How To Market Around The Slow Times In Auto Repair

As I write this, it’s October 2023. If you’re reading this years later, don’t worry because the information in this article is timeless. 

We just came through the summer months and most auto repair shops seemed to do pretty well. In August 2023, we had more clients than ever touting record months. Then September and October came. [insert sad trombone sound]

So we go from months where everyone is happy, maybe even a little overwhelmed with work, to the following months where people are stressing out and the sky is falling because car count is down.

There are good months in auto repair and bad months. (stick with me… sarcasm alert)

  • January is always slow because people are focusing on resolutions – and car care isn’t one of them
  • February is always slow because the credit card bills from the holidays arrived
  • March is always slow because of spring break
  • April is always slow because it’s tax season
  • May is always slow because it’s graduation season
  • June is always slow because people are taking summer vacations
  • July is always slow because people just spent all their money on summer vacations
  • August is always slow because it’s back to school time
  • September is always slow because of Labor Day and people taking that last trip while it’s still warm
  • October is always slow because of fall festivals, state fairs, and beautiful weather
  • November is always slow because of Thanksgiving
  • December is always slow because people are winding down the year and are spending time with their families. C’mon… everybody knows no one is thinking about auto repair!

I guess I need to correct myself. There are only bad months in auto repair! You may as well shut down the shop and get a job as a greeter at Walmart.

Okay, I got my sarcasm out of the way so now we can get real about this. That being said, many of you have limiting beliefs that you need to change. Yes, there are times of the year that are slower than others, but you shouldn’t just accept that and resign yourself to sub-par performance out of your shop.

Your Day-To-Day Marketing Is The Most Important Factor

I understand why shop owners want to market around the slow times, and it can absolutely be done – and we will get there in this article, but first let’s make sure you aren’t trying to put a bandaid on a bullet hole.

The best way to market around the slow times in your shop is to make sure the marketing you do every other time of the year is rock-solid.

Many shop owners get on the marketing roller coaster where they ramp up marketing when car count gets low, and they slow down or even shut off their marketing when car count is high. This is the worst marketing strategy you can have. It will create constant frustration due to ever changing workloads.

The truth is, you should never stop marketing. I know that’s easy for me to say since I’m a marketer and I make my living from selling ongoing marketing services. That doesn’t mean it’s not true.

When you’re on the marketing roller coaster, the busy times in your shop are “good” and the slow times in your business suuuuuuuuccckk (make sure you drag that out when you read it).

When you never stop marketing, the busy times in your shop are GREAT and the slow times in your shop are still “okay”. Yeah, they’re slow, but everyone is still working.

So before we get into what you came here for, ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly.

  • Have you claimed your Google Business Profile, and is it completely and accurately filled out with service descriptions that directly relate to the services you have listed on your website? Is it categorized correctly? Do you post regularly to it?
  • Is your website up-to-date? Does it represent your auto repair shop well? Does it have real pictures of your actual facility and your actual team on it? Does it have individual pages for the services you provide most often and that you are most profitable on? Does it display well across all devices? Is it a resource on the topic of auto repair?
  • Does your website display in the search results when someone in your local area searches for the services you provide? I’m not just talking about “auto repair near me”. What about when they search for “4 wheel alignment” or “shop that can work on cars with the new refrigerant”? What other terms should you rank for? A lot!
  • Do your social media posts show people the heart of your business and team? Is there anything about those posts that would help someone to know, like, and trust you and your team? Are your posts unique to your shop or are they just generic auto repair junk meant to get something on your pages?
  • Are you taking pictures and videos and sharing them on your website and social media? If you are working with a professional marketing team, do you send them pictures and videos along with an explanation of what’s happening? Do I need to remind you that you have a photo and television studio in your pocket?
  • Are you doing Google Ads? If so, is your budget high enough? If you’re like most, it’s not. If your budget is hundreds of dollars and not thousands of dollars, unless you’re in a rural area, you’re missing the boat.
  • Are you involved in your local chamber of commerce and BNI group? The key word in that question is “involved.” Do you do things that benefit your community? Do you give back?
  • Are you using your CRM and shop management software to its fullest? Have you embraced technology? Are you doing DVIs?

The other thing you want to think about before trying to market around the slow times is, are your business practices solid?

  • Are you following the 300% rule? 100% of cars get inspected, 100% of the findings are quoted, and 100% of the quote is presented to the client.
  • Do you have a good ARO (average repair order)? If it’s less than $500, you need a coach, not marketing.
  • Are you profitable? You should be looking for a 20% profit margin, but the industry says most shops run at 5% or less. Let me remind you that a shop doing $300k in gross revenue at a 20% net is making more than a shop doing $1M gross at a 5% net.

If the stuff I just said means nothing to you – in other words, you don’t understand what I said or you don’t know the answer – you’re just like we all were at one point. So don’t be ashamed. Just get some help.

Predictable VS Unpredictable Slow Times

There are slow times in your business that are totally predictable and others that come out of nowhere.

The marketing strategies for each of these will be different.

In one case you have plenty of time to prepare. In the other, you have to be reactive and take actions spur-of-the-moment. But it helps when you know ahead of time what those actions may look like.

Let’s get into each of these.

Marketing around the predictable slow times.

I wrote a blog about this back in 2019. This blog talks about how we handled the NC State Fair each year, because it hit us hard every time. But we didn’t just accept it, we went to war with it. I’m going to go at it from a more diverse approach in this article instead of talking about this specific event, but you can read that post here if you’d like.

The nice thing about the predictable slow times is that they’re, well, predictable. If you’ve already been in business for a couple of years then you know they’re going to happen.

That being said, if you’re not paying attention they can sneak up on you and by the time you realize it, it’s too late.

As a businessperson, your job is to analyze what’s happening in the business. You should get in the habit of looking at how your business performs year over year. Looking at how your business is trending for the year is a good thing to do, but it tells you nothing about the upcoming slow times.

I’ll throw out some arbitrary numbers to make my point.

2021:

  • October $25,000
  • November $24,000
  • December $18,000

2022:

  • October $40,000
  • November: $37,000
  • December: $31,000

2023:

  • October $64,000
  • November: TBD
  • December: TBD

If you look at these numbers, you’re having great growth. But in 2021 and 2022 there was a big drop off in December. We can get in the habit of feeling good because so much growth is happening, but even with the growth December is going to hurt if you’re not prepared for it. 

You have more techs, more service advisors, and more bills to pay. You’ve probably started taking more pay as an owner and living a more expensive lifestyle. And this drop is happening during one of the most expensive times of the year with your holiday travel and gift buying.

I don’t want to get too far in the weeds here, so my point is that you can look at revenue year over year to get an idea of when the slow times happen. You will have outliers, but for the most part you will see a pattern that happens every year.

You can look at this monthly but I would actually recommend looking at it weekly.

The way to do this is to keep a running Google Sheet and every week go pop your weekly revenue into it. Make comments attached to each cell in the sheet explaining what impacts made weeks high or low because you won’t remember when you’re looking at it in future years. 

You can easily turn that spreadsheet into a graph and get an easy visualization of the highs and lows in your shop.

You need to look about 3 months ahead in order to be able to take proactive actions to make those slow times busy.

What Actions To Take To Eliminate Or Mask Slow Times

One of the best ways to fill in slow times is not a marketing action at all. Your team needs to become masters at scheduling. Hear me out.

Many of the shop owners we talk to only live in the here and now. If work needs to be done on a car, they want it sold and done now. Nevermind the fact that they are scheduled a month out and they’re losing business every day to shops who can get new clients in more quickly.

So during those months where you have more work than you know how to get done, do the DVIs, write the estimates, sell the work, and schedule the work that can wait for the times you know will be slower.

It’s a win-win-win.

The customer wins because they can plan for the expenditure.

The new clients win because you can get them in sooner.

You win because you get the work at a time when your techs would have been twiddling their thumbs, AND you get the work from the new client who would have taken their car to another shop because you couldn’t get them in quick enough.

I know… a lot of you will tell me that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. And yes, there will be clients who decide to buy a new car or to just not do the work in the time between their initial visit and their appointment. But you made up that loss by getting the other client in anyway.

But you want to talk about marketing.

This is so subjective because there are so many factors at play. You need to become an expert at diagnosing your business just like a tech diagnosing a car. If you were a tech and were good at diagnosing cars, this won’t be a problem for you because you understand deductive reasoning.

You have to step back and get a wide angle view of everything that’s happening. You need to understand WHY business has slowed down.

In our case, if you read that article I linked to, you know we were dealing with the NC State Fair causing a two-week lull in business. It was the darndest thing I’ve seen. The first couple of years this happened we would have been better off to shut down the shop those weeks.

But we went to war with this problem. Here’s what we did.

  • We offered a free shuttle to and from the state fair when you left your car with us for service. This would be even easier now because in this day and age we would have just paid for Uber or Lyft rides. Back then, we ran the shuttle ourselves. The shuttle was a big incentive because parking at the fair was expensive and it was a long walk from the parking area to the fairgrounds.
  • If they spent over a certain amount we also included the addition of 4 tickets to the fair.
  • If they spent an even higher amount we included all of the above plus ride tickets.

Once we put this into place, we were never slow during the fair again.

So you can see there won’t be a one size fits all answer to how you market around the predictable slow times. It will depend on why it is slow and you will need to figure out how to incentivise your clients to come in during those times.

As a reminder, you can only do things like this if you are monitoring what’s happening in your business, have a clear understanding of when the slow times are, and start planning before the slow times hit.

One of the other slow times we always experienced was the week between Christmas and New Years. We probably could have found a way to fill this in, but like many shops, we decided to give our team that week off paid. To this day, in every business I have owned I have continued that tradition. We shut down from Christmas Eve through New Years Day, and I have never regretted it.

Seasonal Slow Times

We do understand that there are absolutely some seasonal slow times that affect the auto repair business. Below are some ideas you can employ during these times.

Holiday Season

Everyone is spending money around this time of year on gifts so they’re less likely to put their money towards auto care. However, the holiday season is also a big time for travel. Market to your customers about staying safe during holiday travel, offering pre-trip inspections, etc.

Weather Conditions

Unfortunately, Mother Nature also has a large impact on customer behavior. In extreme cold or hot weather, customers tend to hibernate. Consider what services you can offer clients during these times that will help them cope with the cold or heat. I.e. snow tires or battery services during the Winter or an A/C special during extreme hot months.

Tax Season

Almost all shops report slower times around tax season due to customers not knowing if/how much they will owe. Because of this, some customers aren’t willing to spend extra money on auto care. Plan for this slow time by speaking or advertising to customers about the importance of regular maintenance and negative impacts of putting off important repairs. You can also speak to the customers that receive a tax refund – “Extra money in your pocket? Time to take care of those repairs you’ve been putting off.”

Tourist Season

The tourist season is a major source of income for some of our clients. It is important to know when the tourist season starts and when it ends. I.e. Are you in an area which has snow birds, or where folks have vacation homes, or is your town a vacation destination? There will be potential customers passing through who may need services! This is where billboards or geo targeted ads on social media can come into play.

College Towns

Student populations make up a large marketing segment for some of our clients. Most students’ automotive care is still paid for by their parents. It is always important to know when your students are in or out of school if you live in an area with many colleges. Additionally, promoting that you have tools in place for out-of-town parents to easily pay for their child’s car care is always a good idea. Kim recorded a podcast where she goes into detail about marketing auto repair services to college students. If you’re in a college town, it’s a must listen.

Marketing Around The Unpredictable Slow Times

This is a different animal and the answer is all marketing.

The unpredictable slow times are usually short and normally come from scheduling mistakes, clients that no-showed, parts issues, etc. You can do things to fill your bays in situations like this.

Sometimes the unpredictable slow times come because of national crises like the tragic events of September 11th. There isn’t much you can do in situations like that.

Let’s focus on the ones we can fix.

Your CRM Is Your Friend

Our senior messaging strategist, Caroline, wrote this blog on getting the most out of your CRM. I highly suggest reading it.

You should have a “Slow Day Strategy” that you can employ at any moment with just a few clicks of some buttons. We manage many of our clients’ CRMs and any time they need some quick car count, we send out a slow-day text blast and email.

This text blast usually offers a small discount if they can get their car in the same day. Your client list can be segmented to send texts encouraging people who have been given quotes on work that they haven’t chosen to have performed yet, or it can be sent to people who are due for oil changes and maintenance.

A good CRM has all of the data on your client’s cars as well as their driving habits, like how many miles they drive per month on average, so it can predict pretty closely when they need service.

We see it regularly where enacting a slow day campaign can get 5-10 cars – that were not on the schedule – in for service that same day.

Work The Relationships With The Towing Companies

Towing companies are face-to-face daily with people who have vehicle emergencies. They are often the first to know when someone has a broken down car.

When you have a slow day and can immediately get cars in for repairs, one of your first actions should be to let every tow truck driver you can know that you have immediate availability to get a car in for repair.

You should be able to set up a group in your CRM where you add all of the tow-truck drivers and can send a text blast out to them quickly and easily.

On a side note, you should always cater to the tow truck drivers and delivery people who serve your shop. Have an area at your shop where they can always grab a cold drink, a candy bar, or some chips. Keep it stocked and let them know it is there for them. Don’t ever tolerate your staff being rude to these people. They can be your lifeline at times so take care of them as such.

Don't Abuse Your Slow-Day Strategies

If you use these tactics too often, people won’t respond to them because they know they can always take advantage of it the next time.

Especially when it comes to text messages, use them sparingly and respectfully.

If you find yourself needing to use these strategies often, you have other problems in your business that you need to solve.

Conclusion

If you find yourself constantly having to market around slow times, you need to take an honest look at the day-to-day marketing you’re already doing (or not doing). You also need to look at your business practices so you can be sure you’re making the most of every car that’s in your shop.

If your marketing and business practices are solid, there are things you can do to fill in the holes in your car count.

If you need help with your marketing, that’s what we do at Shop Marketing Pros. You can learn more by setting up a discovery call with J.R.. We are a no-pressure company, so don’t have any anxiety about meeting with us. If it’s a fit, great!

In the meantime, go join our free Facebook group, “The Auto Repair Marketing Mastermind.” It is full of some great, like-minded shop owners who are sharing marketing ideas and helping each other out. See you there!

About The Author

Brian Walker

Brian Walker is the Owner and CEO of Shop Marketing Pros, a marketing agency specializing in marketing independently owned auto repair shops. Brian is a Mercedes Benz Master Technician and has owned multiple shops and served as the Mechanical Division Director for ASA-NC.

He's a mechanic at heart who loves fixing things that are broken, which is why he loves marketing so much.

"Digging in and figuring out why a business' marketing isn't working is a lot like it was when he was elbows deep into a car that no one else could fix. When you figure it out, there's nothing else like it."

To get to do this for auto repair shop owners combines his passions, and he couldn't be more excited about helping shop owners.
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