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New Trends Set Tone for the Future of Shop Web Sites

Posted 1/16/2001
By Colby Horton

Future of Shop Web Sites

In a matter of five years, the Internet has evolved into one of the most popular entities in our culture. Terms such as “dot-com,” “WWW” and “e-mail” have streamed their way into our language, becoming synonymous with the way we live — fast-paced and high-tech. We are inundated with new Web pages every day. In fact, during the past month, Google's search engine indexed more than a billion Web pages.

The Strategis Group predicts that 90 million American households will be online by the end of 2004. This is compared to 14.9 million in 1995. It is apparent, then, that the Internet is here to stay and will continue to be an enormous influence on our society.

“We believe that it's important for a repair shop to have a Web presence,” said Randy Vanstory, cofounder and vice president of business development for JoeAuto in The Woodlands, Texas. “It's conceivable that in 10 years, operating a business without a functioning Web site would be equivalent to operating a business in the '90s without electricity.”

So you've taken that first step. You've established a presence on the Internet for your shop. But, with so many sites out there, and so many people surfing the Net, what will bring consumers and potential customers to your shop's Web site? There are several new trends that have emerged, making shop Web sites more innovative and even more customer-friendly.

Making an e-pointment

The ability to make service appointments online is becoming more popular among motorists and industry professionals. In a recent survey conducted on the Automotive Service Association (ASA) Web site (www.asashop.org), 75 percent of respondents said they would schedule an appointment online. More and more shop sites are implementing this technique.

Depending on how you market this ability, online appointments can boost your shop's customer flow. Creating an online appointment scheduler can be as simple as an e-mail form much like a site's guestbook. Once a client requests an appointment, the inquiry is sent to your shop via e-mail. Companies such as Cartrak Online, iCarumba and Epointments can also help you create a more advanced form to be used on your site.

Be cautious in implementing this trend. Smaller shops can experience an influx of unexpected traffic. Smaller shops might consider designating certain times during the day that online appointments can be accepted. This will help you manage the high response that might occur.

Tracking service leads to greater customer satisfaction

A customer's vehicle is one of their greatest investments. When they bring their vehicle to your shop, they want to be sure that they are receiving the most efficient and timely repair possible. What percentage of phone calls do you get asking when a vehicle will be ready? For most shops, these calls take up a lot of valuable time for the manager. Another new trend emerging is the ability for customers to track their repairs via the shop's Web site. Julio Bruno, president of Glen-Merritt Collision Ltd. (www.glenmerritt.com) in Saint Catharines, Ontario, Canada, believes that a repair status report on a shop's Web site leads to a more efficient and accurate way of communicating with the customer. His shop's site offers the ability for the customer to enter their license plate number to track their repair status.

“This results in more efficient service since the customer only has to key in their license plate number and click on the 'Submit Query' button,” Bruno said. “This requires only seconds of the customer's time, as opposed to the minutes it takes to make a phone call. The majority of requests are received after business hours. This allows us the freedom to reply efficiently and accurately during the evening, in the morning prior to us opening for business, or during the evening.”

JoeAuto ( www.joeauto.com) takes a different approach to tracking repair orders. The company has installed Web cameras above each service bay, allowing customers to view the repair as it happens, through the shop's Web site.

“It conveys a message of trust,” Vanstory said. “It says to our customers that we have nothing to hide, and they like that.”

Although a method like this is not cheap, it does promote customer retention by limiting the time both the customer and manager are on the phone.

A primitive form of this method is the use of a digital camera to photograph the progress of repair. Your customers could receive a digital photograph sent to them via e-mail, illustrating the progress of repair.

Making payments online saves time, makes for a happier customer

J.P. Morgan predicts that the online bill payment market is estimated to reach $2.3 billion this year. Some shops are taking advantage of this statistic by implementing a payment service via their Web site. It allows for a convenient and fast transaction for the customer. John Rush, owner of John's 4x4 Center Inc. (www.johns 4x4.com) in Boulder, Colo., has included online payments in his Web site's “Virtual Service Advisor.”

“So far, we have had only a few online payments for service work performed,” Rush said. “I believe the trend will increase as people have less and less time.”

Rush also said that keeping track of the payment process is easy. His shop still posts the invoice after the credit card is approved, just like any other transaction. “A computer will never replace our need to interact with one another, but it should assist us in doing so,” he said.

To implement this inclination, make sure your Web site has access to a secure Web page to accept payments. Secure pages encrypt data, stopping a third party from intercepting credit card information.

Tracking Customer Satisfaction

One of the greatest tools for any shop is its customer satisfaction index (CSI). Once the repair is done, a shop should always obtain an evaluation of its performance. Many shops are putting their CSIs online, creating a Web version of their customer evaluation form. Responses are e-mailed directly to the shop, cutting back on mailing costs. In addition, online feedback tools allow for a timely and anonymous response. Most often, customers feel more comfortable filling out evaluation forms at their convenience and with utmost anonymity.

Staffing Your Shop Through Your Web Site

Do you have trouble staffing your shop? Finding certified technicians proves to be an impending obstacle for many owners and managers. Create an employment section on your site, complete with an online version of your employment application for technicians who are looking for industry jobs in your area. Once an application is completed electronically, the results are e-mailed to your shop. You can then set up an interview with the applicant. If you are not ready to create an electronic version of the application, you can still put a hard copy online for someone to download, complete and mail or fax to you. Depending on your Web capabilities, the latter may be your best alternative. But, by establishing an electronic human resource section, you may have a greater response from a new generation of technicians or by those who are keeping up with technology.

Building Trust and Interaction Through Your Web Site

One of the greatest hurdles facing many repair shops is the ability to establish a trusting and long-lasting relationship with customers. Your shop's Web site is an excellent way to build this relationship. Customer testimonials are very important. They keep customers coming back and establish a base of new customers searching for a shop. Papo Chinea, president of Papo's Auto Clinic (www.paposautoclinic.com) in Queens Village, N.Y., uses customer testimonials on his shop's site. “My favorite section of my site is the customer testimonials because it is rewarding to hear how our customers described our workmanship in written words,” said Chinea. “Our customers felt very honored that they would be featured on our site.”

In addition to customer testimonials, many sites are adding the capability for customers to pose questions to technicians. According to a recent Web Request report, the ASA Web site receives about 30 to 40 such inquiries a month. An “Ask a Technician” section can add interaction with your customers. These sections are fairly easy to maintain. Once a question is submitted, the inquiry is sent to the shop via e-mail and answered at a technician's convenience. Make sure, however, that questions do not stack up. If you allow this to happen, the section is completely obsolete. Customers and potential customers are turning to you for immediate help. If you do not efficiently answer their requests, they will surely turn to another source.

“The only problem with most of this automation is that people still need and want the interaction with their service advisor,” said Rush. “As always, the 'human' influence needs to be present.”

Implementing such a trend does provide a “human” influence to your shop's site. You will build the needed trust between you (or your technicians) and your customers.

The Future

In Touch With the Tomorrow No one knows the future of the Internet or the impact it will have on our lives. Its interactive capability creates a new environment for small businesses. In a session conducted at the International Autobody Congress and Exposition (NACE) held in Orlando, Fla. this past month, Frank Terlep of Carstation.com said that seven new users go online every minute and that 3,000 pages are added every second. The information is out there, but what will bring potential customers to your shop's Web site? New trends are being implemented every year. Although some may not be very popular now, it is your responsibility to include them in your shop's Web design now so that you are not left behind. A new generation of vehicle owners is growing up using the Internet. They will be looking to the best Web sites for information and content. They expect to be dazzled and impressed.

“In our day and age, and especially the region our shop is located, a Web presence is a must,” said Rush. “Our clients are high-tech, computer-savvy individuals. Having a 'sharp' Web presence is very important to us. It is part of our image.”

Implementing new trends into the functionality of your shop's Web site will help drive both new and existing customers into your shop. It is a must in today's Internet- emerging society.

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