There was a time when the only marketing for an independent auto body shop was a calendar giveaway, and a little word of mouth down at the Moose Lodge.
The greatest mistake made by owners of independent auto body shops today is to believe that they don’t need marketing. The second greatest mistake is to believe that you can do that marketing yourself.
The need for marketing for independent shops is greater than ever, given the rise in franchise operations and the marketing power and visibility of dealership repair shops. Competition from larger shops poses an existential threat to independents. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1995, small shops made up 44.3 percent of all collision repair shops. In 2016, small shops made up only 5.3 percent of the total. By the same token, large shops went from 15.3 percent of the total number of shops in 1995, to 68.1 percent in 2016.
Once you’ve gotten past the obvious need for deeper training to accommodate more sophisticated and computer-driven automobiles by acquiring a new library of training videos and manuals, then you have to address the question of how you are going to compete against those large shops which are servicing a large percentage of your potential customers, and how you will survive against their substantial marketing budgets.
By following some best industry marketing practices, and turning your small size into an advantage, you may just be able to outshine your much larger competitors.
Define and develop your brand. You’re not just Bob, a guy who fixes cars, you’re Bob’s Repair Shop. You have a brand. That’s a name, and possibly a symbol, logo, or catch phrase which identifies your company, sets you apart from the others, and makes sure you are memorable. Together with that visibility, “brand” also means a reputation – it means cultivating what people think of your shop when they hear the name.
Your website is your online identity. Potential customers will look for you online. Make sure you’re there. Keep in mind that a significant percentage of visitors will come to your site on a mobile device, so make sure your website looks good on both desktop and mobile.
Engage on social media. Create social media pages, but your social media strategy is more than just posting. Engage with your followers, have conversations with them, and respond to their concerns and questions quickly. Some larger companies and franchises have dedicated staff who do nothing but monitor and respond to social media all day.
Define a marketing budget at the very beginning. Small shops often see marketing as an afterthought, and fail to allocate funds to its development until after everything else has been budgeted for – as a result, there is often nothing left. All the money you spent on your facility, your equipment, and your staff will be useless if nobody knows you exist.
Understand the online search process and how to influence it. Search engine optimization is a widely misunderstood marketing practice. Low-budget SEO shops, keyword jockeys and spammers who blast your brand out to comment threads and spam websites aren’t doing you any favors, they are damaging your brand. Instead, use good, thoughtful content, meaningful engagement on social media, and a regularly updated website with well-written content.
Achieve a good mix of digital and traditional marketing tactics. Digital tactics will have to be a big part of your strategy, but don’t forget the traditional ones that still work. Make sure you have compelling signage in front of your shop, a print brochure that explains your services, and a few giveaways (calendars are still good, after all these years!).
Define what you want the customer experience to be. Customer experience has taken on greater significance, in an era when a single poor online review could destroy a new business. At the very beginning, define in very specific terms what you want the customer experience to be. Small things like a clean and inviting waiting room, and online appointment register, and little extras like paper mats on the floorboard to keep your greasy footprints off the car’s carpeting all help.
Most of all, when you’re starting your shop, realize that how well you market your shop is just as important as how well you take out dents and buff out scratches. The forethought and extra care you put into your services should be duplicated in your marketing efforts.
David Gauze is the Advertising Manager of AutoBodyToolMart, which has been supplying equipment, paint booths and other items to auto shops for 30 years.