You’ve probably seen the Dilbert comic strip, all about the ups and downs of engineers. Cal BMW/Triumph, located in Mountain View, Calif., the center of Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the computer revolution, has been selling motorcycles to Dilberts for the last 28 years. “Google headquarters is a quarter mile from my shop,” Kari Prager, the owner, says with a grin.
Engineers can be difficult customers. “My customers are very intense about their bikes,” says Prager. “They have to be perfect. They have to be ready when they have been promised. I have extremely demanding customers.”
In his 28 years in Mountain View, Prager has learned to cope with, and even enjoy, his engineers. “I try to establish a relationship with each customer.” Both Triumph and BMW have very active owner’s clubs, and Cal BMW Triumph is heavily involved with the clubs, organizing rides and rider’s clinics.
“Everyone gets equal treatment. I make a real effort to make sure that all of my customers get treated exactly the same,” says Prager. “Next, if necessary, I allow the customer to talk to the technician. Lastly, I try to make sure my shop is well organized. I try to make sure that special orders happen when they should. Bikes must be finished on time. We strongly encourage people to make appointments, and we provide loaners by appointment.”
Prager’s latest project is Tri-Valley Moto, his new store in Livermore, east of San Francisco Bay, and home to Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and yet more demanding engineers. “I was getting bored, and I found some land available at a reasonable price,” he says. Although the Mountain View shop is so well arranged that international dealers groups show up to see it, Prager thought he could do better: “I have always wanted to build a facility from the ground up and here was that opportunity.”
Initial surveys were positive. “The area had poor market penetration of my brands, and very few motorcycle dealerships of any kind,” says Prager. “Despite this, the area had lots of motorcycle enthusiasts and a high standard of living. I felt this was a market I could develop.” He has added KTM to the Tri-Valley operation. “Dirt bikes are big during the winter, when everything else is slow.”
His next step was to get his car mechanic involved. Mike Meissner had been getting tired of the car business, so he sold out and invested his profits in Tri-Valley. Mike is now the general manager of both stores. “My goal is to have trained and confident managers at both stores,” states Mike, who has earned a business degree. “I want my managers to feel the ability to make a decision. I want them to understand our objectives, and give them a framework to work with the customer.”
Mike feels strongly that shops need to be honest and up front about setting customer expectations — especially with the demanding customer base at the Mountain View and Livermore shops. “For example, say there’s an intermittent electrical problem. You ask the customer to sign a large diagnostic estimate — maybe $600,” he says. “Remember, our customers want their bikes perfect, and if you make an effort to explain, they will sign the estimate. If you find the problem in a half hour, you are a hero. If it takes ten hours, you aren’t out that much money. The customer needs to understand the cost parameters.”
Building Tri-Valley was fun, but challenging. “When we started building,” Prager explains, “BMW required a wall between their merchandise and any other brands. We called it the Berlin Wall. Then they changed their requirements, but the building was up. The wall actually has been very useful. It’s a great place to display merchandise, and we have the customer lounge and dressing rooms there — all things we would have had to put someplace.”
Both the Mountain View and the Livermore venues have a lot of women, both passengers and riders, walking through the doors. Here, Prager’s emphasis on treating everyone the same has really paid off. Female riders and passengers feel that they are important to the dealership.
Prager has found that the passenger often has final say as to what model motorcycle is purchased, based on her comfort. Here, again, he has a strategy. “I’m the designated passenger driver. Our insurance won’t allow a passenger on a test ride, so I take the passenger out for fifteen minutes or a half hour, whatever it takes to allow her to make a decision.”
Despite the economic downturn, Prager’s businesses are prospering. “I am very cautious in ordering and I keep the minimum number of staff to offer good service. I could cut more, but I would not be able to offer good service and I would lose customers. It’s a fine balance.”