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  Management Feature

Building a Shop Web Site from the Ground Up

Posted 1/14/2003
By Colby Horton

Few technologies have been so readily adopted, or become so widely used, as the Internet and computers. The information provided through these technologies has transformed the Internet and computers into common fixtures in social and economic life, ultimately expanding and opening new opportunities for small businesses like automotive repair facilities. According to a report published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the rate of growth of Internet use in the United States is currently 2 million new Internet users per month. This brings the total number of U.S. Internet users to 149 million, and that number is poised to grow exponentially in the years to come.

Internet use no longer begins and ends in the domestic setting. Many more Americans are using the Internet at work, school and other locations for a widening variety of purposes. So it's really no wonder that owners of automotive repair facilities are finding it increasingly beneficial to establish and promote an Internet presence for their shops. AutoInc.'s most recent findings indicate more than half of surveyed mechanical and collision repair businesses operate a Web site.

Instituting an Internet presence is a tremendous business endeavor that takes careful planning and marketing. For every small business that implements a successful Web initiative, dozens of others fail due to poor planning. You must know how to avoid common pitfalls and learn to take advantage of the enormous capabilities the Internet can offer your shop. Whether you have a simple Web site, or one that is more advanced and interactive, a key question must be answered before going live with your site: "If you build it, will they come?"

Establishing Your Identity

This is Step 1. If you're starting from scratch, you must purchase a domain name, or Uniform Resource Locator (URL). Your URL tells customers who you are and how to find you online. This is ultimately your online brand. Unfortunately, none of us have ownership of our shop or business names in cyberspace. You must purchase the right to use that name in an online environment. Because no two companies can have the same Web address, your online identity will be absolutely unique. The right domain name can make the difference between a memorable Internet identity and getting lost in the growing online crowd.

So when establishing a domain name, be sure to make it memorable. First and foremost, attempt to register your shop's name as your domain name. However, if you're just now implementing a Web strategy, keep in mind that your shop's name may already be taken. If that's the case, get creative with your name. Encinitas Foreign & Domestic Auto Repair in Encinitas, Calif., purchased the domain name RunCarRun.com, making their domain name both memorable and creative. Above anything else, however, make sure you keep your domain name short. The best domain names are those that customers can remember after hearing or reading it only once. If you make your URL too long, you take the risk of it not being remembered.

Visit VeriSign, www.verisign.com, or other domain registration sites, to register your domain name. Once you've created your Web identity, you can start planning the design and marketing of your site.

Getting Started ... Things to Keep in Mind

When creating a new Web site, many people want to impress customers by adding as many bells and whistles as they can. But remember one key point: your home page should load in 10 to 15 seconds. Stay away from animations and sound on your Web site. If both elements take a long time for your home page to load, your customer or potential customer will surf to your competitor's site.

To get started, remember that your Web site should consist of several "must-have" elements. First, your shop name, full address, telephone number and e-mail address should be present. It's a good idea to keep these elements on all pages. Put this information on the bottom of every page or wherever white space may be prevalent. You never want your customers to have to search for this information.

Next, be sure your links are simple and descriptive. You never want to be ambiguous with your link descriptions.

Pictures are essential to the success of a shop Web site. Photos of the inside of your shop, waiting room, before and after pictures of customer vehicles, and photos of staff members ultimately convey a sense of professionalism and credibility.

Evolving from a Simple Web Page to an Interactive Web Site

So let's revisit the key question mentioned at the beginning: "If you build it, will they come?" The short answer to this question is an unwavering ... maybe. The focus should not necessarily be "will they come," but "how can I get them to come." You must give customers a reason to visit your Web site. Simple sites are excellent in establishing the initial online presence. But the implementation of interactive and innovative Internet capabilities will turn the "maybe" into a "definitely."

"When we decided to update our informational Web site to an interactive Web site, we wanted a site our customers would find to be not only easy to use, but very helpful to them for all their automotive driving needs," said Doug and Billy Hillmuth, co-owners of Hillmuth Certified Automotive in Columbia, Md. Their shop's Web site, www.hillmuth.com, is a two-time winner of AutoInc.'s Top 10 Automotive Repair Web Site competition. "Our service reminders, survey, online appointments, service tips and 'Everything Automotive' are only a few parts that make our site a great resource for both the customer and us," they said.

Hillmuth's initial site was launched in 1996. But in late-2000, the Hillmuths began initial research and development of an interactive site that would benefit their customers. The new site was launched more than 18 months later and the feedback has been phenomenal.

One innovation that Hillmuth, and many other repair shops around the country, are implementing is the ability to schedule an appointment online. This capability, also known as an e-pointment, is becoming more popular among motorists and is being widely adopted by many industry professionals. In an era when people are working more hours and becoming increasingly busy in their domestic life, it's no wonder that people are turning to the Internet to schedule appointments online. Companies such as Cartrak Online, www,cartrak.com; iCARumba, www.icarumba.com; and AutoRocket, www.autorocket.com, can help you implement an online appointment scheduler into your Internet initiatives.

Although e-pointments are becoming more mainstream in the industry, be cautious in implementing this trend. Smaller shops can experience an influx of unexpected traffic. Smaller shops might consider designating certain times during the week that online appointments can be accepted. Hillmuth Certified Automotive schedules an average of 15 appointments a week through their online scheduler.

As a conventional means of promoting their automotive repair facilities, many owners publish a shop newsletter, providing news, specials and car care tips. The Internet is an excellent medium to publish an electronic version of that newsletter, saving time and money in the long run. Strictly BMW, www.strictlybmw.com, in Bellevue, Wash., publishes a successful online newsletter for its customers.

"Our e-mail newsletter, the Bimmer Informer, has more than 500 opt-in subscribers and allows us to stay in touch with our customers and offer them unique articles, tech tips and maintenance notices," said Ian Alexander, director of business development for Strictly BMW. The shop's online newsletter receives positive feedback from customers and has become a key component of the shop's marketing plan. "Within a few minutes of sending it, we start to receive calls from customers thanking us for our informative articles or asking questions or scheduling appointments. It's a valuable part of our business."

Alexander suggests using a professional e-mail list service or software, such as NetAtlantic (www.netatlantic.com). Such services automatically handle subscriptions and unsubcribers, which makes sending electronic newsletters as easy as writing an e-mail. Outside of compiling articles, maintenance of online newsletters is virtually eliminated.

"Although it isn't free and it does require some work, an e-mail newsletter can become a very important tool for your shop. It can make communicating with your customers easier and differentiate you from your competition," Alexander said.

A customer's vehicle is one of their greatest investments. When they bring their vehicle to your shop, they want to be sure they are receiving the most efficient and timely repair possible. For most shop personnel, the highest percentage of phone calls they receive in a day comes from inquiries about when a customer's vehicle will be complete. Another trend being implemented into many shop Web sites is the ability for customers to track their repairs via the shop's Web site, thus reducing the need to call the shop to obtain a progress report.

In a survey conducted by AutoChex, a customer satisfaction indexing (CSI) firm, nearly 84 percent of collision repair customers who were kept informed of the repair process would still refer the shop even if the repaired vehicle was delivered seven or more days late. This referral rate drops to about 42 percent when customers believed they were not kept adequately informed about the reasons for delay. To that end, shops should consider incorporating a repair status tracker to their existing shop Web sites.

See Progress Inc., www.seeprogress.com, has created a program called AutoWatch that allows customers to track the progress of their repairs through a shop's Web site. The program can be implemented into a new site, or integrated into an existing one. According to Dave Henderson, president of See Progress, it takes about 20 minutes a day to use the AutoWatch system.

"What really makes the program work is we post a photo of the vehicle, which really drives the program. The photos bring the customer to the [shop's] Web site, and gives a storyboard for the customer," said Henderson. "They are impressed with what takes place in the repair process, and how high-tech the repair facility is. When one customer tells another person about your body shop and how innovative the shop is, that is the most powerful form of advertising a shop can receive."

These are just some of the new trends emerging, evolving informative shop Web sites into interactive sites. Many sites are adding customer testimonials, customer surveys, employment sections, streaming video and audio, and "Ask a Tech" sections. All of these additions keep customers coming back to your site. And isn't that the whole point in building a shop Web site?

So Where Do You Stand?

Implementing a Web presence is not an easy endeavor. You must assess what purpose your site will incur. Do you want a simple, informative site that explains your affiliations, business philosophy and services offered? Or are you looking to expand your customer base through online appointments, repair tracking and customer surveys? Either way, any shop should consider a Web marketing strategy in the near future. The trends have been set; the programs have been implemented. And with the right plan in place, if you build it, they will come.

Colby Horton Colby Horton is ASA's electronic communications manager. He can be reached at (800) 272-7467, ext. 234, or by e-mail at colbyh@asashop.org.

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