From marketing to car maintenance, owner Mike Mattes’ guiding principle keeps Inland Auto running strong
Mike Mattes works in a tough business. He owns an auto shop in Murrieta, CA, a place where there are over 230 other auto shops for customers to choose from. But Mike’s shop, Inland Auto, stands out for a few reasons that are important for the vitality of his business and as lessons for entrepreneurs at the helm of businesses of all types, both new businesses and established businesses like Mike’s.
Inland Auto differentiates itself from its heavy competition in two key ways. First, Inland Auto focuses on a niche within the automotive repair industry, namely, it primarily repairs Japanese cars from a single manufacturer, Toyota. This means that, for local drivers of Lexus, Toyota and Scion, Mike’s business is a logical choice. Focusing on a niche like this helps to guarantee that technicians are specialized, trained, and certified as needed to work on a certain type of car. It also enables Mike to make smart, targeted marketing decisions that save his business money and streamline results.
Second, and arguably more importantly, Inland Auto operates with a clear guiding principle to provide honest service and to do quality work on all the vehicles that customers bring to them. The honesty and meticulous standards that Mike demands of his employees and his business mean that customers always get what they need and are never sold what they do not need. Operating under this guiding principle is neither the cheapest, nor the easiest way to run a business but Mike’s commitment to it nonetheless, is a testament to the idea that it is the right way to run a business.
So many shops come and go because they are trying to get as much out of a customer as they can. It’s different with us. My customers are going to come back because we told them the truth and we took care of them.”
Customers recognize this and reward it with loyalty and positive word of mouth. In an industry in which a bad reputation can mean a short life for a business, Inland Auto is living a long and stable life, supported by honest relationships with customers and high standards of work.
Mike shares some of the lessons he has learned over the years of running a thriving small business and how focusing services and strategy supports the growth and vitality of a small business.
How is your shop different from many of your local competitors?
We believe in doing things right the first time. We use the best quality parts – no cheap work, no cheap parts. This includes using factory parts to avoid any issues that can come with inexpensive parts. Just like we have a high standard for parts, we have a high standard for our work. We do meticulous work. We may not be the cheapest, but we are one of the best.
And we are honest. When you bring in your vehicle, for whatever reason, we usually perform a complete vehicle inspection, simple things like checking tire pressure and the level of all the fluids under your hood. We get calls all the time from people who have just had their vehicles serviced at other shops or at dealerships, but they are experiencing problems, and it turns out their fluids may have been low. When these people then come to us as first time customers, they end up staying with us for years because they trust us to be honest, to give them only what they need and to make sure the bases are always covered.
Your shop focuses on Toyota, Lexus and Scion. Why did you choose to focus on this niche within the automotive service industry?
Toyota has a great reputation and loyal customers. Over the past 20-30 years, Toyota/Lexus has been a leader. People who have driven a Toyota or a Lexus know the value of what they are getting. They are reliable. And because of this, they tend to service them more, even pass them down in a family.
It’s easier to have ongoing relationships with customers like this because the customers have a particular perspective on their vehicle and how it should be taken care of. They have learned that it is worth it to get quality routine service for their vehicles because they will last and continue to run well.
How does focusing on a niche like this impact your marketing initiatives?
I can’t just go out and try to market to everyone and expect to be successful. Our marketing strategy is different. We focus on the website and how it can and should appeal to our customers specifically. When we do flyers or other types of advertising, we are able to target those messages to the drivers of the kinds of cars that we service.
Our marketing also helps to set us apart from the Toyota dealerships that offer service. This is where the meticulous work and the honesty come in again. When a customer brings in their vehicle, even if it’s for a regular service interval (like a 30,000 mile, 60,000 mile or 90,000 mile service interval), we always do a complete inspection first. This way, we know all there is to know about what kind of service the vehicle needs. And what the vehicle doesn’t need.
Dealerships will just run down a checklist, whether your vehicle needs the services on the list or not. This means that you end up spending more money and your vehicle may give you unexpected problems, anyway. We do not do this.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a new business owner?
My first piece of advice is to make sure you have experience. I started working in the back of a shop. Then I came out front and I understood what we were doing. I could explain it to customers. Customers want someone strong and available and consistent up front, no matter what the business.
Second, you need the right tools to do the work that you promise to do. In our business, this is everything from the hand tools we use to work on vehicles to the online tools we use for training and marketing.
Third, be honest. This is the most important piece of advice overall. Of course, do good work, but make sure you are also being honest, always. Whether it is the easiest choice or not, always be honest. We see and hear stories all the time from customers who didn’t get honest service somewhere else. I’m going to be honest and give them only what they need. I could be busier, but I’m not going to take advantage of people. Do not be surprised if customers don’t always like what they hear when you tell them the truth. Whether our customers like it or not, I am going to tell them everything about their car. They come to trust us. And they stay with us. Many of my customers have turned into my friends.
What drives you to keep your business going?
After all these years, I still get satisfaction out of fixing cars, repairing them and doing it right. I also have a family and I am a part of my community. And my business is part of the community. It means a lot to be part of this community, and it’s nice to run into people who I have helped, customers who are happy with the work we do and how we do it, happy that we were honest with them.
So many shops come and go because they are trying to get as much out of a customer as they can. It’s different with us. My customers are going to come back because we told them the truth and we took care of them. If we didn’t, they would not come back.