How To Differentiate Your Auto Repair Shop From Your Competition
Brian Walker, co-owner, Shop Marketing Pros
I want to take you through a quick visualization exercise. Imagine you are on a trip. You’ve been driving all day. You skipped lunch, it’s now late in the evening, and you’re really hungry. You’re coming up on the exit for Pleasantville, USA, and the next city is over 100 miles away. The time to get food is now.
You pick up your phone and say, “Hey Siri, what restaurants are near me?”
The search results look something like this:
You look at the pictures of the food and it all looks the same. You decide to drive there to see which one looks busiest. They’re all next to each other, after all. They each have approximately the same number of cars in the parking lot and the buildings look pretty much the same.
Which one do you go to?
It’s an impossible choice, so you just pick one and hope for the best.
It’s an unfortunate situation, but people have been told all their lives that the auto repair business is full of dishonest people who are just waiting for the next sucker to take advantage of.
For those of you in the industry, you know that nothing could be further from the truth. I have personally found this industry to be a group of the most helpful, friendly people you could ever meet – and they prove this stigma wrong every day. It doesn’t change the fact that the perception is strong.
This alone is reason enough to differentiate your shop. But every business wants to differentiate by saying they’re honest, they have integrity, or that they provide the best customer service.
These claims are made by so many businesses that they just fall on deaf ears now.
So let’s get that out of the way first. Stop telling people these things. It’s like if the restaurants differentiated themselves by saying their food won’t make you sick. That’s not a unique selling proposition. It’s a subconscious expectation. Besides, if you have to tell people you’re honest, you’re probably lying.
When people are looking for an auto repair shop to take care of their vehicles, they want to know that you can provide expert craftsmanship at a fair price with the least amount of inconvenience to them.
There isn’t much beyond what that statement covers that people are looking for in an auto repair shop. But it doesn’t mean you stop there when differentiating.
Finding a way to show people that you will provide those three things will separate you from mediocre shops, but you’ll still need to differentiate your shop from the other good and great shops in your area.
So let’s look at the many other ways you can set your shop apart.
First let me say, this is not an ideal place to differentiate, but I can’t not include it in this list. It is the most common way that poor businesspeople try to differentiate. The easiest way to get new business is to have the cheapest prices. It’s also the easiest way to create a shop that has a low average repair order, high technician turnover and a high customer churn rate. It’s just not worth it.
On the other hand, I know shop owners who take pride in being the most expensive shop in their area, though I doubt they’d want to advertise that.
What you can do is show people that you put your customer’s best interest above just making a dollar. I recently saw a Facebook post where a shop shared about a car that came in for a second opinion on an exhaust leak. The other shop recommended the replacement of the catalytic converter because the flanges were rusted to the point of leaking. This shop simply welded on new flanges and saved the customer over $1,000.
Trying to be the cheapest shop in town is a race to the bottom. Doing the right thing for the customer, at a reasonable profit, is just good business.
When you have the opportunity to do things like this, promote it, but do it as humbly as possible. You don’t want to add to the stigma surrounding the industry by intentionally making another shop look bad.
This is one of the best ways, in my opinion, that a shop can set themselves apart. It answers the question about expert craftsmanship. It also assumes the polar opposite of being the low-price provider. When you promote high quality, people expect to pay a premium, so it deters price shoppers.
Ways that you can differentiate on quality include:
- Promoting your warranty – People want to know that you stand behind your work. We work with multiple shops that provide a 4-year/48,000-mile warranty, one that has a 5-year/50,000-mile warranty, and another that has a lifetime warranty!
- Aligning with well-known brands – As an independently owned auto repair shop, your brand only goes so far. But with the jobber programs available to shops today, you can latch onto and ride the coattails of national brands that everyone has heard of. Even if you’re not part of a jobber program, you can promote that you use certain brands of parts that people will recognize.
- Showcasing training and continuing education – When you take your staff to automotive training events like AAPEX, you show that you value knowledge and staying up-to-date on new vehicle technologies, diagnostic procedures and business practices. At this year’s AAPEX, Shop Marketing Pros will present, “13 Foundational Marketing Strategies for Every Shop,” on Nov. 3, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Join us to learn practical and effective marketing tips to implement when you get back to the shop.
Convenience is the new currency. You need to look for opportunities at every turn to make your clients’ lives easier. Doing so can be one of the things you can differentiate on most successfully.
There are people in this world who have more time than money, and people who have more money than time. You must know which category most of your clients fit into. The goal for most shop owners is to build a customer base of those who have more money than time, because they are willing to pay for convenience.
Ways you can differentiate on convenience include:
- Promoting loaner cars, shuttle service and after-hours drop-off – For a person who has more money than time, the real inconvenience of auto repair and maintenance is being without their car during the day. If you can solve that problem for them when another shop can’t – you get their work.
- Showcasing speed of service – Maybe it’s not the busy professional but rather the stay-at-home parent who is taking care of their vehicle’s needs while also caring for their children. In this case, they may be willing to wait on the repair if you can get it done quickly. The last thing they want is to show up for a 9 a.m. appointment and the car does not get in the shop until 10:30 a.m. You just wasted their time. But when things move quickly, they become a raving fan.
- Advertising the proximity to shopping and entertainment – If someone sees the opportunity to multitask while having their vehicle serviced, that may be the thing that causes them to choose your shop. Are you located close to a shopping center, mall, museum, movie theatre, or some other attraction? That’s a pretty big differentiator that you need to be talking about.
This one might seem obvious, but we still see specialty shops whose marketing looks like that of any other auto repair shop. But a specialty sets your shop apart like nothing else will. When people have a need and your shop caters directly to that need, you have a leg up on the competition.
There are two main ways that auto repair shops specialize. These include specializing in certain brands or categories of vehicles (think Euro shops or diesel truck specialists), or specializing in specific types of services (think exhaust shops, radiator shops, tire shops, or mobile diagnostics).
It’s pretty easy to differentiate on a specialty. You simply tell people what types of vehicles you service, and what types of services you perform. This should be included in every marketing action you take.
The most common mistake we see with this is the owner allowing fear to keep them from going all-in on the specialty when it comes to their marketing. They will be passive with it because they still want the opportunity to do work outside of that specialty. But all this usually does is water down the specificity of what they do, and actually causes them to lose business.
There are many shops out there that have had great success in catering to a specific group of people. At our shop, we were known as “The Triangle’s Most Female-Friendly Shop”, and that was before catering to women was commonplace. This happened by pure accident when my wife overheard a customer telling our service advisor that her friends had told her that we were “great with women.”
Look at your customers and determine if you have a group that you serve more than any other. Is your shop near a metro area causing you to work primarily for busy professionals? Does your expertise in diesel trucks have you working with a lot of blue-collar tradesmen?
Oftentimes when a shop takes the time to figure out who their ideal customer is, and then starts marketing directly to those types of customers, it can become very profitable. This is because you can speak directly to them through your marketing, and they have no doubt that your shop is the right shop for them.
Sometimes you have competitors that are so similar to you that it’s hard to differentiate yourself from them. This is when it’s time to dig into the irrefutable truth that people do business with people they know, like and trust.
I am of the opinion that there is nothing you can do in business that is more powerful than getting people to know, like and trust you, your shop and your staff.
You need to be the most friendly, helpful, and competent shop in your area – and you need to show it!
When people know, like and trust you:
- Paying more for vehicle service is no longer a factor
- Driving further to your shop is no longer a factor
- Getting a ride to work is no longer a factor
- And so on.
This is all within reason, of course.
The most important issue facing our industry today is the technician shortage. I’d be doing you a disservice if I talked about differentiating without telling you how to use this same tactic to make your shop more attractive to technicians.
One of the things I want you to start thinking about is how you should be marketing to your future employees.
All of the same principles above come into play when hiring. Great technicians hold all of the power now. If they’re truly great, they can pick nearly any shop in the world and negotiate top pay and benefits. So they’re not going to work for some “same old” shop.
What are the things that matter to technicians when looking for a shop to work for?
Technicians want things like:
- Top pay and benefits
- Air-conditioned shops
- New or well-maintained equipment
- OE scan tools
- No weekend work, and even 4-day workweeks
- Fun, friendly coworkers
- Training opportunities
Do some of those look familiar? They should because we’ve already talked about many of these when talking about how to differentiate to customers. You should be promoting all of these things even when you’re not actively hiring.
Uniqueness is a gift. People are naturally attracted to different. But because we’re so entrenched in the day-to-day of our businesses, we often can’t see what makes us special.
Take the time to dig into what truly makes your shop unique, find how that uniqueness is important to your clients, and then tell the world about it.
Brian Walker is co-owner of Shop Marketing Pros, an agency that provides marketing services for auto repair shops. Brian is a 26 year automotive industry veteran. He was ASE Master Certified and was a Mercedes-Benz Master Technician. He and his wife, Kim, owned three shops in the Raleigh, NC area.
June 6, 2022