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Rissy Sutherland
Honest-1 Auto Care
Scottsdale, Ariz.

Rissy Sutherland grew up in the auto repair industry, learning the business from the inside out while working in her family’s shop. In addition to knowing her way around a car, Sutherland has a master’s degree in human resources and training from Clemson University.

Those traits helped Sutherland establish herself at auto repair franchise organization Moran Industries, where she served as director of training and then vice president of operations and training.

In April 2008, Sutherland joined nationally franchised Honest-1 Auto Care as senior vice president of operations; she was promoted to COO in February 2011. In 2009, the Phoenix Business Journal recognized Sutherland as one of its “Top 40 people under 40.” Though it does sell car maintenance products, Honest-1’s business model is focused on auto — and customer — service, and its approach to the latter could be adopted by retailers across almost all segments.

Honest-1 posted greater than 30 percent system-wide sales growth in 2012, thanks in part to your efforts to make stores more female- and family-friendly. Can you tell us about that?
We’re moving toward making our centers and services more friendly and transparent for all customers. Our female customers have a number of concerns around the auto repair process, including a lack of trust. We needed to address those concerns because over the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been a transition from a mostly male customer base to a predominately female one — some of our shops today [see] 85- to 95-percent female [customers].

We had a gut feeling of what she wanted, but we also hired consultants, conducted focus groups and used mystery shoppers to learn more about what we could do to improve. As one of the only females in this business, I see some of the concerns women … have with both the repair process and with the shop itself.

For example, she’s typically coming in with children, so you can’t drag her out to the shop to show her what you’ve found wrong with her car. She also doesn’t want someone to condescend to her … [and] wants to know that the restrooms are clean and safe so she can feel comfortable taking her kids in there.

That’s why we began working on the overall atmosphere of our centers by making them clean and pleasing. … We have a secure kids’ play area with coloring books and large, flat-screen TVs and DVDs. We have Wi-Fi ... and comfortable leather [seating] in all of our locations. We also have complimentary beverages including made-to-order cappuccinos and coffees along with soft drinks and bottled water. All of our bathrooms have baby-changing stations, plenty of room to move around and a place to hang a handbag.

It’s the idea that our female customer can come in on a Saturday morning for an oil change and have a pleasant experience. Her kids can watch their cartoons and have hot chocolate and she can work on her computer with a cup of coffee. We believe we can build a long-term relationship with that customer if we’re viewed as honest and trustworthy.

How have you made it easier for customers to understand the repair process?
We were looking for a way to tell and show customers what we found when servicing their vehicles. … [Women] want to hear what’s going on with their vehicle in a straightforward, honest manner and in the simplest terms possible and what it’s going to take to fix it. But they also want the option to see what’s going on. So what [Honest-1] needed was software that could show the customer what we found [wrong with their car]. We needed system flexibility to e-mail digital 3-D [animated] photos if necessary, but also allow the customer to look at the photos while they’re in our waiting area. …

Part of our company mission is an “open-service concept” — we have full-sized windows into our shop so a customer can watch her car being worked on. … We added an Internet camera system where the customer can dial in and watch her car being serviced at any time because we don’t do anything behind closed doors.

Another part of our tagline is the phrase “our most important ‘part’ is you,” which is to say the car is not our customer. We’re not creating a relationship with the vehicle — that’s not the foundation of our business. So we think both of these missions, combined with our software’s features — we also have a reminder within the system to make sure we are staying in contact with our customers who have a vehicle in for service, whether they’re in the lobby or back in their home or office — will simplify the process and increase the trust factor around our recommended repairs.

Honest-1 makes a point of touting its “green-ness.” Can you tell us more about your eco-friendly philosophy?
In speaking with our customers, we learned they wanted not only honesty in their dealings with us as well as an attractive facility, but they were interested in supporting an eco-minded company. So, we’ve combined those attributes with making it easy for customers to maintain safe and … efficient vehicles.

We know that a vehicle in good working condition increases fuel economy and reduces emissions and we’re teaching our customers that through a variety of free inspections …. Through our Honest-1 Auto Care Environmentally Sustainable Actions program, we employ responsible standards and practices in pollution prevention, recycling and resource conservation, along with promoting our eco-friendly auto care services.

Since the recession, people have been smarter with their money and they’re more likely to maintain their current vehicle than to spend on a new one. And with the proper maintenance, most of today’s cars will last for 300,000 miles. So that message of continued maintenance works well for our customers, who tend to come from middle-class and higher incomes.

What do you drive?
I drive a 13-year-old Toyota 4Runner. … I don’t buy a new [vehicle] often because it’s not the greenest thing to keep replacing them. … I do everything I need to do to make sure it’s running efficiently, including checking the tire pressure. I do take it to Honest-1 and I use my own car to test our products.