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Is That Really Marketing?

This past weekend I made the trip out to Ogden Utah to teach at The MARS Conference. MARS stands for Marketing for Auto Repair Shops. It was a great conference that was put on by The Institute for Automotive Business Excellence.

At the conference they had speakers who brought some truly great information that, when implemented, will make big impacts on the shops who were represented there.

On the final day of the conference we had a Q&A session with all of the speakers as a panel. There were lots of great questions from the audience, but one of the questions stood out to me as a question I think a lot of shop owners have. I want to dig into that one in this blog post.

A marketing panel at the MARS (marketing for auto repair shops) conference is asked about where a shop should start when they haven't been marketing.

“As An Auto Repair Shop That Hasn’t Been Doing Any Marketing, Where Do I Start?”

It was interesting because when he asked that question, everyone started jumping in with their favorite marketing tactics. And the thing is, none of them were wrong – but were they right?

When the mic came to me I answered by saying “To answer that question, I’d need to know more about your shop”.

I went on to explain that I’d need to understand where the shop was in its current state of business. For example:

Is the shop in need of more cars right now? If so, are techs standing around with nothing to do or do you just need a few more cars each week?


Is the shop doing well right now but you want to start marketing to keep from slowing down during the holidays?

I talked about how a shop that needs cars now would probably benefit more from a tactic like pay-per-click because we can see immediate results from that, whereas a shop that is doing well but wants to make sure it doesn’t slow down in the future may want to employ brand-building techniques.

Then I passed the mic and some other thoughts were shared by the panelists.

As the other panelists answered, I sat there thinking about it even more and realized there was something else I needed to say, so I asked for the mic. The rest of this blog is an expanded version of what I had to say.

Sometimes Marketing Isn’t What We Think About When We Think Of Marketing

When we think of marketing, we generally think of things like:

  • Our website
  • Search engine optimization
  • Google Ads
  • Email marketing
  • Direct mail
  • Billboards
  • Radio commercials
  • Television commercials

But there are other ways of marketing – and the best part is, these other ways of marketing often cost way less than the more traditional means I mentioned above.

Face-to-Face Marketing

Face-to-face marketing can be one of the most effective types of marketing you can do. It will usually cost you less in dollars, but more in time. For a shop that needs work now, you probably have more time than money, so this is a good thing.

Examples of face-to-face marketing include:

  • BNI groups
  • Chambers of Commerce
  • Hosting events at your shop

BNI Groups

The Trade Wins BNI Group meets in Hammond, Louisiana. BNI is a great source of new business for auto repair shops.
The Trade Wins BNI Group has their weekly meeting in Hammond, LA. BNI is a great source of new business for auto repair shops.

When I owned my shop I was introduced to the concept of BNI. BNI stands for Business Networking International. There are BNI groups in every major city (and many smaller cities) throughout the US, and in many places throughout the world.

A BNI group is a group of business people who meet weekly to refer business to one another. Only one business of each type is allowed in a group. During the meeting each person will have an opportunity to stand and introduce themselves and tell the others who would be a good referral for them that week. At the end of each meeting, referrals are passed and testimonials are given.

But the magic of BNI doesn’t happen at the meetings. BNI members meet with each other outside of the meetings to have what they call “one-to-ones”. The one to one is a meeting where you get to know your fellow BNI member. I often talk about the power of “know, like, trust” marketing, The one-to-one is where members get to know, like, and trust each other.

BNI was so successful for my shop that my wife and I both joined individual chapters of our own.

BNI is a hefty time investment, but it paid for itself many times over. Throughout our time in BNI, as we would visit other BNI groups, the auto repair shop in that group was always receiving referrals. The proof is in the pudding. Auto repair shops do well as members of BNI chapters.

Chambers of Commerce

Your local chamber of commerce is another great place to get business. The thing is, you’ve probably heard people talk about how they “never got anything out of the chamber”. My wife says it best when she says “A chamber membership is like a gym membership. It only works if you show up”.

The chamber of commerce membership is going to require an investment of your time. Most COCs have at least 3 events per month. You need to actually go to those events. Better yet, host some of those events at your shop (more on that below).

In addition to the events, the chamber of commerce is going to have a board of directors and various committees. Volunteer to serve on the board and/or committees.

Your membership and the time you spend going to the events and serving on the board and committees will give you the opportunity to meet other local business people, and them the opportunity to meet you.

Hosting Events At Your Shop

Girlington Garage hosts a car care clinic for a local girl scout troop.
Girlington Garage in South Burlington, VT hosts a car care clinic for a local girl scout troop. Read about their event here.

Never underestimate the power of getting people into your shop for other reasons beyond having their car serviced. The caveat is, you must have a clean, organized shop. Notice that I didn’t say it has to be a new, impressive shop. People understand an auto repair shop for what it is; a place to fix cars.

You don’t need beautiful glass garage doors, epoxy floors, and shiny equipment to make an impression. Even an older building that is clean and organized shows people that you take pride in your work.

Some examples of events to host at your shop include:

  • Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours. These networking events are a place for local business people to come together and get to know each other. Member businesses have the opportunity to host these events. The hosts are usually expected to provide food and refreshments. Pro tip – join forces with another business in the Chamber and co-host the event. A member like a catering company is often a great partner because they may not have a location to host an event, but they have food. It can be a win-win.

  • Car Care Clinics. At this event you’ll invite a group of people into your shop to learn how to take care of their cars. These can be groups like local women’s groups, teens, or even kids (think “touch the tools”). Often times early grades such as 1st grade part of their curriculum is to teach kids about “community helpers” well… that’s mechanics! Whoever the group, you’ll teach them things like how to check their oil, check tire pressure, and fill their windshield washer fluid. You can also teach people how to change a flat tire. Of course, you’ll want to tailor the information to the audience. Invite people to have you put their car on a lift and do a vehicle inspection with them. For most of them, it will be the first time they’ve ever been able to see under their vehicle. Make sure to get your staff involved so people can get to know them.

  • Scouting Merit Badge Workshops. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America are great organizations that serve our youth. Each of these groups have merit badges that they earn for various things they learn about or do. One of these is a car care badge. Find a local scout leader and invite their troop into your shop one evening and help these kids earn their car care badge. Invite the parents to come along. This will give the parents the opportunity to come inside of your shop, meet your staff, and see you interact with their children. The next thing you know, they’re bringing their car to you and recommending their friends.

For all of the things I’ve mentioned above, you’ll want to invest some time learning how to network. There’s really an art to it. If you’re going to invest your time in doing this, get the most out of it. Become a master networker. Kim wrote an article on networking that I highly recommend reading.

Other Marketing You May Not Think Of As Marketing

Some other things you should think of when it comes to marketing are things like appearance. I’m talking about the appearance of your people, your waiting area, and the exterior of your shop.

Appearance Matters

In the early days of my shop, I was the mechanic, service advisor, parts person, and janitor. When you came into my absolute dump of a shop, you were met by a guy wearing a dirty blue t-shirt, shorts, and work boots. As we grew and moved into a new location, the appearance of our staff and facility greatly changed.

Our service advisors wore white button down dress shirts and slacks. Our technicians wore branded uniforms. Our shop was welcoming on the outside and clean and comfortable on the inside. When moms came in with their kids, they didn’t hesitate to let them play on the floor of our waiting area. When this changed, so did the quality of our clients. We now started getting people who wanted to take care of their cars and wanted it done by the best. The price shoppers were turned away by the appearance of our business.

Ratchet and Wrench recently had an article about a shop that did a pretty extreme makeover. The shop was a tan metal building that got lost in the sea of industrial type buildings in their area. People were constantly telling them “I’ve driven by here for years and never noticed this place”.

They got tired of hearing this and decided to do something about it. The did a complete makeover of the interior and exterior of the shop with a bold black, lime green, and wood color scheme. It’s pretty amazing. Go check it out.

Go The Extra Mile

Those things you do that make an unexpected impression on your clients – yeah, that’s marketing too.

Do you wash your customer’s cars? If not, you should. Think about it. Your client comes in for a 60k service. They drop $800 and when they leave, the car feels no different than when they dropped it off. But if you wash and vacuum it, they are blown away when you pull it around for them.

Pull it around? Yeah, that too. When your client picks up their car, go get the car from the parking lot and pull it up to the door. Hold the door open for them as they get into their car. It’s a little thing that makes a big impression.

Actually serve them. While they’re waiting, don’t point out the coffee machine. Make their coffee for them. Ask them how they like it. After you hand them their coffee, go make notes in your shop management software about how they preferred their coffee. So the next time they come in you can say “you like your coffee with 2 sugars and the caramel creamer, right?”. They will be so impressed that you “remembered”.

Marketing Isn’t Always What You Think

Sometimes you need to get out of the box a bit when you think about marketing your auto repair shop. There are often things you can do that are inexpensive and will set you apart so much from your competitors. This article only touches on the topic. Spend some time thinking about what else you can be doing that doesn’t fit the typical mold of marketing. You and your shop will be better for it.

about the author headshot Brian Walker

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 love 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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