You’re driving down the road on a sunny, fall day when ‘boom’ you have a flat. You put on the spare and head to your local tire dealer. Your car goes in the bay and you go sit in an uncomfortable chair from 1970 inside a cramped room and contemplate whether or not you should drink the burnt coffee that has been sitting out all day. We all know this story, and it only gets worse from here.
However, if you’re a customer of Monroe Tire & Service in Shelby, N.C., a trip to the tire dealer is a much different, and frankly, refreshing experience.
It is because of this passion for the customer experience that Monroe Tire has been named a 2017 Tire Review Top Shop Finalist.
How it All Began
Opened in 1974 by Doug and Nancy Monroe as a wholesale-only operation, Monroe Tire & Service has since grown leaps and bounds, not in number of stores, but in the experience the shop offers both customers and employees.
“At the time, I was 10 and gas was 47 cents a gallon,” says Chris Monroe, Doug and Nancy’s son and current owner of Monroe. “In 1974, 10 tire sizes would cover anything that drove in. If you got 20,000 miles on a set of anything that was bragging rights.”
Chris grew up in the business, moved to Charlotte an hour away after attending East Tennessee State, got married, and after a couple years, returned to Monroe Tire in 1987.
“I’m an only child so I came back,” Chris says. “My mom and dad were trying to grow the business and my dad was kind of maxed out. I felt like I needed to keep this thing going. I’m a gear head and I enjoy the automotive stuff. Anything with a motor I love. So I did the pro-con thing and decided that in ’87 I would come back into the business and give it a whirl.”
From 1990 until now, Monroe’s service area in Shelby has held steady at 25,000 people. However, the industry and business has changed a quite a bit in that span in regards to competition, buyouts and customer expectations.
“We typically see 150 cars a week and it’s 55% tires 45% service,” Chris says. “We do diagnostics, suspension, brakes, alignments, tires, and tire repair. We work on anything and we have a road service truck as well. We do a lot of things that a lot of other folks have kind of gone away from doing.”
Roughly 90% of jobs are completed the same day.
“We pride ourselves on not having cars in the parking lot when the doors close,” he says.
While a majority of customer jobs are completed in a day, it’s not that simple when it comes to employees. As a business owner, Chris spends a majority of his time dealing with employees and managing that resource.
“It is your most expensive resource and making sure that the team is moving as a team and everybody knows their role and knows their goal and is doing that can set an owner free, but at the same time can tie an owner down,” he says. “If we talk about game changers, for me it’s organizing my shop flow to minimize oral communication and weekly team meetings. Those two go hand-in-hand, but that creates a way for my staff to be successful and they know what their goal is.”
Aside from managing his employees and making sure the operation is running smoothly, Chris keeps one eye on his competition at all times.
“I go to all these management seminars and I read and I’m thirsty for how to do it better,” he says. “I get that information and I employ that information in my business. You make changes and do your business the right way. But in the marketplace that I’m competing in, the majority of my competitors don’t engage on that level.”
You might think competition is a good thing for Chris and his business, but it’s not. While Monroe innovates, changes and adapts, the competition isn’t, keeping prices low, and customers aloof.
“There’s roughly 25 independent repair shops in my area that I compete with,” he says. “The majority of those don’t know what a 20 Group is. The one thing that they don’t move is their price point and labor rate. They’re half of what it should be. At the same time, I’m following industry best practices and procedures, and the guy that doesn’t moves the bar for that consumer. That’s what makes business tough, and it hurts the industry.”
Compared to working with a dentist or doctor, the tire industry doesn’t mandate all shops keep up to speed on business practices.
“Unfortunately our industry is working on that but it’s not anywhere close to being there,” he says. “So you do what you think you need to do. That is a big challenge for us.”
Some potential customers might opt for the cheaper route, but walking into a shop like Monroe Tire ensures you’re getting great service for the money and keeping that car in excellent condition.
One way Monroe Tire & Service has delivered a better experience to its customers is through digital inspections. In place now for more than three years, Monroe uses Bolt On Technology software to give techs an easier way to show customers what’s gone wrong or what is still good on their vehicles.
“The technician runs into an issue on the car, let’s say there’s tire wear or the brakes are worn out,” Chris says. “The technician will take a photo, make comments about it, draw on the photo and circle what he’s talking about. He’ll send that in and we get a pop-up on the screen so the service advisor sees that. I just click on a box and then that report comes up. It may be two lines and three pictures or it may be a full report just depending. Now I need to let the customer know. Since I have your cell phone number, I just text that to you and it’s a link. You’ll see that Monroe Tire has a report and the link pops up with the pictures and the explanation of what you’re looking at and that invites you into the conversation with the service advisor.”
By having the pictures sent to customers, Monroe no longer needs to call to explain what is wrong. That conversation has already happened visually. Now, customers call Monroe back asking for solutions.
“Using that technology to make this maintenance piece transparent is great,” Chris says. “We’re in the solutions business. Here’s what we see. This is your car. We offer the service to repair it if you’d like to employ us. We’re here for you if we can help you and here’s what the price is. We’re providing a service at a reasonable price and backing it with a warranty that is pretty strong. That’s how we differentiate.”
This one tool has proven to be a big hit with customers, and an easy way for them to share repair info with other family members before making decisions related to their vehicles.
Not to be outdone by technology, Monroe’s new Driver’s Lounge offers a look into tire shop waiting areas of the future, and has been another game changer for Monroe Tire.
“I’d been doing a lot of reading about the customer experience and there was a building beside the shop that had been vacant for a couple of years,” Chris says. “I’d been looking at it and wondering what I would do with this building if I bought it. So that’s what got my wheels to turn.”
Monroe read about a few other shops across the country using space to create a better customer experience and get away from the coffee station and five chairs waiting area.
“Some shops have a flat screen and Wi-Fi, and that’s good, but these other shops had curved architecture and stainless steel, really cool sofas, and served beer on Friday afternoon – just really thinking outside the box,” he says.
Monroe continued to stir this idea around until one year while flying home from the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, he popped into the American Express lounge, which was a relatively new prototype at the time called the Centurion Lounge.
“I go in there and I’m just blown away by the decor and the woods and the metals and everything,” he says. “I wanted to make a designated customer area that was just kind of over the top. I made an offer on the building next door and they took it. It was now game time.”
Monroe’s Driver’s Lounge opened in December 2015. It’s exactly 20 steps from the main building door to the lounge door.
“It’s not a big walk, but when you say you’re waiting area is in the building next door it throws people off a little bit,” he says. “So we painted footsteps people can follow over. It’s a combination code to get in – four digits and star – and we change that.”
The lounge features six different waiting areas and six different sitting areas. There’s a full kid’s room, very nice bathrooms, full kitchen, a conference room, an office, and a 15-foot walnut slab bar for people to sit at.
“When you let somebody know their car is ready and they ask if they have to go right now, you feel good about that,” Chris says. “Or they say, ‘I’m finishing up a project for work. Is it OK that I hang out just a little bit longer?’ You just smile and say, ‘Of course.’ Your job is done. You’ve created an environment that people are safe and comfortable. It’s been great for the customers, but it’s also been huge for the service advisors and gives everybody some space.”
Monroe Tire & Service also realizes that the shop can’t just cater to the customer, and does an excellent job of attending to the needs of employees as well. An increased awareness for work-life balance led to the shop pulling the plug on Saturdays in 2005 in favor of a five-day workweek.
“Up until 2005, we were open six days a week Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday,” Monroe says. “We’ve never been open on Sundays.”
According to Chris, business had been growing in gross sales and gross profit. There hadn’t been any giant leaps, but from 1987 to 2005, the tire shop more than doubled business on both fronts.
“We’ve had this slow, steady growth in a market that’s not growing, which is cool, but we looked at that and at our numbers and where this business came from,” he says. “I’ve been privy to 30 years of Saturdays working and just my curiosity went to what would it be like if I had the weekends off.”
Monroe decided the idea warranted some serious research and found the shop had 200-250 customers who in the past two years (2003-2005) had come for service on Saturday.
“We sat down over a period of a week and called every single one of them to say we’re entertaining this idea,” Chris says. “Good, bad or indifferent we would just be quiet. All but about five or six were ecstatic about the fact that we even called them to ask their consideration. The fact that we’re thinking of our culture and our people in that way they were totally supportive. So that pushed us over the edge.”
To counter losing a day, Monroe made a push to increase car count, offering services like bringing people back to work and picking up vehicles. With most of its business in a five to seven-mile radius, it wasn’t a stretch to make that happen.
“To this day, we still do a ton of shuttling people around getting them where they need to go and doing free pick-ups and drop-offs,” he says.
That doesn’t mean the transition away from Saturdays was an easy one. In fact, it really rattled the business for a short while.
“Initially, closing on Saturday was scary as hell,” Chris says. “When we decided to do it on Labor Day 2005 it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. My dad was still alive at the time and he said, ‘Son, this is the end. You’re done. You’re on your way to closing the store.’ I said, ‘Dad, I want to try this. I want to give it a year. If it goes really south I’ll give it six months.’”
Chris spent the first few months contemplating whether he did the right thing. He’d go to breakfast on Saturday and drop by his competitors, who were of course busy.
“It took several months, but people have learned, we have learned and we’ve gotten accustomed to it,” he says. “We’ve got more competition than we’ve ever had. We’ve got more stores staying open longer. I’ve got four national competitors that are all-day Saturday and a couple of them all-day Sunday. We’re still a viable solution. It can be done.”
The decision to eliminate Saturdays from the schedule ultimately came down to allowing employees extra time to enjoy their families, friends, and hobbies.
“You make decisions sometimes based on quality of life and on the time that you have here on this Earth, and it’s not all about the almighty dollar,” he says. “I’m not chasing the highest gross sales number I can possibly produce. I’m looking for a balance in life, not only for myself, but for the guys who work here. That’s led to a huge retention rate.”
Keeping Up with the Industry
Another way Monroe Tire & Service has kept its employees in the building is through continued training and education.
“In a shop like ours we’re technical savvy, but we enjoy the tools of the day,” Chris says. “We’re constantly investing in new tools. When you have new tools you have to train. You have to learn how this meets the demand and the solution.”
Monroe works closely with the Tire Industry Association (TIA) to push its training sessions out to technicians, and will also invite vendors and manufacturers to speak at the shop. Education also extends to the Monroe customer.
“Education is a standard operating procedure with every day customers,” he says. “I want customers to understand why we do certain things, so I engage them to the level they want to be engaged. Some are very inquisitive and some are hands off and just want us to fix it, and we’ll honor that. The education piece, the pictures and bringing people into the shop and showing them the alignment and tire wear and other maintenance issues are important.”
Being involved in the industry is another important aspect of Monroe’s management style. Chris has been on the board of the North Carolina Tire Dealers Association for years and currently serves on the board of directors for TIA as well.
“It’s important to learn what you don’t know,” Chris says. “It’s been an interesting way for me to get a macro view of the industry as a whole. It gives you a perspective that you can’t get anywhere else. I’ve learned a lot about the government side, the regulation side and how our industry is communicating with manufacturing and the government in making sure that safety is key and how we move forward with that technology.”
While Chris is always striving to improve his business, adding more locations isn’t one of the ways he plans to do it.
“I’m the guy that is just as happy as I can be with one location,” he says. “I didn’t get that gene – I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, and I don’t want more than one location. I enjoy being an independent that is one outlet and I appreciate the fact that we’ve been selected in this group of Top Shops.”