Hi, it’s Amy and Randy from Think Creative. We’re here today at Mercedes-Benz of Flagstaff with James. He’s a service advisor here. Welcome, James.
Hi, thanks for having me.
So James, why don’t we get started right at the very beginning and have you just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well, it really started when I was about 14 years old. I changed a fuel pump on an old Ford pickup truck that my family had in the backyard. And from there, I, long story short, felt the car come back to life and was really empowered by that feeling. And I’ve really worked in the car business and been coming back to cars ever since.
Wow. Okay [laughter].
That is awesome. All right. So that’s you [laughter]. So what about the service department here at this dealership, Mercedes-Benz of Flagstaff? What can you tell us about it?
Well, some key things that we do that most folks can’t provide– we’re actually a certified Sprinter dealer. We work on cargo vans that are specific to Mercedes-Benz. We’ve got fleet accounts with FedEx, a local Frito-Lay company here in town, an electrician company, and also one of the plumbing companies here in town. So we do a lot of commercial work, like I said, for our cargo vans, for our Sprinters. However, we do a lot of the consumer-based auto repair for all of your basic sedans and Mercedes SUVs.
Have you always worked for Mercedes? Or do you have other manufacturer experience?
I spent about two years at the Subaru dealership here in town. And then from there, I actually was in the service department. I was also in the sales department there and had a real good– gained a real good understanding of multiple angles of the car business is kind of how I think of it.
Okay, great. What about the service department? How many techs do you have working here?
We have three senior technicians. We have two – B-level technicians is what we call them – guys that are in training, and they are on their way, kind of moving up. So we have a total of five right now. We’re hoping to grow that as our business grows. Being in our new building now, we’re actually in a position where we’re growing, and we’re seeing more business than we really ever have. So as our volume increases, more than likely we’ll be adding some technicians, as well.
Can I back up a little bit? Because the last time I was here, I actually saw you– you talked about other manufacturers. The last time I was in here, I think you guys had a Ford Five Hundred. That’s pretty expensive Ford vehicle that you guys were working on, so kudos to you guys. So they’re master techs in other brands also, or–?
Mainly Mercedes-Benz certifications, mainly. We’ve got one technician, in particular, that has some very diverse experience with Chrysler and even with Freightliner on some heavy-duty semi trucks, essentially. So we’ve got mechanics in the shop that really are well-versed. We like to think that we are a Mercedes-Benz dealer, primarily. But, also, we are a repair shop, and we’re in business to fix it if it’s broke.
You guys got some heavy hitters [laughter].
We try. We try.
So how much experience combined do your technicians have, would you say?
It’s somewhere in the 30-to-40-year mark.
Yeah. So that’s good. That’s a lot of experience. Okay.
Somewhere in that mark.
Okay. And just so that everyone listening knows, can you tell us about the hours that you’re open and–?
We’re open from 8:00 AM. Monday through Friday we’re 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Our technicians like to leave around 5:00, but the service advisors will still be here from 5:00 to 6:00 to receive any vehicles that may be coming in on a tow truck or to deliver a vehicle that was completed earlier that day.
Okay. Oh, I had a follow-up thought. Oh, oh, is it required to have an appointment? Or is it advised? Or how does that work?
It is encouraged [laughter]. We like to encourage our customers to give us a heads up, let us know that they’re coming in. We do see a lot of travelers here. Like I said, we’re a certified Sprinter facility. A lot of our volume is the Mercedes-Benz Chassis Motorhome. We deal with a lot of folks that are traveling through and are in a emergency-type situation where it’s broken and they’re coming in regardless, even though it’s not on the calendar. So we see quite a bit of that, just kind of being a traveler town. But we like for folks to schedule an appointment if they can. To touch on that again, some of our competitors in other states have a two-to three-week wait to get these same vehicles in, these Sprinter cargo vans. We’ve actually gotten to the point now where we are same-day in a lot of cases, and then we’re even 48-hour turnaround on some of these bigger jobs that other shops would not have even touched this truck for multiple weeks.
Wow. That’s amazing.
Yeah, okay. So what do you think is the biggest benefit for customers to bring their cars to a dealership instead of a local shop?
Honestly, the biggest advantage is going to be the software in the computer-scanning equipment that we’re going to use to correctly diagnose and test these components individually. There are some fantastic independent shops out there, not just in Flagstaff, but really just anywhere. But at the end of the day, these cars are becoming so make-specific that you need to be a Mercedes tech. You need to be a Toyota technician. You need to be a Ford technician to really, fully understand the common problems and to have the scanning equipment available that’s able to test these components independently. That way you can really rule out what options might be holding you back, and you can lead towards a better diagnosis.
You said you had a sales background, but you obviously are in service now. So you choose to be in service?
I do. I do.
Why is that, out of curiosity?
Yeah [laughter]. Well, a key thing would be I’ve got a wife and kids at home, and I would like to spend more time with the family. A lot of times your car salesmen, typically, are going to work a bell-to-bell type schedule. You’re going to be working your days off, and it’s a great way to–
Nights, weekends, holidays.
Right, and I really enjoyed it. I loved selling cars. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed interacting with people. Got to meet all sorts of people and gained some friendships as a result of that, too. I’d probably say the biggest negative would just be the schedule, and to be able to have three Saturdays off a month, and to be able to work a half day that one Saturday a month that I do work probably is my primary reason.
Excellent, okay. Is there anything you think people would be surprised to learn about a service department? How it works or who you guys are?
I think a key thing that most folks don’t understand is that our technicians are actually paid on a flat-rate pay scale. So they are paid based on their production. A car salesman is paid on the number of cars that he sells. A technician is paid on the number of hours that he bills, or he flags is kind of how they say it in the shop. So one of the things a lot of customers don’t understand is, “Well, can’t you just do X, Y, Z real quick here for no cost?” Well, if the mechanic in the back is paid on a flat-rate scale, we typically guarantee them a one-hour diagnostic for almost any instance. And then here our labor rate is $150 an hour. So, really, what I like to do is I like to preface the repair with, “Well, it’s going to be $150 an hour unless it’s covered under your warranty,” and then from there we can– once I get a diagnosis, I can confirm if it was a warranted item or if it was something that was caused by an outside force that the warranty company won’t pick up. But, like I said, most folks don’t realize that that’s how the mechanic is paid. And that’s really why when you bring your car into the shop, 9 times out of 10, there just has to be a cost attached to it, just so that we can pay the technician.
Makes sense. Yeah. Okay, what are some of the common questions you see or the common problems you see come through? Things that you think could be avoided or–?
I’d say first and foremost would be the tire light. The tire-pressure monitoring system is a TPMS system, and it’s extremely accurate. One of the variables in that system is elevation. Here in Flagstaff, we’re at 7,000 feet. We’ve got customers that drive down to Phoenix and come back up. As you drive down, your pressures are actually going to swell. As the temperature increases and as the elevation drops, your pressures are actually going to swell a bit. As you come back up the hill, they’re going to tend to shrink. So we have folks that’ll kind of have these– what’s the word? It just keeps happening. It’s chronic.
Oh, okay. Chronic [laughter].
It’s kind of a chronic issue. Yeah. It’s a chronic issue where–
Right, reoccurring. Exactly. Where you just got this problem that won’t seem to go away, but in reality, it’s the road condition. That’s the variable. All these cars are built the same. What each one of us does in the car and where we go and what we do with it, how we treat it, that’s the variable in the experiment. So first and foremost, I’d say the tire light. Secondly, we get a lot of coolant lights just because these cars are built to a higher standard, and our sensors are so sensitive that they will actually pick up a few ounces in difference. So that fluid level could be low just by a few ounces, and it’s going to set a light and tell you to see your nearest repair facility. So there isn’t really necessarily a problem there. You don’t have a leak. You might not be consuming fluid. But at the same time, that coolant may have just evaporated, especially in extreme climates like down in Phoenix. So I’d say the tire light, the coolant light. Beyond that, we’ve got some different issues on our Sprinter vans that, well, a lot of consumers won’t see, but more of our commercial customers do.
Okay. All right. So–
Oh, go ahead.
I was going to say, how long have you been in service? I know you started working on cars as a hobby when you were 14, but–
Let’s see. Let’s see. God dang it. This is going to really date me. I was a service technician in 2009. 2009, 2010. And I worked professionally for about four years as a technician before I became a service writer. So I was a technician for a solid length of time. I actually operated independently as a licensed mobile mechanic in Phoenix for about two years prior to that four years verifiable shop experience. I specialized in air conditioning. I still own an air conditioning machine, and any ’94 and up vehicle, I can service the AC. So that was really a lot of technician time, a lot of time under the hood before I became a writer. And about two years into writing, I got into car sales. And then I kind of came back– kind of circled back into the service department after I got sick of working Saturdays, so [laughter].
So do you ever think you can go back to turning wrenches? Or why did you go from turning wrenches to service writing?
To be 100% honest, it is the cost of the tools. I started my family at the same time I started my career in auto mechanics. And I had three small kids at home, and I could not afford to buy diapers and wipes and automotive tools. It was just–
So I think that’s something most consumers don’t understand or don’t know, is that you have to, as a tech, buy your own equipment. I mean, personally, I come from the South Side. I would think that it’s just–
–provided. It’s standard equipment for dealerships just to keep moving the needle every day. You would think that that’s– it’s kind of like computers. You would think– computers are just automatic. When you’re in sales, you have computers on every desk. So you would think your tools are tools. My tool was a computer.
And that’s true. And that’s true to a certain extent. And, really, the shop equipment like our lifts that are installed into the floor, our scanning equipment, brake flush machines, air conditioning machines, those are all considered shop equipment that really no technician should have to buy a lift. No technician should have to buy a brake flush machine or a tranny flush machine or all these– that’s kind of falls into the shop equipment category just like the sales desk has its computers. When it comes to your hand tools, air tools, every time you pull a drawer– anything that’s really put away in a drawer was purchased by that mechanic. I’ve got a good friend that’s– he’s got well over $30,000 invested in his set of tools. And it is just shocking. Not to throw the tool people under the bus at all, but, really, the markup on the cost of tools is what kept me out of it, to answer the question. I went online and found different websites where I could buy stuff kind of in bulk. And I wasn’t financing it through the Tool Trucks, which is what a lot these guys do, is they end up getting a Truck account, and they have a Snap-on or a Matco account, and they’re basically making 100 or a couple– 100 to 200 dollars a week payment on their tool account, and then they just keep buying it and keep buying it and keep buying it. And, ideally, it’ll all pan out where you’re making enough money. But starting out–
It takes a while.
Starting out, there’s a lot of cost, and that’s a lot of commitment. And that’s what makes it hard for folks to commit to the trade of a– to the mechanic trade.
Wow. Actually, that’s mind blowing. I never thought of that, and I’ve been in the car business for 20 years [laughter].
And also, I’ll throw another number at you. I used to get on Craigslist and type in, “Master tech,” under the tool section just to see what kind of tools would come up. You’ve got guys that retired, and they’re selling entire sets of tools all at once. That’s a great value, right?
Okay, well, that makes sense. I don’t have 30 grand to drop all at once, but that’s a great way to play it. And one of the ads that I had seen was for a technician that said– his ad had said, “Oh, well over $200,000 in tools. The first 30 grand takes it.” And I just thought, “Would you buy a house for $230,000 or 200,000 [laughter] and then sell it–”
Yeah. Would you sell it 25 years later for that? No. It’s like I get that the car depreciates, but why do the tools have to [laughter]? [inaudible]. It’s like the tools depreciated just as bad as the car did [laughter]. It’s like that’s just outrageous because, obviously, that wrench still wrenches, and it’s just shocking, and it’s where everybody has to make their money [crosstalk].
And that’s why every time I would walk through the shop, everything was locked. And I never understood. I would always say, “If you’re just going to come back tomorrow and everybody leaves at the same time, why you got to lock it? Because you’re going to lock the shop when you leave, right?”
And then they would all tell me, “Oh, you know how long it– its cost or this or that,” or, “It was a special tool or this or that,” or– it’s like, “Wow. A lot does go in.” I’ve never really put two and two together about how much it really costs to be a mechanic.
Not to mention the time and effort and training and busted knuckles and all the other things you got to deal with, too.
Oh, yeah. The certifications, yeah. Those are definitely pricey, also.
Yeah. But that really is– that’s what kept me out of being a professional mechanic. I feel like if things were different, I more than likely would have stuck with that, and I’d probably the shop foreman, and you might be talking to someone else. But that’s why I still have a real love for turning wrenches. And I was working on a motorcycle that belongs to one of our salesmen, actually, last night, and he’s got a bad voltage regulator. So I was able to confirm that he’s got a bad voltage regulator. He’s got power coming out of the [stager?], but he’s got basically an open circuit in his voltage regulator. So, for me, I get to go home, and I get to play with my machines a little bit here and there. But then I get to come to work, and I get to talk to people, and I get to take a different role.
So let’s take income and let’s take days off off the table. You were a tech, you were a service writer, you’re a service advisor, and you’re a salesman. Which one would you do?
Turn wrenches [laughter].
Hands down. Loved it.
So how did you come to Mercedes-Benz of Flagstaff?
Well, to get back kind of on the salesman topic, I was selling cars down the road here at the Subaru dealership that’s not too far away, and I was driving down this block watching this building go up. And I was on test drives, and I’m watching this building being built, and I had a couple friends at the time. One gentleman, in particular, still works here. But basically had some friends and had some contacts that were with Mercedes-Benz, and I was selling cars and just getting tired of the bell-to-bell. And then, to be honest, too, my wife got into the car business, and she started working some really unpleasant hours, as well. But for the income, we kept going. And I just thought, “Well, shoot. I might need to get into a service department just so one of us can get home a little bit sooner and kind of be there for the kids.” So that’s one of those things that really was a kind of influencing factor, too.
Car business family. It’s awesome.
Yeah. We really are, so. We really are.
Okay. So let’s wrap things up then for today and just ask one final question. What makes Mercedes-Benz of Flagstaff so great?
That’s tough [laughter].
Well, I mean, there’s lots of things. Well, I’d probably say that it– like I said, the availability for our Sprinter customers, for these cargo van commercial customers. We’ve done something, and we’ve been able to provide the customer with an option that they just would not have. Most of our competitors will not even take that type of vehicle in until a two-to-three-week timespan’s gone by. I’m going to have parts already ordered and here by then. And if you have to camp out in the parking lot while I’m waiting on parts, that still benefits you more than a two-to-three-week wait from other dealerships. I had a customer that’s had some work done here, called me from Oregon. He’s up in Oregon. Wanted service history that the independent shop he was going to didn’t have access to because they’re not Mercedes-Benz. And he said, “Well, I can’t get into the Mercedes-Benz dealer up here in Oregon because of the wait times, and this, this, and that. So I need to go to this independent shop to get it worked on much sooner. I don’t have that kind of time to waste. So hey, James, can you email me that repair order? My current mechanic would love to see what you guys did for me.” So that’s one of the key things that really sets us apart. Nobody else can really get those vans in as quickly as we can. Not to mention the luxury cars that we’ve got here. We’ve got a $225,000 G-Class out front, and it’s exciting to be around that type of vehicle every day. So I’d say those are some key things that set us apart.
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time today.
Yeah. Yeah, you’re welcome. It was fun.
That was awesome, James. That was good. Seriously awesome.
Podcast Episode 5: Service Advisor James Hargan