Nik Buck’s mobile is often busy, but today it is ringing off the hook. “We’ve got a VoIP system, and yesterday for some reason a phone wouldn’t connect to it,” the owner of Portsmouth-based Atlanta Garage told us in the seconds between calls. “Now there’s something wrong with the base station and none of the phones will work with it, so everything has been diverted to my mobile!”.
Even when calls stop coming through to his personal phone, Buck finds that customers, want to speak directly with him about their vehicles. “A lot of people want to talk to me, and only me as the garage owner – especially the older people”, he said. “They don’t want to talk to Jo or anyone else. For example, I needed to change a suspension arm this morning, which normally would take about ten minutes but ended up taking about three hours. It’s been so hectic, we’ve been coming in on Saturday just to catch up”.
Having handed the smartphone over to partner Jo, Buck explained that technical niggles aside, business had trebled from pre-pandemic levels when they were based in another premises.
“The old place, we still have it, is only a couple of streets away,” he said, explaining that it was a bold move on his part to move as the new site came available in the early days of the pandemic when there was very little on the road, and no indication of when, or if the traffic would come back. Financial institutions were not particularly willing to lend at that point either.
However, the opportunity was too good to pass up. “It was ideal as it is literally on the next road. I told all my customers and they clearly saw that it was a different place, ” he explained. Besides repeat business from existing customers, Buck attributes the upturn in work by word of mouth and from having a presence on social media. Occupying a previous garage site with passing traffic on a busy road probably also helped with the increase in footfall.
Notionally, Atlanta Garage is a Vauxhall specialist although in practise the team work on all makes and models. On our visit there were three BMWs in, although we’re assured that was an anomaly.
While large enough, the garage is not huge. It has two conventional bays with two-post ramps, plus a scissor lift recessed into the floor, and a separate MOT bay for Class IV. This test bay was in place when Buck moved in; “But we had to put a brand new system in, due to the requirement for connected equipment,” he recalled. So-called ‘grandfather rights’ didn’t apply because the previous occupant’s business as a sole trader was closed, and Buck’s limited company moved in.
A complete set of new MOT gear was acquired, with the exception of the emissions machine as the existing device met requirements, which was a handy £7k that didn’t need to be spent while moving in. However, the machine will be upgraded to a newer, connected tool at some point in the near future.
Like most garages, Atlanta has found it difficult to attract and to retain good technicians. “We lost a mechanic last year and we are looking for a mechanic and we do need to get one, but it is difficult to recruit at the moment. There are four of us working here at the moment, but we do need to get someone else”, he said.
With all of the demands on his time, coupled with a heavy workload, Buck was receptive to any suggestions on how to streamline operations. At the previous site, it had been fine to use a traditional paper diary to keep a track of cars, parts and customers, but it was quickly clear that in the new environment old ways wouldn’t cut it. A visit from one of the reps from Euro Car Parts offered a solution in the form of the CarSys garage management system.
Initially hesitant to use it for more than a booking system, partner Jo persuaded Buck to embrace the technology. “When she started, she said “right, those books are going in the bin,” he explained. “She was right, we had an MOT book, a general ‘booking in’ book and the computer system. It was ridiculous”.
Since getting to grips with what the GMS can do, productivity has increased. “It works so well that when a customer comes in and asks for a price to, say, replace the exhaust, I can show them a customer price in just a few clicks”.
“When we order the parts, they are already on the job sheet, and it adds the cost to the job”. The garage has the system running on the tablets used for the diagnostic equipment, and this has proved to be a big time saver for ordering parts. “ I know the factor branch is busy and you can spend ten minutes or more on the phone just ordering a set of brake pads”, said Buck. “Also, you can see on the screen if there is a fitting kit available, but if you phone, you might forget to ask or not be aware of it”.
Future plans include adding Haynes Pro to the computers and linking it to the GMS. Buck also has one eye on constructing a small extension to the building, which won’t add a huge amount in terms of square footage, but will make operations such as moving cars about, a lot easier. Let’s hope those phones keep ringing off the hook for years to come yet.