Small Shop, Big Ideas

The essential questions you must ask, and answer, before spending a penny on marketing your services and yourself.

“Marketing” is such a broad term. It includes everything from a billboard to a tweet. How do you deal with your marketing needs when you’re stretched thin from running a small shop?

In preparing this article, I attended a marketing-content seminar for small businesses. The opening task was the instructor asking attendees to write down on paper what stood in the way of them creating and implementing, or updating, a marketing plan. The answer, regardless of what each person wrote, was “time.” Or more precisely, the lack of time.

Much of the ensuing seminar focused on how to overcome that obstacle and perform the tasks necessary to improve this essential part of their business? The solution for many automotive service and collision repair shop owners is to hire someone else to do their marketing due to their busy schedules. But hiring someone isn’t always the best solution, because the person who knows your business best is you.

In a small shop, the marketing functions often fall to the wife or partner of the owner, which is fine. In a small business, everyone wears multiple hats, and either one of them usually knows the most important attributes of the business. But time might be an issue for them, too. That’s why it’s important to choose who is going to wear the marketing hat and determine how to formulate a marketing plan that works.

It’s said that you can’t have a successful marketing plan without a marketing strategy. But what are the differences between the two?

A marketing strategy should include a definition of your business, a description of your target clientele and a description of your company in relation to the competition, and it should be consistent with your overall business goals. It’s essentially a guide for developing your marketing plan, which should consist of specific actions you’ll take to achieve the goals of your marketing strategy.

One tool that I’ve found useful in developing your marketing plan is one I learned at a wonderful marketing workshop at AAPEX. Before you begin work on the plan, brainstorm how to identify your customers – who they are and who you’d like them to be. Use two pages for this exercise: one a composite of a male customer and the other a composite of a female customer. Think about what each one of them wants or needs from the experience of dealing with your shop. After you’ve made your list, add what services you can offer them. Be specific.

When you’ve completed that list, name your male and female customers. Say your male customer is “Bob” and your female customer is “Sally.” Try to visualize what they look like, talk like and think like. In case more ideas for who they are occur to you, think about your composite customers for a day or two to get them set in your mind. They will be the two people you focus on as you devise your marketing plan.

The next action item for your marketing plan involves your website. If it’s a few years old, you need to change it. As a businessperson in today’s high-tech world, you should recognize that it’s not just automobiles that are dominated by new technology. Every aspect of life is propelled by it. A hard-working Web presence needs to be a priority.

At a Google workshop given by the Women’s Board of the Car Care Council earlier this year, presenters placed a heavy emphasis on the fact that most people use their phone to access the information they need. The takeaway from this workshop was that if your website is not mobile-ready, it’s not ready for prime time. First impressions count, and if your website doesn’t connect with potential customers, they’ll most likely continue to be “potential.”

The task of revitalizing your website might seem enormous, but remember the wisdom of the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Small business owners have plenty of planning resources available for writing or updating their marketing plans. For example, check out some resources I’ve provided at the end of this article. (And to learn about website development, see our Extreme Makeover series on page 36.)

But the main thing to remember when mapping out your plan is coming up with the right questions you need to answer. You know your resources, your limitations and your goals. So before spending a penny of your hard-earned money, ask yourself these important questions about your business, your services and yourself!

The goal for answering those questions should be to gain clarity and confidence that you know where you want to go and how you want to get there. By then, the choice should be clear about doing your marketing makeover in house or using an outside source, not only to help you but to maintain what you create and stay current.

If you choose to take this project to an outside source, do a little homework on fees, set a budget you feel comfortable with and commit to it. When you attend your initial consultation with a marketing agency or Web-design company, you’ll have your ideas fleshed out and ready for the meeting.

From there, your consultant can help you make decisions about the priorities you’ve identified as most important. The agency might try to sell you on features you don’t need, but the preparation you do will guide your decision based on your marketing strategy and marketing plan.

There are hundreds of ways you can promote your small business. You might have to try several of them to determine which ones are best for your shop. Don’t think you can try one or two ideas for three or four months and quit if you don’t see much in the way of results. You can’t quit. When you have a plan, be patient and stick with it. Don’t expect success to happen overnight. It won’t.

Essential Marketing Questions

1. How much am I willing to spend?

2. How much time can I realistically commit to this effort?

3. What outside help do I need?

4. Do I know my market? It changes as demographics, car trends and the economy change.

5. Do I have different service segments, and am I clear what they are? A small shop might be offering multiple services that potential customers don’t know about.

6. To prepare your message, make a list of how your shop benefits your clients and your community, as well as larger concerns such as recycling, green practices, child safety, loaner cars, free public education, etc.

7. How much growth do I want to achieve in my sales forecast? Set a target.

8. Do I have any sales promotions planned? If not, set up a 12-month calendar based on your seasonal trends and customers’ needs.

9. Which media resources do I want to use? If you’re not sure, whom can you ask? Brainstorm a list. You probably have more resources than you think.

10. Is there someone doing business with me that I can contact to see if they’re interested in bartering their services? Or, who could do some information sharing with me in exchange for “car care credit” they can spend at my shop?

11. After conducting the planning session, have I discovered an idea that can lead to a press release, a free article about my business or an inspired story that can give me free exposure?