Attracting Female CustomersPosted 8/11/2005
By Alexis Gross
The beginning of any marketing strategy is determining your target audience. An increasing number of shop owners in the automotive service industry are wisely targeting women when developing their marketing or customer retention strategies. Ford Motor Marketing reports that women influence 80 percent of all purchases.
"The same is probably true of repair decisions," said Jennifer Tio, executive vice president of Maximum Marketing Services and president of the Car Care Council's (CCC) Women's Board. "Women drive more often. They're oftentimes responsible for taking the vehicle in, for choosing the service location and approving the work done. There are a lot more single women, women head of households and women with more disposable income now. They have a lot on their plate, between holding down a job, taking care of the house and getting the kids to school. They require a safe, dependable vehicle and have taken over the role of care for that instrument."
Mike Koebke estimates female clients comprise 75 percent of his customer base. Koebke is owner of Gus Mann Automotive in San Antonio and a member of the ASA Mechanical Division Operations Committee.
"Years ago, women used to come in with a list from their husband," he said. "Now they're bringing in their vehicles and making their own decisions."
Knowing that women represent such a great majority of their audience, it is vitally important that automotive service and repair professionals know how to communicate with them.
Is There Really a Difference?
What makes female customers different than male customers?
"The answer is really nothing and everything," said Karen Friend, owner of Friend Communications - a business consulting firm specializing in marketing and small business development. Friend has taught "Marketing to Women 101" for the Automotive Management Institute (AMI) since 1998. "A great customer service experience is recognized by everyone, but I think women tend to notice more aspects of the experience; everything from the atmosphere of the shop to the connection with the salesperson to what the facility looks like. It may get different levels of importance, but it's all noticed."
Studies indicate that women are more interested in maintenance than men. Women are also more likely than men to ask questions or admit when they don't know what the shop owner or service writer is saying.
Women are interested in learning more about their vehicles and shop owners can create customers for life if they tap into that interest, said Susan Christophersen. Christophersen is the manager of event marketing for General Motors Corp. service parts and operations. She conducted an AMI class about female customers at CARS 2004.
"Women aren't looking for pampering or a lot of feminine extras being put into the whole experience," she said. "If you look at the demographics of who owns and services vehicles, they're businesswomen, and they're simply looking for a positive experience."
Women aren't driving their father's Oldsmobile, and they don't expect to take it to his neighborhood garage. Today's customers expect a shop to be professional. They expect bathrooms to be clean, waiting areas to be comfortable and no nudie calendars behind the desk, said Friend.
"It used to be a pleasant surprise when you saw that, but enough people in the industry have moved forward that people expect better now," she said. "You can't just put out a few women's magazines. It doesn't stop with the surface. The environment should reflect the shop's ability and ethos."
There are inexpensive but important things you can do that will make a world of difference to your customer base, said Christophersen. First, realize women are affected in a subtle way by their environment.
"They're looking for things that will help them feel like they can trust the shop," she said. "Trust forms a big part of their decision making."
One thing a shop can do to increase this feeling of trust is to become more transparent - literally.
"There's a trend toward shops having their repair flow more visible," Friend said. "Now when my car leaves my hands, it doesn't go into a black hole. I can still see what's happening."
Be careful that what you reveal is what you want customers to see, she cautioned.
"If your equipment looks dirty or 100 years old, and you're saying you have updated training, those two things aren't going to go together and will convey a contradictory or untruthful image," said Friend.
"Women are looking for a family doctor for their car. They're not likely to change once they've found someone they trust," said Christophersen. "They're also quick to talk about a good experience and a bad experience. Word-of-mouth advertising is going to be heavily positive or negative based on how women perceive your business."
That means a huge bonus for a shop if they can impress and maintain their female customer base.
Standing Out From the Pack
Little customer service items will make all the difference in the world, said Christophersen.
"Women are very much influenced by someone who is going out of their way to make them feel comfortable," she said. "Explain what work is being done. Explain why the pricing is fair. Wash the car before returning it. Things like that show the customer is the most important thing to that business owner."
"Make an effort to explain procedures and justify recommended service," said Friend. "Women ask questions because they want to understand the process, not just the end result. They want to make educated decisions and to feel good about their purchases. Telling them what they need won't do that. Helping them see what they need will."
Most importantly, said Friend, "If a woman perceives a shop as a place where she's gotten more informed, she's more likely to talk to friends and family about her positive experience there."
Helping women learn about their vehicles and the types of parts and service that are appropriate helps them to make informed decisions, said Tio. Because women are more likely than men to be interested in scheduling regular maintenance, this can be a real win/win situation for both shop and consumer.
"A lot of women can't afford downtime and would like the ability to make a decision that would keep them out of the shop in the future," she said. "If you present service as a timesaver, they may be willing to do more work now. Others may be more interested in coming back in the next X miles or X months. Being given that choice is very important."
Creating a more informed customer builds a relationship with that person. Relationships are a critical decision-making factor for women, said Friend.
"A relationship doesn't mean being best friends; it means having a personal connection with that business - whether that be with the vendor, or an employee, or a charity associated with that business," she said. "For men, generally speaking, the product is the decision maker when deciding to establish a relationship. Women are generally the opposite - the relationship comes first and then the product is considered."
Koebke takes this factor into consideration in as many ways as he can. He says his business is based on establishing a relationship and trust at the beginning.
"We keep a professional shop appearance and provide information through letters and brochures. We're involved in the community and we explain repairs one-on-one, making sure the customer feels they're not just a number but that we're really taking care of them," he said. "We have a lot of competition, and the ones who are contenders know what they're doing. It's the little things that separate you from the pack."
Koebke believes that his two-year or 24,000-mile warranty on repair and his association with groups like ASA, AAA and ACDelco also make an impact on how customers perceive him. He displays his membership in these organizations along with his certificates of training in his waiting area.
"We do a lot of work with local TV and radio stations," he said. "We give consumer tips on how to repair your vehicle, how to locate a repair facility, questions you should ask when choosing a facility. If we can educate consumers, then hopefully they can make better decisions and not be taken advantage of. Whether I get the work or not, educating consumers is the important part."
Koebke credits the Car Care Council with educating him on how to create better customer relationships. The CCC Women's Board helps shop owners by providing a guide to hosting information sessions for female customers. Activities like the upcoming fall car care month in October are another great way for businesses to get to know their community and build relationships.
If you're a conscientious shop owner and you're already doing all of this, is there room left for improvement? Of course, said Friend.
"The dental industry is creating a spa treatment and seeing people actually looking forward to their dental visit and telling their friends to switch dentists," she said. "Now, I don't think the answer is to start offering massages and manicures at your shop, but there's no reason your car can't go to a spa. What if, when I bring my vehicle in for service, I could also get that wax I've been putting off, or a full detail job? Anything that can eliminate things off your customer's list or make the experience more pleasant will make your business better."
Her biggest caution: "People get distracted by the concept of 'women.' Painting the bathroom pink or putting women's magazines in your waiting area isn't going to cut it. One local shop I visited had toys set out for kids, but they were in this greasy old box. Bottom line - don't bother unless you're going to do it right.
"People do not need to design special products just for women. What they do need to do is learn a little bit about the female perspective so that they can better communicate with their female customers. Most of the issues women have with auto service are centered around miscommunication. By learning a little bit about gender differences and how to see things from a viewpoint that might be different than your own, you improve your ability to communicate with that customer. This results in a stronger relationship, which results in a more loyal customer. This results in a stronger bottom line."
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