x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Service reorientation

Specialist, independent centres employing factory trained technicians and using original equipment parts offer an alternative for car servicing.

Alex Renner Motors runs two shifts of workers to keep up with demand. "We have a reasonable amount of staff," says Renner, "so your car doesn't get lost for days here."
Alex Renner Motors runs two shifts of workers to keep up with demand. "We have a reasonable amount of staff," says Renner, "so your car doesn't get lost for days here."

Motorists in the Emirates once had two choices when servicing their vehicles: the dealership or the downmarket garage. Ashley Boulter and automotive entrepreneurs like him are working to change that. Boulter is the managing director of Munich Motor Works, a BMW specialty service centre that opened in Dubai's Al Quoz area last November. He and his colleagues and competitors are among a group of so-called middle market garages competing for a slice of the lucrative local auto repair industry.

The concept of an independent facility employing factory trained technicians and using original equipment parts is taking hold as car owners seek an alternative for maintenance and repairs. Dissatisfaction with the old choices is music to the ears of Boulter, who expects to draw customers from both sides through better communication and service practices. "Providing customer feedback is a major part of our service process and it helps to keep the customer informed and happy," he says. "That's what keeps them coming back. We pride ourselves on keeping our promises and getting the car back on time."

Boulter knows what keeps clients content. He has spent 25 years in the service business, half of them in the Middle East and all of them with BMW. He expects to fill what many motorists see as a disconnect between expectations and reality, the prime reason for opening his shop. "We felt there was a gap in the marketplace for an independent BMW service centre that's professional, price-competitive and that can provide a premium quality aftermarket service for BMW owners," he says. "Customers are looking for hassle-free service or repair on their vehicle with the peace of mind of quality."

He may have struck a nerve. "Hassle-free service" is not something experienced by customers who complain bitterly about a lack of communication, lengthy turnaround times at dealership shops and a dearth of expertise and commitment to quality in the lower end of the market. "It's not about cost. I'm totally surprised at how many of the dealerships stay in business, because their level of service is pathetic," says Tarek Elgammal, 36, an Australian Porsche owner who works as a sales and marketing executive. "Simple things like picking up the phone don't happen. I don't get it."

Elgammal's frustrations stem from a lack of communication and information about his car while it was in the shop for service. It's a common complaint: overbooked garages tend to create a vicious cycle of delays and poor workmanship. Being without a car for extended periods is a major source of angst for motorists while getting it fixed, and for good reason. A car can be left sitting after being dropped off because of a work backlog. The owners try to get information about their pending diagnosis or repairs, to no avail. After lodging a complaint, the jobs are rushed and other needed repairs ignored or misdiagnosed, leading to repeat visits and dissatisfaction.

That's where Alex Renner comes in. His middle market shop, Alex Renner Motors in Al Quoz, has been servicing Porsches almost exclusively for the last two years. Like Boulter, his business targets customers whose warranties have run out and who want an experienced, knowledgeable service alternative. "There's a big market if you do it right," he says. "If you promise something, though, you have to deliver."

His business model includes a heavy dose of communication with his clients, something he says is indispensable in the Gulf region. "The key in the Middle East is customer service," he says. "Personal service pays. We'll always pick up the phone to call a customer about a repair and, if it's explained right, it's no problem. Most clients understand what we do here. If they have a good experience, people will trust you."

That trust is apparently leading to increased business; the garage runs two shifts comprised mostly of technicians from South Asia and the Philippines, who Renner says compare favourably with their European counterparts. He also has plans to expand his shop."Our advantage is that we have a reasonable amount of staff, so your car doesn't get lost for days here." Manufacturers and their dealerships say they continue to improve their customer experience with promotions, improving communication and facilities expansion. Al Nabooda Motors, a Porsche agency in Dubai, holds service clinics to help customers understand their cars better. Porsche holds up its end by offering the option to lengthen its new-car warranty to nine years.

Al Nabooda opened what Detlef Viete, the Al Nabooda after-sales manager, calls a quick-service location last year to serve the northern emirates. It performs normal maintenance such as oil changes, alignments and brake work to help cut the backlog at its main shop. "We have a booking system and capacity planning," he says. "You cannot expect that you can call and get an immediate appointment. It's not possible. We will always help a walk-in customer, but we prefer that they make an appointment."

Those unwilling to wait to have their cars serviced by the dealer have created a competitive situation out of what had been a vacuum. Viete sees that as healthy, even though it might cost him clients. "Competition is always good because you always have to do something to keep moving," he says. "Of course, we are losing business to them, but that's the nature of the market." BMW is not standing still in its attempts to retain customers, rolling out its Service Inclusive Ultimate Package to cover all maintenance for five years or 100,000km. "BMW engineers and designs extraordinary cars," says Arno Husselmann, the general manager of Abu Dhabi Motors. "So it seems only right to offer a service package to match.

"We understand the financial constraints that some customers face, especially when it comes to servicing an older vehicle not under warranty," says Husselmann. "As a consumer, you have no guarantee that the technicians working on your car in unapproved dealers or garages have received professional training or that the parts used are new and genuine." Plans are also in the works to expand service facilities at AGMC, a Dubai BMW agency, to help it meet timeliness and quality demands.

But for Baouad Nihed, a 32-year-old Tunisian pilot, these improvements may have come too late. He had an engine problem on his older BMW M3 and took it to a dealership for repairs. "I was confident when I took it to the agency because it was a BMW garage and you get what you pay for," he says. "I wanted a BMW-only person to fix the car. For me, my car is like a second wife. It's a passion. "At first they said the engine must be changed at a cost of Dh150,000 and they didn't even know what was wrong. I was shocked. I wanted them to at least tell me what the problem was first."

After looking into the trouble, the agency informed Nihed three days later that he had a broken piston, an internal engine failure that could be repaired for about Dh100,000. He then took the car to Munich Motor Works, where the final bill for the same diagnosis was Dh33,000. When approached about these issues, AGMC declined to comment. Middle market garages tend to be able to undercut agencies on costs while still providing technical expertise. Salim Akbar Ali, the workshop manager at 4x4 Motors, says labour rates at his shop were about 25 per cent lower than at a dealership, a figure on a par with that at Boulter's BMW facility. Both say they are about 10 per cent cheaper when it comes to parts prices, as well.

"There's quite a bit of competition, but we try to maintain a high standard when it comes to our work," Akbar Ali says about his garage. "A few people worry about cost, and cost has become more of a concern in the last year or so." Still, most motorists interviewed were more concerned about quality and service than about the bottom line. They wanted top-level maintenance and repairs for their beloved cars, a situation Renner draws a line under as being the most important part of his Porsche business.

"We try to attract clients on price and professionalism," he says. "We welcome competition in the market, but at the end of the day if you're the best it doesn't matter." motoring@thenational.ae