July/August  2001

Extreme Mobility

Is Mobile Service the Wave of the Future?
By Penny Beverage

As children and teenagers, most people crave the open road. They dream of riding off into the sunset without a care in the world, except how much gas is in the tank and how far it will get them.

Although some auto glass repair and replacement technicians begin working from a shop, working as a mobile business only some of the time, many shop owners share this craving for the open road. They long for the highway and often find they are just as successful—if not more so—as a completely mobile business as they are within the stability of a shop. 

Some have begun their businesses on the road and have never found a need to build a shop, based on the success of their mobile work. However, others, such as JC’s Glass in Phoenix, which once operated in a shop, have given up bricks and mortar for the paved highway and despite the nonconformity of the switch, they have found success thus far on the open road.

Why Switch?
For Cindy Minon, owner of JC’s Glass, the choice to transform her business into primarily a mobile one was easy. “I found that my mobile guys were swamped and my in-shop guys had nothing to do. I was having to entice people in the Phoenix market to come into the store,” she said. “We were having to do give-aways and everything [to get them in the shop], but people kept asking us to come to their businesses.”

Likewise, Minon added, keeping her seven repair and replacement facilities open had just become too costly. “The industry had changed tremendously and the costs of doing business had changed, so I found that bricks and mortar were just too expensive,” she said.

Now, rather than keeping seven different locations open, Minon only maintains one shop from which a dispatcher and customer service representative work, and rents small bays to serve as locations for insurance purposes. 

Carol Connell, president of Mobile Glass USA Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga., just outside Atlanta, found similar circumstances led her to transform her business to an almost entirely mobile service. “I don’t know how you could ever survive without running a mobile business to be competitive in the market,” Connell said. “In Atlanta, everything is drive-in and quick. People are in a hurry and they want mobile service.”

Benefits
While Minon and Connell found that making the switch was almost a necessity, both have seen added benefits since hitting the road.

The greatest advantage to both, according to those interviewed for this article, is the customer’s satisfaction with being able to have his windshield repaired or replaced in his own driveway or at his place of business. “Only about 2 percent of our customers want to bring their vehicles into the shop,” Minon said.

Sue Cook, manager of Mobile Glass of North Carolina, sees similar reactions from customers in her market in Raleigh, N.C. “You go to the customer’s workplace or home and they don’t have to find you,” she said. “I know the customers like that.”

While mobile businesses often provide customers with greater satisfaction, the mobile shop owners, along with their installers and repair technicians, also reap benefits.

Julie Pihl, owner of First City Glass in Hicksville, N.Y., has conducted business using only a van for the last 15 years. She finds that it is more convenient for her because she can schedule jobs easily, without having to worry about scheduling them around each other in a fixed location.

Although Pihl said she has considered opening a location, the benefits of working on a purely mobile basis are far too great for her to ponder bricks and mortar very long. “I’ve thought about [opening a shop], but I feel that the overhead and all of the insurance expenses wouldn’t be worth it.”

Some of Minon’s employees adapted to the change slowly, she said, but eventually they also found it beneficial. “It’s been a process, but I would say the technicians like it better now because we schedule them on their way home,” she said. “They come in here once and we have them scheduled for the rest of the day.” 

Similarly, Cook finds that her installers like the freedom of being on the road, rather than in the shop all of the time. “I think they prefer to be more mobile because there’s so much that goes on in an office that they don’t want any part of, and it gives them freedom,” she said.

Another benefit to maintaining only a small bay and working by vehicle only is shops don’t have to maintain an inventory of windshields. “You can just take deliveries in a drop box. That’s a convenience to my company,” Connell said. “We just have the glass delivered on a night run, or it’s laid out at the wholesale distributors and the technician can pick it up on his way to a job.”

If a shop owner does decide to maintain a small facility just in case a customer doesn’t want mobile service, he still saves money on electricity and other utilities by decreasing the size of the shop, Connell added.

A Few Bumps in the Road
While most who have made the transition to conducting a majority of business out of the shop boast of its many benefits, they admit there are some disadvantages to the switch.

One of the biggest negatives is that without a shop, some customers view a business as less stable than those with a fixed location. “Sometimes people perceive a person who has a mobile shop as not as reputable or equipped to do the job as someone with a shop, but I have more tools in my van than some people do in their shops,” Pihl said.

There are also those in the industry who do not consider mobile installations as safe as those done in a shop due to the unpredictability of the open road. Among the reasons cited for this possibility is that a technician may run out of supplies on the road and finish the job without them or with improper supplies. Another is that often these replacements are completed at the vehicle-owner’s place of work, which may compel him to drive the vehicle before the safe drive-away time has passed.

Another disadvantage is to be considered by the insurance networks as a “location,” a business has to maintain some sort of base—be it a home or small bays, like Minon rents—to qualify for referrals. “I have 21 trucks on the road and I should basically have 21 shops, but the networks haven’t honored that yet,” Minon said. “That is why I have to continue to pay rent for bays and to keep a person there so that I can remain in compliance with the networks.”

However, David Hurst, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance Co. of Bloomington, Ill., said his company actually looks kindly upon mobile installations and repairs, despite popular opinion. “Our glass people are quite familiar with mobile glass shops and we’ve been seeing more and more of them in recent years. There are some that are part of our program, and we’ve had good experiences with them,” he said. “We think this is a cost-effective way to get repairs or replacements done.”

The uncontrollable—the weather—is another commonly-cited drawback to maintaining a mobile auto glass business. There are those who, like Minon, live in sunny climates where it stays warm and seldom rains, but most are not so lucky.

Both Connell and Cook, who live in a semi-close vicinity to one another in Atlanta and Raleigh, respectively, find that rain often affects their businesses. “If it’s raining and [the technician] doesn’t have shelter, obviously [he] can’t do [his] job,” Cook said.

The winter months also can cause business to lag for a purely mobile business. “In the winter months you’re normally slower because the weather is not suitable,” Connell said. “It’s harder to get the windshields out when it’s cold.”

One other struggle in making the transition that Minon encountered was helping her employees deal with the change. “The people who didn’t like it mostly were the customer service representatives because they went from being in their own shops to working in a call center. The next were the managers because they were no longer managing the shops—they were managing trucks,” she said.

Finally, while saving money on electricity, rent and other utilities that come with maintaining a fixed location, shops must spend money, in turn, on gasoline to keep their mobile technicians on the road. (See "Fueling Up" for related article.)

Tips for the Journey
When asked if they would recommend the open highway of mobility to others, most say they have found it so rewarding that there is no hesitation to do so. However, most mobile shop owners issue a few warnings to others considering making such a switch.

Pihl said the number-one requirement for being a completely mobile business is to make sure that you’re good at maintaining specific, mobile appointments in a timely manner. “A lot of people like to have a time frame of when you’re going to be there—they don’t want to hear ‘sometime within the day’—so I try to accommodate that,” she said. “And, by all means, keep your appointments. Show up when you’re scheduled to be there.”

Likewise, Minon warns others considering the transition to take the plunge to mobility quickly. “If I were to do it over again, I would probably do it all at one time—not gradually,” she said.
Minon added that when she began the transition to mobile service some speculated that she was going out of business, whereas she was just downsizing her fixed facilities while upgrading her mobile capabilities. “You need to start some kind of marketing campaign for both customers and employees so that people don’t think you’re going out of business,” Minon said.

Finally, she warned that everyone involved in the business should be involved in the transition as well. “People considering the change need to make sure that they have an ad hoc committee and that they get their technicians involved in the transition and that they communicate how and why they’re doing it and that they keep everyone actively involved in the process,” she said.

Is the Open Road All It’s Cracked Up to Be?
Despite these recommendations and the minor struggles encountered, most agree that the open road is a rewarding one. And although there are more worries in an auto glass business than how much gas is in the tank and how far it will get the driver, most agree that the transition to offering mobile service only—or at least most of the time—provides an auto glass shop with ever-expanding horizons. 

NAGS Classifies Mobile Service 
as ‘Additional Service’

San Diego-based National Auto Specifications International (NAGS) began documenting auto glass services, in addition to parts, in 1999, and among these part numbers was one for mobile service, which is considered an additional service. Also included in the list of service part numbers are air bag activation, glass cut-to-size, decal application/removal, freight, hazardous waste removal, removal and installation, rust work, window tinting, VIN etching and vinyl peel-back. However, these numbers do not include pricing as regular part numbers do; instead, NAGS suggests that trading partners negotiate their value (see Fall 1999 AGRR for related story). On the same note, most of those interviewed for this article said they do not charge extra for mobile service, but instead figure it into the cost of labor. (See "Fueling Up" for a related story on how the impending fuel crisis is affecting these costs.



Penny Beverage is the editor of AGRR magazine.

AGRR

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