Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2000   by Allen Jones

Mine your customer database

To take full advantage of shop management software, add data from your best resource: customers.

When we asked suppliers how you can make money from their shop management, most replied, emphatically, you need to mine your customer database.

It makes sense. After all, your current customers are your most valuable asset – the sum of the work you’ve done thus far to build up your business. The suppliers are only advising you to leverage what you’ve done, to wring the most out of what you’ve got.

On the other hand, if you’re not already using management software in your shop, chances are you’re not familiar with the idea of a customer database and what it can be summoned to do for your business.

In simplest terms, a customer database is a series of information records the computer can store for you, and retrieve on demand. It’s as if you put a record of each customer’s information in a file folder, then found a way to retrieve, exceedingly fast, any record you wanted at the moment.

You’d find that a useful capability, no doubt. But it’s only the beginning of what you can do with a serious customer database – only the most rudimentary first step.

Suppose you included in each customer’s information record the licence number of his vehicle, or vehicles. You see a car drive onto your lot, enter its plate number at your keyboard, and before the customer gets through the front door you’ve got his complete vehicle record and service history before you on the computer screen.

Your confidence rises. You can greet this customer politely and respectfully by name, even though you know it’s fully three months since he’s been in for service. And there’s a reminder in the file that his left-side CV boot has a crack or two and needs replacing. So, even before this customer states his current business, you’ve positioned yourself to sell him needed services beyond what he came in for.

What’s more, your chances of making that sale have risen dramatically over what they would have been if you had greeted this important customer as just another unknown off the street. Not only does your information make you look professional, but it lifts the burden of care from a customer who has more to worry about than the condition of his engine oil and his CV boots.

The customer can see and appreciate that his car’s in good hands with you. Now, let’s suppose this customer, who actually came in for a headlight replacement, immediately agreed to an oil change and replacement of CV boots. What role will your customer database play in this transaction?

The database will pass customer information to the work order you write, so you don’t have to enter it again. And it will in turn pass that information, accurately and completely, to the invoice you give the customer. At the same time, the service information is used to update this customer’s database record.

This transaction illustrates a tidy little cycle – for one customer record. Now, consider the fact that the software can examine all your customer records as a single collection of information. What can that capability do for you?

Let’s suppose the sample customer got you wondering if you have a lot of other customers who haven’t been in for service in three months or more. Good question.

This is where database software truly shines. It can search each and every customer record and point out to you those that have a last-service date earlier than, let’s say, February 29th.

Many of the integrated shop management programs could then pass the list of customers in this last-service-date category to a word processor and/or a mail-merge module. You could prepare a reminder letter and have your software give you a personalized copy for each customer and a set of mailing labels to match. Or you could use the labels to prepare a mailing of the service-special flyer you had done up by a printer.

Now you’re starting to see what is meant by mining your customer database. You could as easily have targeted customers in any of the other categories by which customer data is stored – all the Fords, or all the Ferraris, or all the cars with more than 150,000 km at last service date, or all the Fords with more than 150,000 km, or all the customers with service reminders in their files.

The more you manipulate the customer data, the more you realize you’ve got a powerful marketing tool sitting on your front counter. It has capabilities far beyond anything you could possibly do by hand. And it awaits only your imaginative input to put it to work on your bottom line.

A note of caution, though. A customer database is only as good as the customer data you give it to work with. And you give it the data by typing in each of your customer records. If you’re a keyboard klutz, it can be a long and tedious job, full of opportunities for error. Consider hiring a temporary keyboard expert, or assigning staff who can do the job.

As an alternative, you could compile your customer records piecemeal – add a new record each time a customer comes in for service. The drawback for most shops would be the gap in time before you have a database worth mining. SSGM

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