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Cab gab well worth the tab, dealer finds

Taxis, mocha espressos add service trade

INSIGHT: How 7 pioneers are finding ways to stay in front
Tom Zimbrick Company: Zimbrick Inc. Where: Madison, Wis. Age: 45 Title: CEO Stores: Hyundai of Madison, Infiniti of Madison, Zimbrick European (Audi-BMW-Mercedes-Benz-Porsche-Saab), Zimbrick Honda, Zimbrick Isuzu, Zimbrick Buick East, Zimbrick Buick West, Zimbrick Volkswagen East and Saturn of Madison, all in Madison, Wis.; Zimbrick Acura-Volkswagen in Middleton, Wis.; Saturn of Rockford in Rockford, Ill.; and Acura of Brookfield in Brookfield, Wis. Annual revenues: More than $200 million Franchises: Acura, Audi, BMW, Buick, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Isuzu, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Saab, Saturn, Volkswagen How I come up with my best ideas: "Most of our ideas come from our own employees. We have terrific people who have been with us a long time. We are very liberal in having them (try) an idea"

Tom Zimbrick of Madison, Wis. is perhaps best known for his taxi service.

For 30 years, his dealerships have been providing service customers free cab rides to work or home. Customers like it better than riding a shuttle that makes multiple stops for other passengers.

It is one of many small touches that give Zimbrick after-warranty customer retention as high as 80 percent at some of his dealerships.

"One of the bills I don't mind paying is the taxi bill at the end of the month, because if I get a big taxi bill I know I've done a lot of service business," he said.

That bill averages $17,000 a month, or about $15 per customer.

Zimbrick, 45, is CEO of Zimbrick Inc., which handles 13 franchises at 12 dealerships in Madison, Brookfield and Middleton, Wis., and Rockford, Ill. He is responsible for nine of the franchises. His younger brother, Mike, is president and dealer principal for the other four franchises.

Repeat business is Zimbrick's prime mission. He gives service customers red carpet treatment, regardless of the vehicle's age or where they bought their cars. The company also has two stand-alone service centers - one for Honda and one for GM - that provide service for all makes.

Listening is crucial

Zimbrick believes it is important to listen to customers. He and his general managers solicit feedback from customers as they walk the service drive and talk to people in the waiting rooms.

The company also uses telephone follow-ups, customer surveys and focus groups.

But his taxi drivers conduct the most important research of all.

"People will tell a taxicab driver everything. It (usually) takes 15 minutes to 30 minutes for a ride, and you have a lot of time on your hands," he said.

Zimbrick asks the drivers and dispatchers to alert management to problems. "At least once a year we take all the taxicab drivers out to dinner," he said. "The taxicab drivers tell us how we are doing. They tell us if we have friendly people, if we have prompt service, if people get angry at a particular facility or a particular service adviser. If (we find out) one facility seems to get all the praise, then we look at that facility to see what are we doing there vs. everywhere else."

Customers who wait for their vehicles to be serviced are treated to various amenities. Peter Egan of Road and Track magazine was so impressed with his experience getting an oil change at Zimbrick Buick in Madison, that he praised it in the magazine's July 2001 issue.

"(The service adviser) led me into a glassed-in, carpeted area with a TV room, a separate quiet reading room and a coffee counter next to a table with free breakfast muffins. I poured that cup of mocha espresso, reflected glowingly on the current, streamlined state of American customer service and gazed around the waiting room," wrote Egan, noting the free coffee, food, TV, books, magazines, nice chairs, work station, tropical fish tank and game area for kids.

Zimbrick said such amenities are key to making the service experience successful.

On 'the path'

Zimbrick Inc. has two satellite service centers in Madison. Its Goodwrench Service Center opened in June; Zimbrick Honda Dealer Service Center has been open since November 1989.

"The concept is to make it easy for the customer, to not interrupt someone's day," he said. "We put it in an area I call 'the path' - the path that you go to the grocery store and the dry cleaner and the department store. When you are running errands, you want to have (your stops) in the same area, which is not really where dealerships are located." The Honda center, about five miles from Zimbrick's Honda store, was not only a first for American Honda, but a first for any manufacturer. About 75 percent of the work at the satellite is on Hondas. Of that, about 20 percent is warranty work.

Zimbrick's Goodwrench Service Center does not do warranty work. Because of its convenient location, half the cars serviced at the Goodwrench center are not General Motors cars, Zimbrick said. It borders a residential neighborhood and an office park that employs more than 10,000 people.

Zimbrick's service success has not escaped attention. "We have a lot of visits from a lot of manufacturers - some of them we don't even represent," said Zimbrick. "A lot of dealers and a lot of manufacturers come by and look at our facilities, our physical layouts, looking for the magic bullet."

But there is no magic bullet for excellent customer service. Zimbrick puts it simply: "If we stay close to our customers and provide them with a pleasant and value-added experience, they'll come back."

Tags: Taxis Service

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