Russell H. Conwell, founder of Temple University, made famous a story about a Persian farmer who left his fruitful lands in (then) Mesopotamia searching for legendary diamond fields. He died searching, penniless and far from home. Shortly thereafter, a rich diamond vein was found on the farmer’s own land. The story’s powerful lesson is something that business people can still learn from today. Automotive shop owners have “acres of diamonds” in the form of knowledge about their customers, not only in their computers, but in their own minds. This information can be turned into the most powerful marketing tools imaginable. Today, there are more opportunities to capitalize on this information than ever. Not only that, but thanks to Cloud computing—the Internet revolution that is allowing one to take advantage of software and computing power that does not reside on your own system—you no longer have to be an IT person to make it work. Whether you decide to orchestrate your own marketing plan or you choose to have aftermarket companies do much of it for you, your merchandising possibilities are practically limitless. We spoke to Paul Filion, former owner of Paoli Auto Repair, an independent automotive repair shop in Paoli, PA. Filion took over the business in 1987 and sold it in 2004 to pursue other businesses. “We got to know our customers and their personalities,” Filion said. “Someone might have four cars and four kids in college. We knew those types of parents were going to want preventive maintenance to keep problems from happening.” In other words, they wanted their kids to be safe and didn’t want to be called all the time about car problems. Also, Filion said he would start with the information that aftermarket software companies provide, such as technical bulletins or recalls. “We would take this information and see if we had anyone with those vehicles. If so, we’d send them a postcard. Now you have created a situation where the customer is asking you for things, rather than you selling them.” Filion added they would notice if customers were using up brakes and clutches more quickly. This was a sign that teenagers might be learning to drive. Teenagers have quicker reaction times and will tend to wear out brakes more quickly. As far as clutch problems, he would educate the parents about the problem and in a few cases, he even ended up being driving instructor to several of his customers’ kids. Filion used his real-world component failure information to advise customers on when they could actually expect a timing belt, for example, to fail. On the other hand, with customers who clearly didn’t want to spend a penny more than he/she had to, the shop would use technical bulletins and OE maintenance schedules as C.Y.A. devices. This information allowed the shop to note everything that had been recommended, in case of a later customer complaint. Filion noted he also would order parts for cars before he had even talked to the owner. He knew that certain customers would always say, “Go ahead and do it.” Filion added, “The worst that could happen is I would have to send a part back. But, the time saved by having the parts early in the day was considerable.” Finally, Filion said, “making assumptions (about customers) is very dangerous in a service business. We called our approach of getting to know what kind of a customer we were dealing with, ‘Managing Expectations.” He would “inform” rather than sell. An example would be explaining that a pending problem that could be handled while another system was already opened up on the car would save a lot of labour in the long run. But then he’d let the customer be the judge. If the customer decided not to do the work and later got stung with double labour, it gave even more credence to the earlier advice. While enterprising and creative service dealers can do much on their own to capitalize on all of the customer information they gather, aftermarket companies are now combining marketing techniques with their management systems to offer turnkey solutions to many needs of the typical service shop. What has made this effort explode is the Cloud technology mentioned earlier. This allows service dealers to take advantage of powerful computing power and storage that might not otherwise be possible. “ALLDATA recognized early on that repair information was only one tenet of the diagnostic and repair experience,” Ben Johnson, senior product marketing manager at ALLDATA. “You can have a great shop with great technicians, but if a shop can’t market itself and let its customer base know it exists, that is a problem.” ALLDATA will now host a Web site for a shop, empower a shop’s own Web site, tie together such things as online appointment requests, personalized customer pages with service history and maintenance service reminders. The company offers a newsletter with automotive information that can go out under a shop’s name too. The idea is to integrate the technical information, such as maintenance schedules and recall notices, with your customer vehicle profiles. This allows the kind of proactive merchandising that Filion was doing by hand. “There is still a bit of the, ‘Big Brother is watching me,’” said Johnson. “People are getting used to sharing their woes and getting help on line. They understand that if it doesn’t hurt them from a competitive standpoint, the benefits outweigh the risks. Also, we think that in five years, there will be much less reliance on desktop computers. Shop owners will use iPads and Smart Readers. These are easy to carry (out in the shop and elsewhere) and have functionality to the point of need. It has to be more platform-independent. We want the shop to have the best equipment or software to meet their needs and not drive them to use one platform. Mitchell 1’s SocialCRM (Customer Retention Marketing) software supplements and integrates with the company’s technical database. From the shop and the car owner’s standpoints, this is all opt-in data. Car owners whose shops use this system can make appointments; see service interval schedules, vehicle history and access coupons. They also can use online service advisor software that asks them questions about vehicle symptoms, and provides the customer high-quality videos describing the need for specific maintenance services. According to Mitchell 1’s product manager Brian Warfield, the next step, when customers use the Mitchell 1 SocialCRM program, is that new customer information entered into a shop’s database is picked up almost immediately. That data generates a customer thank you note to the vehicle owner that includes links to provide a Shop Review, and/or register for their personalize vehicle maintenance Web site. The shop’s Web site can be included in all marketing communications, and making an appointment can be done by simply replying to the e-mail. Further, if a shop has a slow Monday, for example, and the shop owner requests a promotional e-mail, by the next day, Mitchell 1 has an e-mail blast out to the shop’s customers. Warfield cautioned shop owners though that, “once you start communicating with e-mail your customers will expect you to respond.” Mitchell 1’s product manager Gary Hixson pointed out that the Internet has virtually eliminated the hassle of CD installation and updates. Hixson also said techs helping one another on the Internet have made the company’s information more valuable. Mitchell 1 also has a forum of its own where information is shared. In a perfect world, Hixson said, those connections would all come together in one place. Everyone we spoke to expects those intersections to happen in the not-too-distant future. Shop owners are generally very independent people. It is entirely legitimate and can be effe ctive to choose one’s own software, manage customer relations in the shop and market to one’s existing customer base that way. This is only effective though if you, or one of your employees wants to concentrate on that aspect of the business. Other options include hiring someone who interacts well with customers and can do the marketing work, letting aftermarket companies do much of that work, or combining the two approaches. But with Cloud technology, we are entering an era when much of the heavy merchandising lifting can be done outside the shop, while the technical and direct customer relations work is done by the owner and the techs. Whatever your situation, automotive associations, aftermarket companies, and fellow shop owners are more than willing to help. A small business owner today has more resources than ever before, and can suit his or her marketing effort to the shop’s capabilities, budget and philosophy of doing business. Always remember though, however, you approach it, that the information necessary to achieve success is right in your own back yard. Acres of diamonds—in the form of customer demographics and personal information—is something you know better than anyone else, and the only limit to using it is the capacity of your imagination.