LAS VEGAS — The topics that keep shop owners up at night and concerned about is not the same thing as what drew their attention a couple of years ago. But putting a group of owners together in one room during CARS might help a few owners sleep a little easier.
A four-owner panel discussion turned into a sharing of ideas at “What Are Owners Doing Differently Today that They Weren’t Doing 18 Months Ago?” during the Friday morning education session at CARS. Covering topics from operations to services, marketing and more, many attendees walked out with at least a couple of ideas on how to handle what they’re facing.
Addressing rising expenses is something all owners face as costs of nearly everything are rising, especially health insurance. “It’s part of the responsibility we all share as a business owner,” says Mitch Schneider, owner of Schneider’s Automotive Repair in Simi Valley, Calif.
But that doesn’t mean the decision has to be all yours. Panelist Mike Brewster, owner of Gil’s Garage in Burnt Hills, N.Y., involves his employees in some discussions about insurance. By taking this approach, his shop shifted some health insurance plans around, with some employees taking a higher deductable plan. The shop pays the deductable on those plans and has seen savings, thanks in part to its employees.
“If you get your team together and discuss these things and they know the challenges you’re faced with, they’ll help you decide what is the best plan of action,” Brewster explains.
Panel member Terry Wynter, owner of Terry Wynter Auto Service Center in Fort Myers, Fla., says aside from insurance, addressing accounts receivable is key for his shop. For instance, he makes his shop’s fleet customers sign a personal guarantee that if they don’t pay their bills, his company will go after their house. While it might seem extreme, he says it has gotten fleets’ attention.
“A personal guarantee gives you a guarantee,” Wynter says.
There is a myriad of other ways to cut expenses, from exploring new contracts for security systems, Internet and phone service and uniforms, to installing energy-efficient lighting, attendees gave panelists ideas they hadn’t thought of. They suggested not turning on all lights at once, shutting them off during lunch, turning off computers at night and switching to paper rags instead of cloth rags.
Panelist Diane Larson, owner of Larson’s Service, Inc., in Peabody, Mass., says with all the new ideas, one easy way for the owners to go about implementing them is to print out all of their expenses and attack two of them each week.
And of course, curbing expenses is easier with more money coming in. Marketing and advertising is part of the budget, but is a key expense some shops have been neglecting. Many, like Brewster’s shop, are starting to turn around their marketing and advertising plans. He says he realized the need and talked with his team about it before starting from the ground up.
Brewster says his approach started by sending out cards, but now is more proactive, calling customers and moving toward the point where they schedule the next appointment when the customer is leaving. It also is acquiring more customers through short radio sponsorships.
“We’re not selling specialties, we’re just selling good value,” he states.
Wynter is moving his advertising to the digital side, but is working more with messages rather than sales pitches. By helping customers, they will respond better than being sold on something, he suggests.
Also, his shop is collecting e-mail addresses on every customer to send out promotions and information. Attendees echoed how important this is to their businesses. One attendee suggested to group that contests and drawing through e-mails, Web sites and electronic newsletters are great ways to boost e-mail lists.
And Wynter says the e-mails his shop sends are in addition to text alerts, Twitter, Facebook, Google local search (a free service), a Web site and blogs. After all, many of these things are low-cost or free, and a great option to shop around.
“We try to stay with the digital era and it works very well for us,” Wynter explains. “And you’ll find the age barrier, I thought it would be 40 and younger, but I found 65, 70-year-old people are doing it as well. It’s everyone now.”
Once you get the customers’ attention and into the shop or on the phone, how you treat them is crucial. Larson says a good attitude expressed to the customers will benefit your shop. And it all starts with a smile. In fact, the script for answering the phone at her shop starts with the word “smile.”
“It’s awesome to hear them answer the phone with a smile,” she notes.
Brewster says phone skills are key, as everyone has dealt with bad phone calls in the past. While they don’t use scripts like Larson’s shop does, the team at Gil’s Garage continually discusses key points and has recorded calls to see where improvements could be made.
Inside the shop, presenting a good appearance also helps those customers in these changing times. Larson runs her shop like a dentist’s or doctor’s office, from scheduling appointments at the end of the current one, to making sure cleanliness is top of mind.
“Would you like your doctor coming out dirty,” she poses?
Brewster says this also has tied in with his marketing approach. “It’s so basic, but you have to have those things in place before you go out and start marketing,” he offers.
Attendees suggest information is key. Making sure you have the proper information at the front of any message works, as there are more things vying for people’s time than every before.
In the end, some things haven’t changed over the last couple of years — you’re selling yourself to fix more than just cars.
“We fix the customer and we help them through their car issues, but we fix the customer,” says Brewster. “It’s not rocket science and if you take care of the customer, they’re going to want to come back.”