Know your customer base

Jan. 1, 2020
I predicted we would see an increase in business a couple months ago — and I thought I might tell you how it has been going.
I predicted we would see an increase in business a couple months ago — and I thought I might tell you how it has been going. Of course, your sales can probably tell you more than I can, but I am seeing reinforcement for some of the not quite Nostradamus-like predictions I made.

First, repair shops and specialty shops that actively market themselves in effective ways seem to be busy and productive. Maybe not at the margins we would like, but the bills are getting paid.

At Seyfer Automotive, we cover a cross-section of the market, so I'm seeing trends across the industry. We offer cutting-edge general repair, maintenance and diagnostic services to our largely late-model American and Asian driving clientele with some VW and Jaguar niches we also enjoy. On the other hand, with 47 years in the business, we are also known for our work on older cars — particularly muscle cars and those from the '50s and '60s. Additionally, we specialize in the application of late-model electronics, which has us working with many of the Denver-area street rod and specialty car shops as a technical assistant.

Our general repair business is predictably down on car count but up on the average ticket we write. We've seen this pattern before, particularly in the early 1990s when people who had not kept up with maintenance were faced with the decision to repair or replace a vehicle in less-than-perfect market conditions. Customers are very interested in weighing their options when large items fail. I would not recommend stocking up on engines right now because it seems to be a pretty common tipping point for many of our maintenance-deficient customers.

On the other hand, the laundry list of ills and deferred maintenance items has a high approval rate for our largely late-30s customer base. These are the customers who want the work done quickly and efficiently, so we try to keep a comprehensive inventory of the most common maintenance parts and supplies on hand. Because it's impossible to stock everything in the shop, we really work with our key parts suppliers so that everything we need is easily found.

In the classic car and performance world, I am getting far fewer requests to build really high-dollar cars or drivetrains. But that doesn't mean the work has dried up. Many of the vehicle owners are taking a piecemeal approach to restoration or project cars.

Just in the last few days I have received calls to put power disc brakes and steering on a '57 Chevy, custom program the engine management system on a Mitsubishi 3000 GT, a '90s Bronco with a supercharger and a brand new Saleen Pickup. I'm also getting lots of E85 questions and conversions.

In the shop, we are completing a spec build on a small block for a Shelby Mustang used in SCCA racing, performing lots of general repair work on a '67 Dart, a '57 Cadillac Brougham and a '68 Torino. Here many of the parts are general repair parts. Sometimes I work harder than others to find the parts for these vehicles, so I'm always looking for help from our niche parts suppliers.

Which leads me back to the beginning: those who are marketing to their customer base are still doing OK. The work is still there, no matter what section of the market you focus on. You just have to reach out to your customers to figure out what they want, and you can't be afraid to ask what they need.

Donny Seyfer is a second-generation repair shop owner and ASE Master Technician. An active industry educator, Seyfer hosts two automotive radio shows, serves as chairman of the Automotive Service Association of Colorado, works nationally to help repair shops with IT and service information utilization and writes for Motor Age, a sister publication of Aftermarket Business.