The nine year old son of a shop owner looked up from his video game when his father walked into the room. The boy said, “Dad, I had to do a math project for school last week. We were supposed to compare different amounts of the same thing. We had to go out and compare a lot of something to a little bit of the same thing. So I got this incredible idea! I decided to count cars! When mom dropped me off at the shop after school I counted 642 cars driving by! And I counted 3 cars in the shop. I got really good at counting cars and at comparing numbers all at the same time!” Dad was a little shaken up by this fact. It was the truth. As young boys see everything, including parents’ reactions, the boy said, “Isn’t that great, Dad?” Luckily, the Dad snapped right out of it and said “Yes, son, that’s super! Nice job!” Dad didn’t sleep well that night. But he woke up the next morning with a powerful purpose. He decided to tackle his car count problem. But how was he going to do it? It’s not like he hadn’t tried to solve this 100 times before…
The above story is an all-too-common story in our industry. Marketing is a big subject that is not well understood by a lot of people; as a result, owners are suffering financially from a lack of traffic into their shops. So, we are going to start at the base and work up from there.
First off, what is this thing called marketing? Marketing is the action of making a target audience or a specific type of public (in our case, people who operate vehicles) aware of the goods and services an activity has to offer. It comes from the idea of bringing your goods to a central meeting place, the “market,” where the goods can be displayed and interest can be generated.
Now, let’s look at how this applies to a vehicle repair facility. Gone are the days when a shop did not need to do a whole lot of marketing, advertising, or promoting to stay busy. Although word-of-mouth is still a primary force for getting new customers, word-of-mouth alone is not enough anymore.
Today, the independent has competitors with very deep pockets; as a group, they can spend millions of dollars on slick marketing campaigns and promotions. How does the independent business owner compete with this? Following are some tips to help you in your marketing efforts.
1. Identify your target audience or specific public. Who do you want to service? Who are you in business for? What kind of work do you do, and who would benefit from your goods and services? Who do you want as a customer? If you are a general repair facility, it is fairly straightforward. Anyone who operates a vehicle that you are willing to service is your public. If you are a specialty shop, the picture changes. What do you specialize in? Who owns or operates these kinds of vehicles? What do the owners of these vehicles need and want from your kind of shop? Are you working with insurance companies or doing fleet work? Insurance and fleet have a very specialized public with different needs and wants.
2. Survey (get input and organized feedback from) your public. Trying to guess what consumers need and want is a waste of time and potentially very expensive. Most people in our industry are not consumers of vehicle repair and, therefore, do not necessarily think like the consumer. So, in order to know what consumers are looking for, you have to ask them. A simple survey can tell you a lot about your customers and potential customers.
A common example is a shop that promotes and advertises low prices, thinking this is what the customers need and want. This might get people in the door; you may even get very busy, but I have seen too many shops almost go broke with this strategy! Most good customers want service, service, service! They want the vehicle serviced and repaired on time and done right the first time. Consumers almost always complain about the high price of auto repair, but they tend to complain no matter what you charge! So, base your advertising on service first, price second.
3. Do not forget to market to your regular customers. This is the area that I see as the weakest point for most shops when it comes to marketing. A shop’s current customer base is a gold mine. Yet, I see too many shops ignore their regular customers, assuming that they will come back. This is really bad thinking! Remember earlier in this article, I mentioned the Big Dogs with the multi-gazillion dollar advertising budgets? Well, they are out there, and they have no problem servicing your customers.
It is easy to lose customers and not even know it. It starts with simple services. You lose your customers’ minor service work. Then, it gets into the lucrative maintenance work, and you lose that too. Then, the only time you see your customers is when they have a big problem, a drivability problem, an intermittent short, or some other mind-numbing situation with their vehicle. This happens when a business fails to keep the line of communication alive with customers. If you do not keep your name in front of your customer, someone else will!
A shop owner who yells, “They’re stealing all my customers!” is actually saying, “I don’t know how to market my business!” Following are some basic and simple marketing and advertising actions that need to be done by all shops to ensure regular customers keep coming back.
- Service Reminders: These are cards or letters that you send to your customers to remind them that it is time to bring their vehicle back for service, such as an oil change, transmission service, cooling system service, or air conditioning service.
- Recommended Repair Reminders: This is when the owner of the vehicle has declined to get a repair or service that should have been done. To assume your customers will automatically bring the vehicle back to get the additional repair done is a mistake, as well as bad customer service. Within 10 days of their visit, you should send out a reminder to customers to call for another appointment since their vehicle still needs additional work.
- “Thank You” Cards: This needs to be done by all shops, but it takes some judgement. “Thank you” cards should be sent out primarily to new customers. Include a business card or two, along with a discount coupon for their next service.
- Follow-Up Calls: The owner or the service writer should not make follow-up calls. Most people are well-intentioned and hate telling someone they have bad news. Have someone the customer is not in contact with make the call. This could be an outside salesman, a relative, or someone else. You are more likely to get the truth this way.
- Seasonal Mailer: In most parts of the country, there are seasons. This gives a shop the opportunity to offer season specials. This can be done in conjunction with a newsletter. Newsletters can be very powerful when done right, but do not waste them on people who do not know you. Newsletters are best used as a tool to keep in touch with regular customers.
Putting your first newsletter or an effective mailer together can be tricky. There is a lot to know about what should be in the ad or the newsletter and how to design an ad that captures the consumer’s interest and attention. This is where you might seek some professional help.
4. Continually seek new customers. A shop has to have a program in place for attracting new customers. Most shops get new customers via word-of-mouth. If this is true for your shop, capitalize on it. Even if you do nothing more than give each good customer a couple of business cards and ask for business, you will get new business.
- Welcome Wagons and Marriage Mailers: These can also help with gaining new customers. Find out who is new to your community by joining the Welcome Wagon program that most town councils or chambers of commerce have. Contact one of the marriage mailer companies, and get your coupon in with other businesses in your area. This cuts way down on the cost and the work. This is another area that takes an in-depth knowledge of design. An owner needs to know the components of a good ad; otherwise, a lot of money can be wasted on bad ads and coupons that do not work. But you need to know how to track what works in your market. Some actions work well in one part of the country and fall flat in other areas.
Marketing is a vast subject, and there are a lot of things you can do. The problem most shops have is they lack the time to strengthen their marketing. This is where professional help can make a big difference. The cost of professional help is a drop in the bucket when compared to the amount of money wasted on ineffective advertising, or worse – an empty parking lot.
If you are currently not doing any marketing get something, anything, going! It is that important. Look out for the next article where I will tie sales into the picture. I hope the above helps. Good luck!