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Friday, February 22, 2013

PUTTING SERVICE BACK INTO "SERVICE STATION"

BRYCE ON LIFE

- Will it play in today's world?

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Many years ago, I worked at a Standard Oil service station in Ohio while still a young man (back when it was called "SOHIO" for those who remember). I call it a "service station" as opposed to a "gas station" simply because it made more money on service as opposed to gasoline, which was just 35 cents/gallon at the time. As an attendant, I would change tires, check/recharge batteries, and perform grease, oil and filter jobs. Our senior guys would perform the tune-ups and balance tires, which was somewhat of an art back then. We also pumped a lot of gas, and in the process would check under the customer's hood to see if the engine was working fine, and all the fluids were at proper levels. By doing so, we sold a lot of supplemental products, be it wiper fluid, oil, radiator antifreeze/coolant or maybe even suggest new tires. It was not our intent to gouge the customer but to offer friendly service to the people in our area. Not surprising, we got to know our clientele rather well and developed strong relationships. So much so, they came to trust our advice; if we said they needed oil, they bought it with no questions asked. If everything looked fine, we told them so. I must have personally checked hundreds of tires, batteries, dip sticks, air filters, and cleaned lots of windows, not to mention pump a lot of gas. The station's owner recognized that service was just plain good business and ran a professional station, including uniforms. It was very important that at least one attendant be visible near the pumps at all times in order to encourage business and, believe it or not, this worked remarkably well. I have retold this story ad nauseum to my children over the years, to the point where they now automatically roll their eyes whenever I mention the word, "SOHIO."

It occurred to me though that most people today do not know what a service station is truly like. Since the 1980's, the American public has learned to pump their own gasoline in order to save money. After all, service station attendants costs money. On a lark, I struck up a conversation with a friend who owns a modest independent gas station and asked if it would be okay for me to dress up as an attendant and work at his station for a day. This was to be an experiment and I expected nothing in return, other than to write about it. My friend was skeptical about the stunt, but as he was also interested in seeing the reaction from the public, he gave me his blessing to proceed.

On the day of the experiment, I reported for duty wearing a light blue short-sleeve shirt, navy blue trousers, a navy blue baseball cap, and some very durable rubber soled dark shoes as I knew I would be on my feet a long time. I also kept a red rag in my back pocket to check oil, and my old reliable tire gauge which I used back when I was a gas jockey. Basically, I was trying to replicate the old SOHIO look. It was clean, comfortable, and hopefully looked professional.

My friend's station was a small one with only a single island containing six pumps; five for gas, and one for Diesel fuel. Gas was considered nothing more than a vehicle to draw people inside the station to buy soft drinks, beer, tobacco, lottery tickets, milk, and other food basics. He also sold automotive fluids and window wipers. He had only one bay next to his station to service cars, but this was seldom used.

I began promptly at 6:30am to get a head start on morning commuters. My first customer was a man with a pickup truck and trailer for his lawn mowing business who wanted to "tank up" for the day. As I approached him, I greeted him with a friendly, "Good morning," as he was stepping out of his vehicle. "Fill it up for you?" I asked.

The man was startled at my approach. The sun wasn't quite up yet and he looked at me suspiciously. I assured him I was there to simply service his truck. When he realized I posed no threat, he began to warm up to my advances, and asked for me to fill up both the truck and gas tanks for his mowers.

"No problem," I replied, "Why don't you go inside and have a cup of coffee while I finish this for you. Do you want me to check under the hood for you?"

"Ah, sure. Why not?" and he went inside for coffee, still a bit perplexed.

As I filled the truck, I cleaned his windows and checked under the hood. His oil was good, but he needed a little window washer fluid which I filled up for him. Just as I was finishing his gas tanks, he reemerged from inside the station clutching his coffee.

"You're all set; I put a little washer fluid in it for you, but your oil and tires look fine. Just pay inside," and he did.

In total, it took me about five minutes to service the car which I thought was rather good time. I was anxious to process his rig quickly as it was taking up considerable space by the pumps, which was space other cars could use. When he came back out, he tried to hand me a tip, but I told him it wasn't necessary and I wished him a good day. He drove away happy. Maybe a bit confused, but happy.

No sooner had the truck pulled away when two cars pulled up to the pumps. Again, I dutifully welcomed them, and serviced their cars much to their bewilderment. Like the previous driver, I invited them inside to have some coffee while I finished up. On one of the vehicles I noticed the rubber on the windshield wiper was wearing out, as is particularly common thanks to the sun. I quoted him a price for new wipers and he instructed me to put them on. As the day progressed, I sold a lot of wipers, much to the pleasant surprise of my friend.

I repeated my routine dozens of times in the morning. Time and again, people were hesitant to let me service their car, but were glad to do so when they discovered I posed no threat. In addition to gas, I sold several products for my friend. When I wasn't busy, I would sweep up around the station to make it look more attractive. By early afternoon, the word had gotten around about the new service attendant in town, and we started to get an influx in business. My friend was surprised as afternoons were normally slow for him.

Older people told me how nice it was to see a service attendant again, and young people thought it was just "cool" for someone to help them at the station. In particular, women appeared to appreciate the service as they didn't have to deal with a dirty gas pump. I even had an occasion where a young couple stopped by to ask for directions (something I used to answer regularly years ago). In another instance, an older couple asked if I could change the oil and filters in their cars. I said I was a little busy at the moment, but I could have it done within a half hour and suggested in the meantime they go and have lunch at the restaurant next door, which they did. I'm sure the restaurant owner appreciated the business.

I took breaks now and then, but stayed with it until 6:30pm when rush hour abated. Even then, we had people bringing their cars in to see the "service station" they had heard about.

At the end of the day, my feet were sore, but I reviewed the day's sales with my friend who claimed they were up nearly 30%. In addition to selling more gas, we had also sold more wipers, oil, wiper fluid, radiator fluid, drinks, snacks, and a heck of a lot of coffee. Frankly, he was surprised by the day's take.

"Can you come back tomorrow?" he asked.

I thanked him for the offer but told him it was a young man's job to perform (as my feet kept telling me). I suggested he hire a couple of high school students, teach them the ropes, and see what happens, which he did. It may have taken them a while to teach them hospitality and service, but once they caught on, my friend's station became a fixture in the area and has prospered ever since, all because of an old concept called "service."

Keep the Faith!

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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim's columns, see:   timbryce.com

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Copyright © 2013 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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