the biggest things that I’m a strong believer in – if it’s not transmission related and it’s not under warranty, don’t fix it. Send them to somebody else to fix it. That way there’s never a doubt in their mind. And, you don’t need to be fighting the people who are bringing you business. So, we don’t do anything but transmissions, and I’m proud to say that.”
Ronnie Smith Transmission also helps the general-repair shops by providing technical support related to transmission diagnosis and R&R. The shop has developed an extensive reference library and doesn’t have to rely on technical-assistance hotlines or services, Ronnie says.
“ We don’t call for help; we figure it out. We’ve got people who can do it.”
“We attend all the ATSG (Automatic Transmission Service Group) seminars and get seminar manuals to stay up with the industry,” Kenny noted. “One of our guys is an L1; he’s got the best ASE certification he can get. There’s just nothing we run into that we can’t figure out.”
The library includes files the shop has put together on every transmission model, he said. “We have our own technical bulletins that we write ourselves. Stuff we’ve found that works and doesn’t work. We do enough volume that we get to see what works and doesn’t work. And because the people we work for don’t leave here – they’re people we see every day – we get to find out how long it worked. If it didn’t work long enough, we find out about it. So, we stay on top of the technical information. We’re strong believers in education.”
Ronnie has been repairing transmissions since he got out of high school in 1966. After a couple of years in an uncle’s shop in Garland, Texas, he returned to Abilene and worked in a transmission shop before going into business for himself in 1978. Kenny, who was 10, started helping out in the shop and has worked with Ronnie ever since. An older son, Len, who worked for Ronnie but left the business, also returned recently.
Last September, Ronnie Smith Transmission moved to a new building in a different part of town. The 12,000-square-foot shop has 15 bays, compared with the five in the previous location, and the staff has increased from four or five to about a dozen.
The new shop is next door to a Wal-Mart Supercenter and is close to a shopping mall, and about 45,000 vehicles go by every day, Kenny said. “We went all out on location and appearance,” he said. He estimated that business has increased by at least 25% just because of the new building and it’s location.
The new facility actually houses two businesses that were combined at the time of the move, Ronnie noted. He had helped Wilson, a good friend, get started in import-vehicle transmission repair. Ronnie said he and Kenny focused exclusively on domestic vehicles because they didn’t have the space or man-power to expand into import-vehicle service. Wilson brought his business and staff to the new location and roughly a one-third owner of the combined operation.
Since Ronnie Smith Transmission had greater name recognition the combined operation uses that name. Wilson is the head of production, Kenny handles business management and Ronnie is the parts buyer.
Kenny, whose responsibilities include marketing and advertising, notes that being actively involved in the community is important for a business owner. The shop sponsors numerous community activities, and Kenny is a Kiwanis Club member. “I strongly recommend being a member of a service club like Kiwanis or Rotary or something like that,” he said. “I can’t emphasize enough how important that is.”
Since it draws customers from a wide area, the shop offers free towing from up to 80 miles away for vehicles needing major repairs, Kenny said. Several competitors provide free towing only within 20 miles, he said. “When you’re talking about getting a nice job, why not go the extra?”
“We think we’ve got the best business around,” Ronnie said, “and I think we probably have one of the larger transmission shops in the state. Being fair and honest is great, but by the same token you’ve got to give some kind of service like this towing that we give people to get them in here. I think that’s a big part of it.”
Now that there’s room to accommodate additional work, the shop has started to offer more maintenance services such as fluid and filter changes. According to data he has seen, Kenny said only about 15% of the automotive transmissions in operation will ever come to shops to be rebuilt. “A hundred percent of them need servicing, so why not go after all of them, instead of 15%?”
In addition, performing those services helps them find transmissions with problems that need to be fixed. Any vehicle that comes in for maintenance services gets a full road test and is scanned for codes first.
The shop uses a fluid exchanger and offers customers a protection plan provided by the machine’s manufacturer. By having a transmission serviced before the vehicle is three years old or has been driven 36,000 miles, a customer is eligible for a free extended-warranty policy that covers transmission repairs up to $2,000 for seven years or 150,000 miles, Kenny said. The customer’s only cost is the additives that the manufacturer of the fluid exchanger requires.
“It doesn’t cost us anything to give them this.” he said. “The only thing they have to do is service the vehicle every 30,000 miles. So that keeps the customer coming to us.”