Ins and Outs of Mobile Repair
Hey there, Fullbay friends! We’re back with another Diesel Connect recap—one you’ve been asking for. Dave and Jan Kettle of Quality Mobile Fleet Services gave an outstanding presentation on the “Ins and Outs of Mobile Repair.” Since we’ve got a lot of mobile repair techs among us (or owners who are considering adding mobile repair to their services), this was a natural recap for us to jump on.
The Kettles provided a great overview of what goes into starting and running a mobile repair shop—specifically the business side of things, which can often wind up falling by the wayside for a lot of smaller operations. They also discussed the reality of operating in San Diego. Despite what you’ve heard about the area’s perfect weather and outstanding burritos, it is not without its challenges. Driving in San Diego can bring you through a variety of terrain and temperatures, and the size of the county itself—almost 4300 square miles!—means opportunity costs can run high.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before discussing opportunity costs and everything else that goes into mobile, the Kettles talked about why they went mobile in the first place—and how they’ve adjusted over the years.
HOW TO START A MOBILE REPAIR SHOP
First things first: The Kettles wanted to help people, but they also wanted to make a living. One of the first questions they asked themselves was, “Can we outfit a shop and get it going?”
When they opened their shop in 2019, they had some trucks and a small space. The space itself had belonged to a mobile windshield company before Quality Mobile went in, which meant…well, there wasn’t a ton of space. They had to go mobile, because they had no lifts, no compressors, none of the big stuff a brick-and-mortar shop would usually carry. Everything would depend on their repair trucks.
Of course, that meant they had to outfit those trucks properly. They also had to figure out what areas they would service. San Diego County is huge—the size of Rhode Island. A lot of logistics goes into mobile repair: What if your tech reaches a customer but they don’t have the parts necessary for a repair? Are there vendors around, and will they be open?
“When someone calls you and says they’re 70 miles away in the desert, and they’re overheating, that’s not the time to wonder, ‘Can I help them?’” Dave told the audience.
Over the course of a couple months, the Kettles worked out a plan to outfit their trucks with compressors, tools, and basic needs that everybody could use (i.e. not just Cummins or Detroit parts). They provided an important tip to anyone thinking about getting into mobile-only: Keep in mind the hours your parts vendors will be keeping. If you don’t carry something on your trucks, you’ll want to know when you can conceivably get it if you have a late night or early morning job.
The shop did get its start offering 24/7 service, though the Kettles scaled back on that after realizing how many headaches it led to. Key among those headaches was the amount of babysitting they did for trucks—holding onto vehicles until they could get parts from vendors, or until fleets picked them up.
“MOBILE IS WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO BE”
And now, a message from our sponsors (just kidding; this is also information from the Kettles):
Mobile is whatever you want it to be.
A lot of people hear “mobile” and assume it’s 24/7 or emergency service. And sometimes it is. But it doesn’t have to be. Mobile just means you’re, well, mobile. You go to those who need you—it doesn’t have to be at 3 AM.
These days, Mobile Quality Repair Services is “a 7 AM to 6 PM shop, Monday through Friday, and we do just fine,” Dave said to the crowd.
So, if you’re hesitant about going mobile or opening a mobile branch because you think it obligates you to be on call all day and all night…know that such an arrangement isn’t required. You can, in fact, be mobile during daylight hours.
ASSESSING OPPORTUNITY COSTS
There is an opportunity cost associated with mobile repair that brick-and-mortar shops don’t always face. Usually comes down to travel time.
The Kettles boiled it down this way: If a customer is stranded 50 miles away, the tech needs to figure on at least two hours of travel time (going there and coming back). Traveling that distance equates to two calls they can’t take.
The following question arises: Will that call-out pay for itself and the missed calls? Quality Mobile Fleet Services charges a call-out fee, a fuel surcharge, and drive time to make sure things balance out somewhat, but they still have to balance each mobile adventure against calls that are yet to come in.
“As you start building, you need to moderate things,” Dave explained. “You learn what [jobs] to take and what not to take.”
But the costs of mobile repair may be offset by the gains—specifically one very important gain. When your mobile technician descends on a customer trapped in a busted truck, they aren’t just another mechanic—they’re a freaking hero. And people like sticking with their heroes.
“Mobile customers rarely leave you after you rescue them,” Dave said. “When you go and rescue somebody, after they kiss you, they bring you their truck.”
MANAGING INVENTORY IN A MOBILE ENVIRONMENT
Another Diesel Connect panel talked about the parts shortage and how supply chain difficulties can still throw a wrench into even the most well-oiled operations. As you might imagine, things get even dicier for mobile techs, who need to decide what they’ll carry (and how much of it) in a limited space…in advance.
In the end, the Kettles went for a one-two punch of simplicity and logistics. Their trucks carry batteries, fittings, connectors, some electrical items, coolant, and basically “things that are universal to all trucks.” They also built out a vendor group throughout the county that techs can depend on for parts; if a tech is up in North County, they’ll head for this specific vendor, and so on.
As mentioned before, the shop structures its hours around its vendors to make sure techs have the best chance of getting the components they need if they don’t already carry them.
SAFETY FIRST: WATCH OUT FOR NAKED DRIVERS
Safety is the #1 consideration for the Kettles’ mobile technicians—they don’t believe in putting their people in peril. Any truck they assist must be pulled all the way off the side of the road; the tech must be able to walk fully around it. If they can’t, the rescue is a no-go.
What they can’t always guard against is weirdness. And while this isn’t a topic we usually address on the Fullbay blog, we can probably all admit that things can get weird on the road.
One of their techs had a particularly…well…interesting experience. He climbed into the cab to take a mileage reading and found—perhaps to his bemusement, perhaps to his horror?—the driver buck naked. When he asked the driver to put on some clothes*, the driver said, “Do I tell you what to wear in your house? This is my house.”
They reached a compromise: the driver stood behind a curtain while the tech did his work.
As it turned out, the truck needed towing and stayed overnight in their facility. The next morning, the driver emerged from the cab.
“Hey,” the tech said, “this is our house. We wear clothes in our house.”
The driver got dressed.
The moral of the story—besides “Always be ready for nudity”—is that building rapport and going with the flow is a huge part of mobile repair work. You never know what you’re going to find on the road. This can make the job really interesting. Or shocking, depending on your sensibilities. But a willingness to chill out and deal with the matters at hand will help you get the job done and the customer on their way.
And in the end, that’s what mobile repair is all about: You came, you saw, you rescued. Now you get to mount up and ride out into battle again.
May your opponent be clothed.
*BONUS! Here is how you ask someone to put their clothes on in the proper San Diegan dialect: “Dude, can you put on some pants? Thanks bruh.”