Small auto shop’s edge: Loaner cars

If you’re running a small business against big chain competition, how do you set yourself apart?

Smart Service owner and mechanic Michael Corbin says the answer is specialization, offering loaner cars like dealerships do and finding creative ways to advertise.

Corbin has been driving Subarus since the late-1980s. At the time, he was working as a mechanic at a dealership. Impressed by the unique engineering and all-wheel-drive that has for years set Subaru apart, this small business owner/entrepreneurial mechanic saw opportunity to specialize in maintaining and repairing just one make of car. He opened his first Smart Service shop in Shoreline in 1999.

Fortunately, Corbin’s pick is also in line with what many folks around here are driving; The Northwest is one of the strongest areas in the country for Subaru ownership. And it’s a brand that has a reputation for manufacturing cars that will go the distance.

“It’s not unusual to see cars come into the shop with over 300,000 miles,” said Corbin. “For whatever reason, many Subaru owners seem to take pride in getting the most out of their vehicle.”

My Subaru driving experience is mostly behind the wheel with the occasional wiper blade or oil changes, air filter replacement or topping off fluids. But when it comes to the major projects like brakes, tune-ups or engine diagnostics, I seek out the experts.

I recently took my 2001 Outback to Corbin’s Smart Service shop in Mukilteo, where I learned that my car had some manual transmission differential issues that would require upwards of six hours of labor to repair.

Disappointed that after 189,000 miles I would need to sink a good chunk of money to get the repair done, I was pleasantly surprised that the shop had a loaner car that I could drive for the days that my car was in the shop.

Many repair facilities and dealerships offer shuttle service to their customers. Some car dealerships will provide loaners when a major repair is required on a vehicle. These cars are typically low-mileage and perhaps are meant to entice the customer with a bias to make their next car purchase.

Only a handful of small independent mechanics offer loaners. More commonly, they will provide a special offer through local rental car companies. The Smart Service Mukilteo shop has four loaners; the Shoreline shop runs with five. And none of these cars has fewer than 150,000 miles! The one I drove for two days had 363,000 miles — and counting! You can’t miss these cars when they’re out on the road.

True, I was driving a promotional billboard from place to place throughout South County. But the benefit of having a car at my disposal without jockeying vehicles to get my car to the shop and myself back home was a major plus.

Smart Service is recognized by AAA of Washington as a Top Shop repair facility; they’ve consistently achieved this rating since 2005.

“We’re happy to be connected with AAA and the evaluation services they provide. With results from AAA surveys, interviews and site visits, our shop’s credibility continues to grow,” Corbin said.

It’s not easy to get perfect customer service feedback scores for an entire month of shop transactions. With nearly 150 cars a month receiving some form of maintenance or repair at the Mukilteo location alone, one would think that a few folks could find cause to complain. Yet in March Smart Service in Mukilteo earned AAA’s distinguished 100 percent award.

The success of Smart Service can be attributed to several key factors.

“The team that has been with the business is committed to excellence,” Corbin said. “What started out as a one-man operation in 1999 is now at 14 employees, four of whom are part-time.”

The business has seen virtually no turnover in the past few years.

“Employees who are respected and feel well-treated truly extend the same to our customers. Customers think we’re performing miracles, yet we’ve focused on a culture of treating them fair and honest while delivering high-quality service,” Corbin said.

Treating customers and employees well is certainly a good foundation. Establishing expertise and delivering quality service is the day-to-day challenge that keeps a business growing.

Differentiation by providing something as simple as high-mileage, roving billboard loaner cars signals that even a small independent shop can compete through innovation. And in this economy, every small business owner needs to consider this simple question: What makes us different?

Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the Everett Community College business program. Please send your comments to

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