Repairing vehicle seats for fleet service companies has generated a lot of income for my auto upholstery shop, and it can do the same for yours — so long as you know what you’re doing.
Here are some tips to help you get started:
Know your clients
It’s not difficult to identify potential clients, especially since most companies and government services rely on car and truck fleets.
My shop’s biggest accounts include all of our local school districts and municipalities. They supply us with a steady stream of seats from busses, trash trucks, fire trucks, police vehicles and ambulances.
We also service our water company’s enormous fleet of trucks, several construction and landscaping crews, and local truck-supply and repair shops. Fortunately, we’re located close enough to Philadelphia International Airport that we can repair their trucks and shuttle busses too.
The point is, the list of potential clients is endless. In time you’ll be able to develop just as many accounts as I have — maybe more.
Start by introducing yourself to all of the truck-supply and repair shops in your neighborhood. It’s very common for truck owners to ask their mechanics about seat repair. If you develop a good relationship with these shops, they’ll either bring you truck seats or recommend their clients go to you directly.
After that, put together a simple marketing plan based on fliers, ads and cold calls.
Stock up on supplies
To keep up with the heavy workload and quick turnaround time required of fleet services, you’ll need to stock your shop with all the necessary materials and supplies.
The most important thing you’ll need to have in stock is heavy-gauge vinyl that can withstand a lot of abuse. You’ll need it in common colors like black, beige, and medium and dark gray. Keep rolls of red and blue vinyl on hand for older trucks.
Of course, you’ll also fix a lot of foam cushions, broken springs and even the occasional cracked frame (which will need welding). Therefore, you’ll need to stock 1″ and 2″ sheets of high-density foam, seat springs in a variety of sizes, and a roll of carpet jut padding to cover the springs.
Doing balanced work
I usually abide by the “Good, Fast, Cheap” model of doing business — which says that any client can pick two, but not all three. However, to secure a fleet service account, you’ll need to hit all three.
You need to complete fleet work quickly, with typically a one- to two-day turnaround time. Remember, these are work vehicles, so if they’re not making money, they’re losing it. The longer you make a company wait to get its vehicle back on the road, the less likely it is you’ll get return business.
The work you do also needs to be good and cheap. You can strike this balance if you understand your clients’ needs. Because most fleet companies value utility over looks, you can take some time-saving shortcuts. For example:
- Topstitch panels instead of using French seams.
- Instead of replacing an entire base cover, just replace damaged panels.
- When redoing an entire seat, make its face panels out of one piece of vinyl with two pleats to simulate an insert panel and bolsters.
I also give better deals to fleet service clients than walk-in customers because of the large amount of work they bring my shop.
Payment is a breeze
One of the biggest advantages to fleet work is that the majority of accounts never ask about price. They simply drop off a truck or seat and sign the receipt when the job is done.
Not having to estimate the cost of repair beforehand prevents me from getting burned by surprises on the job. After I complete a seat, I reflect on the time and cost of materials involved and assign the job a fair price for both my client and myself.
However, be aware that most accounts will pick up the job, leave you a purchase-order number and pay the balance by check within 30 days. Fleet services rarely ever pay on the spot.
Learning through fleet work
As someone who repaired his first truck seat at age 17, believe me when I tell you that doing fleet work is a great way for entry-level trimmers to hone their skills.
Rebuilding dilapidated seats over and over again will help new trimmers master such important skills as pattern making, foam sculpting and proper seat-cover installation techniques.
In fleet work, a truck seat’s upholstery is usually in such bad shape that you can’t take it off and trace it. Instead, you’re forced to freehand your pattern. What’s more, the foam is usually so shot that you’ll have to reconstruct and shape it by hand.
Mastering these skill early on creates expertise, and helps distinguish the very best trimmers from the mediocre ones. These skills also carry over into the restoration and custom end of our industry, helping trimmers become better all around.
I highly recommend fleet service work for every auto upholstery shop. It’s an excellent source of income and a great way to train employees on the many nuances of our craft.