Not Your Father's Business:
|Communication is Key|
Take these social networking steps to improve communication with your customers. Remember: This new marketing avenue does take up additional time in the workday, so if you don't have a person on staff to handle the duties, you may want to get outside help.
• Set up a Facebook (FB) page. It's free and can be used to drive customers to your shop. Occasionally offer special promotions or discounts for your Facebook friends. Offer an incentive for "liking" you.
• Get a Twitter account. Provide customers with a business card that advertises your FB and Twitter accounts.
• Have correct customer info. Also get their preferred contact method before they leave your shop. They may prefer a text as opposed to a phone call. Make sure you have the correct number on hand.
Clayton uses a website that he maintains in addition to social media outlets, occasional newspaper ads, and direct mail postcards (when a hail event has occurred) to reach potential customers.
Diane Larson, AAM, owner of Larson's Service Inc., Peabody, Mass., says her mechanical business uses social media to market her shop's services while educating owners on maintaining their vehicle.
"After reviewing and updating our website last year, we use Facebook for social networking and to educate current customers and potential clients about vehicle maintenance."
Social media is not the only marketing tool employed by Mike LeVasseur, co-owner of Keenan Autobody in Clifton Heights, Pa. He explained how the company's fleet of vehicles helps market the business and its nine collision locations, saying, "We have a fleet of vehicles for our management and upper management. They have advertising wraps on them and they are all identical." This advertising is an important part of the marketing strategy for Keenan Autobody, which employs a marketing director in its corporate office.
“Texting, maps and navigation photos of parts
or work-in-progress updates are made much easier
with this [smartphone] technology.”
– Kay Wynter, AAM
The networking that Larson's Service has achieved through Facebook is not unique to mechanical shops. In fact, thousands of types of businesses use social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to network with current customers and potential new customers. A July 2010 article in USA Today said, "For the first time, social media has become the most visible way for small businesses to promote their products and services. More than half of nearly 10,000 respondents nationwide say they plan to create or maintain a social-networking presence in the next three months, compared with 41 percent in the first three months of ."
LeVasseur said Keenan Autobody uses Facebook to promote contests for his shop.
"One popular contest we ran was for Phillies tickets," he says. "When our Facebook and Twitter friends spotted our vehicles, they had the opportunity to win tickets." The ability to refresh information, provide updates to customers and promote the business easily and free of charge make social media an easy-to-use outlet for both mechanical and collision shops.
Not surprisingly, both mechanical and collision shop owners point to customer service as one of the key issues in the 21st century shop. Scott Benavidez, owner of Mr. B's Paint & Body Shop Inc. in Albuquerque, N.M., says, "There is little room for error in customer service. With the ever-increasing addition of shops, you cannot afford to lose a customer."
Also not surprising is that many shop owners acknowledge that improved customer service often goes hand in hand with increased technology within the shop. Terry and Kay Wynter, AAMs, owners of Terry Wynter Auto Service Center in Fort Myers, Fla., say, "Recently we invested in smartphones for our management and customer service employees, which allows us to move to the next level of customer service." Kay Wynter adds, "Texting, maps and navigation, photos of parts or work in progress updates are made much easier with this technology."
Improved shop management and customer service go hand-in-hand with education and training. Larson commented on shop management in her mechanical repair shop: "It is so important to learn how to 'run a business.' For years, we got away with knowing 'how to fix cars.' Thanks to the Internet and industry associations like ASA, AMI, iATN and others, scores of independent shop owners are learning the needed techniques to become successful business owners."
|Hybrid, EV Training Classroom Rolling Across America|
Looking for a profitable income niche that could develop into solid, long-term business? Craig Van Batenburg, who founded Automotive Career Development Center (AC/DC), is on a mission to educate technicians about servicing hybrid- and all-electric vehicles.
He is traveling America in his 2004 Generation 2 Toyota Prius, along with a car full of parts and equipment, teaching technicians about servicing and repairing hybrid-electric, plug-in and fully electric vehicles (EVs). It's a mobile learning lab, and it could be coming your way.
Van Batenburg was recently at Kinney's Automotive, an ASA shop located in Hurst, Texas.
"Right now a lot of dealerships are the only ones doing service," says Van Batenburg. "If you want to get a competitive price, we need competition. My job is to help aftermarket technicians and shops do just that. Together, we replace the fears about EVs with confidence and competence."
This market is growing, even through the recent recession, in large part a result of rising fuel and energy concerns. "Hybrid owners are already saving money on gas," Van Batenburg says. "My 2004 Prius gets 45 miles per gallon; the newer 2010 Generation 3 Prius gets 50."
He adds that consumers who already use an independent shop want to keep doing so, even when they switch to own an EV. "Shops need to know that compared to conventional vehicles, the owners of hybrid and electric vehicles will do the maintenance - religiously. They're just wired that way."
Visit www.auto-careers.org/USATour2011.html to find out if Van Batenburg will be near you. - Bob Chabot, AAM
Technology Inside the 21st Century Shop
Technology inside the 21st century mechanical and collision shop is changing at a frenetic pace. "Technology allows us to reach customers faster through text and email than by phone," says Benavidez. "Some customers still want one-on-one interaction, but more and more customers are in meetings or on the job, which makes text and email faster."
"It was a big decision 15 years ago to purchase a computer and operating software, at a time when so many shops were still using handwritten work orders," says Kay Wynter.
"It was a great investment and currently, we have a network of seven computers on our management software, in addition to two laptops and two desktop computers used for technical data access." While most 21st century shops now have multiple computers, networks and servers, it is hard to believe that it was just a few years ago that basic computers were not commonplace.
But technology within the shop's virtual infrastructure is changing, too. "Hosted solutions or 'cloud computing' is also gaining momentum," says Erez Nir, chief technology officer for Mitchell International. "Instead of making a substantial, up-front investment in servers and other IT infrastructure, cloud-computing allows today's shop owners to download applications right to their desktops and leaves the heavy lifting to the vendors' network."
21st Century Tools
A key component in doing business today is having the right tools.
"Tools today are more complex and more specialized. Vehicles are more complicated, with multiple parts, and we must keep up with these changes," says Benavidez. Duncan said frame straightening tools have made collision shops' jobs so much easier. Using electronic measuring, says Duncan, enables repairers to hang targets on the frame and underbody to quickly see how "off" the car body is, indicating how much the frame needs to be pulled. She says, "Electronic measuring like this gives us proof as to where the damage is, and where it is not."
Stacy Bartnik, assistant vice president and director of field services for the CARSTAR Franchise System, says the changing tools in the collision industry demand that collision shops stay on top of these 21st century advances. "We have to make a continuous investment in tools as vehicles and trim levels of those same vehicles change. We need to continue to update our tools," she says. "As vehicle technology changes, the tools necessary to work on them will change, too." Bartnik referenced the different metals used in the bodies of today's vehicles. "Since there are different types of metals, we can't cut them all with the same grinder," she says. "Some metal is stronger and different and requires the use of different tools."
Tom Piippo, owner of Tri-County Motors in Rudyard, Mich., acknowledges the electronic component of tools in his shop. "Even 10 years ago, a body computer was needed to roll down the power windows or open the gate of a minivan. This necessitates the use of scan tools, graphing meters and scopes," he says. "We also need different techniques for the same task, such as use of induction heating instead of an open torch flame. This is needed because all of the composite parts and wiring can be damaged with an open flame."
Kay Wynter says, "The evolution of tools in our industry is happening at a rapid pace. We have gone from a toolbox of hand tools to some electronic tools in the 1980s when engine analyzers became available. Fast forward to today, when we are using scan tools that fit in the palm of our hands and data is streamed over the Internet for reprogramming."
Betty Jo Young, AAM, owner of Young's Automotive Center in Houston, echoes these sentiments and reflects on just how far tools in the automotive industry have come. "When we started out all that was needed was hand tools, impact tools, labor manual, paper invoices and a sharp pencil and calculator. But today, if something happened to my shop, the first tool I would replace would be the computer and Internet service. We enjoy the new technology and know this is a must to repair vehicles today and tomorrow," she says.
Specialized servicing is becoming more and more prevalent. As vehicles grow in complexity, the ability for one collision shop or one mechanical repair shop to have the skills, expertise and tools to fix them all is less and less likely. Repairing all makes and models in the best possible way can be challenging. Don't let the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" apply to your business!
Take advantage of email
by thanking your
customers after a repair –
it lets them know you
appreciate their business.
"I stopped rebuilding automatic transmissions years ago," says Piippo. "Many shops specialize in systems, such as tire and alignment, radiator and air conditioning, diagnostic, brake and front end. And some shops specialize in brands. This allows them to be really good at what they do, and makes it affordable to stay abreast of the tool and equipment needs."
David Kusa, owner of AutoTrend Diagnostics, in Campbell, Ca., says, "I do not think it is possible for most shops to repair and service every make. A large shop with five or six technicians may be able to have a specialist for every major manufacturer, but the challenge is that all the needed equipment would carry a very high cost. Most shops would be better to limit the number of makes."
While specialized servicing can refer to the way a business focuses on a specific brand or make of vehicle, specialized servicing can also explain the marketing strategy the Wynters offer to potential customers. "We have recognized that the female customer has become a major decision maker when it comes to automotive repairs," Kay Wynter says. "This is drastically different from years past. In an effort to appeal to this important customer base, we offer free 'Knowledge Is Power' Women's Car Care Clinics to assist them in becoming more informed consumers."
Shop Appearance & Customer Service
Piippo acknowledged the difference in customers' attitudes and expectations in the 21st century. "Customers definitely have a different 'service requirement' than 20 years ago, just as their cars have different service requirements. It is no longer acceptable to expect a customer to wait on a tattered seat in the corner with a two-year-old Sports Illustrated magazine to entertain them.
"What customers do want is to know that you care, and that you have befriended them. Without that, they will go somewhere else that gives them that feeling," he said.
Just like almost all other aspects of the 21st century shop, the appearance of today's shops are miles away from the old mental picture many people have of repair facilities. About the exterior of his Rudyard, Mich., shop, Piippo said he no longer has the gaudy, brand-specific signage covering the front of the building. "Many shop fronts, like ours, look like any other professional office." This changed and improved exterior often leads to greater respect from customers toward business employees.
The increased cost of repairing vehicles, including the increased out-of-pocket costs that customers bear, demands a professional appearance in the 21st century.
Benavidez says, "We must look more like a business than a repair facility. Our customers are spending an average of $2,500, and we must live up to what they are spending."
As the 21st century progresses, new technological advances will certainly drive the changes in collision and mechanical repair facilities. So many aspects of the 21st century shop are already tied to technology. "It's hard to imagine what the next 15 years will bring, but we are seeing a trend that is taking the usefulness of technology to the next level, making parts ordering, checking VIN numbers, checking TSBs, and many other operations much more efficient," says Wynter. While technology is ever changing, it is important for collision and mechanical shops to not lose the ability to relate to their customers with interest, compassion and excellent customer service, no matter the century in which they find themselves.
|Rachael J. Mercer is a freelance writer based in McDonough, Ga. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.|
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