One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my father's knee, gripping the steering wheel of his sky blue VW Beetle, and making "vroom vroom" noises.
When I was in my twenties, I bought a VW of my very own – a beautiful bay window camper. It was love at first sight, but hardly a match made in heaven. My "new" van was almost as old as I was, and "non-essential" items (like the spring that keeps the handbrake lever in place) would regularly fail. I even had a "Honk if something falls off" bumper sticker, and people did honk at me… quite a lot!
But none of that seemed to matter very much when every trip felt like an adventure, and if I ever did need to call out the rescue service, I could always make a cup of tea or snuggle down with a good book in comfort, while I waited!
Unfortunately, after a while, other, rather more vital pieces started to fail, and that’s when I became friends with Charlie. Charlie runs a small VW repair shop near my house. More magician than mechanic, his workshop is always chock-full of vans of all ages and models, in varying stages of renovation and repair. But whatever the problem, you can guarantee that Charlie, or one of his team, can fix it.
For several years, Charlie worked his magic on my old bus. In fact, he still looks after her today, but she no longer belongs to me. I sold her about ten years ago to a newlywed couple who were planning to use her for family holidays. They inherited Charlie along with the camping gear and blue enamel kettle, when I handed over the keys.
I still occasionally spot her parked outside the workshop, although she was nowhere to be seen yesterday when the dogs and I stopped to say hello, on our way to the park.
Despite having had no business from me for around a decade now, Charlie always has a ready smile. As we chatted, he leant on a pristine-looking vintage white Beetle, and I commented on the number of splitties, T4s and T5s on his forecourt, waiting to be seen. "Business is good," he told me, and even at a time when a new car could cost you less than a second hand one, I'm pretty sure I know why.
Often, when we talk about successful businesses, we think of the big name brands and the Fortune 500. But what about the little guys? According to the Small Business Administration, 42 percent of the U.S. private sector payroll and 63 percent of new jobs came from small businesses in 2012. However, statistics show that small businesses stand only a 50/50 chance of surviving their first five years of trading.
Yet, in the years since Charlie's VW Workshop first opened its doors, plenty of huge brands (Lehman Brothers, Blockbuster, Kodak and Woolworths, to name just a few) have fallen by the wayside. So, what can Charlie teach us about business that the big corporations can't? Here are my four top tips:
When it comes to automotive matters, I'm the first to admit that I'm a bit of a dummy. What's more, I'm a girl – and although this might seem sexist, I worry that mechanics will take one look at me and see a golden opportunity to spin me a yarn. But, I trust Charlie. I trust him to do a good job and I trust him to do only what is necessary.
Why? Because he talked to me. He'd always ask me lots of questions about what the trouble was, and then he'd listen. He'd look my van over and tell me what needed urgent attention, what could be left for another time, and what could safely be ignored altogether.
The first time I took my van in to Charlie, he showed me a section of tailpipe that had previously been repaired with a baked bean can and a couple of jubilee clips. I was kind of strapped for cash at the time, but I needn't have worried. "It's OK," he said, "it looks like it's holding up just fine."
I think that bean can stayed where it was for almost a year before we felt compelled to do anything about it! And because I trusted him, I recommended him to my friends. And they recommended him to their friends, and so it went on.
As I mentioned, Charlie is much more than a mechanic. When it comes to Volkswagens, Charlie is a magician! There's nothing he doesn't know about the V-dub engine.
In a marketplace full of rival auto-mechanics, you might think that restricting his trade to one make of car would limit Charlie's customer base, but actually, the reverse is true. VW owners from all over the county drive past other mechanics en route to his workshop, because they know that he is the expert. You might call it his USP.
Successful small businesses can get to know their customers much better than big corporations. And it's much easier for a customer to relate to a brand when that brand is a real-life person (something Richard Branson knows and exploits very well).
I'm amazed that Charlie even remembers me, let alone remembers the make and model of the van I drove ten years ago. Whenever I had a problem with my old van, It was very reassuring to know that, when I picked up the phone, I wouldn't have to go through any lengthy descriptions of the issues we'd had in the past.
It's the very personal nature of customer service in small businesses like Charlie's that keep customers going back time and again.
Life must be lonely at the top. The corporate giants often get where they are by killing off the competition, but small businesses survive by generating trade for one another. This creates business communities that work to everyone's benefit – especially the customer's.
There's something very special about Volkswagen enthusiasts. Get a VW bus and you're instantly part of an enormous gang – and after years in the trade, Charlie seems to know every single one of them. Take your car to his workshop, and you have access to a whole host of other services besides. Got a dent that needs pushing out and respraying? Charlie knows a great bodyshop. Need a rare second-hand replacement part? "Lemme make a few calls…"
It doesn't stop there, either. Through Charlie's extensive network, I also found out where to buy reclaimed cast-iron radiators, and got a recommendation for a good local plumber who put them in for me, too. Now that's what I call a good service!
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