Identity Crisis—A Guide to Marketing a Shop In Transition
Michael Rosenberger saw unrealized potential when he bought out the owner of Tommy’s Hi Tech Auto in 2017. Generating about $1.8 million in annual revenue at the time, Rosenberger knew he had the space and capability to bring that to $3 or $4 million, but it wasn’t happening with the current business model.
After looking through demographic data of Denton, Texas, where the shop is located, Rosenberger realized his Honda and Toyota specialty shop was going to struggle to meet those lofty goals in his market. In fact they would’ve needed to service nearly all the Honda and Toyota vehicles in the area to hit the mark.
So he pivoted, transitioning the shop into an all makes and models shop. Four years later, the shop is tracking to do $3.8 million and Rosenberger just announced the opening of a second location.
Rosenberger’s story of expanding his shop’s focus isn’t uncommon. Neither is a shop narrowing its scope from all makes and models to becoming a speciality shop. Shop owners across the country are constantly moving and adjusting to best fit their unique market and shop.
And while countless hours are spent making sure the shop has the expertise, tools, training and technicians to make that shift, one of the often overlooked parts of the transition is marketing.
Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, too many shops take a “if we build it, it will come” approach, says Carrie-Lynn Rodenberg, founder of the automotive marketing firm Turnkey Marketing.
“You can be the best, but if nobody knows who you are and what you do, it’s not going to matter,” Rodenberg said.
So how do changing shops ensure their marketing efforts maximize the move?
Ratchet+Wrench spoke with marketing experts from inside and outside the industry to understand the best marketing tactics to deploy while making a business change, whether the shop is narrowing or expanding its focus.
Day 0 Checklist
Marketing strategy depends largely on what type of transition the shop is making.
Is the change additive? In other words, is the shop widening its scope by taking on more work? Commonly, this is a speciality shop that transitions to an all-makes-and-models shop. Another example is a shop adding an EV focus to the business.
Or is the change restricting? It could be the business narrowing to a specific speciality or the business stopping service of vehicles past a certain year.
As you’ll see, two very different strategies come into play for these scenarios. However, there are several commonalities that any business, regardless of the type of change, should make. These should be made the moment the change is implemented, if not before, says Rodenberg. And while they seem simple, obvious and easy, a surprising number of shops forget to do them, she says.
- Change all messaging on website to reflect the change
- Change Google My Business page
- Change all social media pages, including the types of vehicles that are in photos
- Stop any current marketing that doesn’t accurately reflect the new business model
“It’s just inaction,” Rodenberg says.
While it seems minor, if it is not done it creates confusion and a lack of transparency. In an industry already plagued by a lack of consumer trust, inconsistent messaging adds to it, says Nic Natarella, founder of AdWise Creative.
“Even if it’s no big deal, [customers] are going to invent the questions. Get there before they do and answer it,” Natarella says.
The final task is to make sure the shop staff is on board. Natarella and Rodenberg have both had clients who are intent on making a change, however they don’t realize their staff is against it. Rosenberger experienced it first hand. He had to replace several service writers and a technician who were so set on being a Honda/Toyota shop. Identifying and removing those individuals is key to making sure the messaging is consistent.
The Expansion-Focused Roadmap
When a shop is undergoing a change that is widening its customer base, most often when a speciality shop becomes an all makes and models shop, there are two distinct types of customers that need to be marketed to: current customers and potential customers.
For current customers, Rodenberg says, reach out to them over email but also communicate the change next time they are in the shop. Many customers will want to know if their shop is still the same great specialist as before. Ease that worry as firmly and quickly as possible. Let them know that through signage and personal conversations. In an effort of transparency, try to be the first person to tell them. Don’t let them hear it from a third party.
It’s also important to communicate the change with current customers because they are likely to have other vehicles that you can now service, Natarella says. Don’t think of “new” customers as just ones you’ve never met before.
However, most of the energy and money should be devoted to new customers, Rodenberg says. After all, the shop likely made the change to attract large amounts of new customers.
Thus, shop owners should assume the new potential customers have little to no idea the shop exists. It’s not quite starting from step one like you’re a brand new shop, because you have existing customers, a website, a history of service and revenue, etc., but the messaging needs to be introductory in nature and it needs to help the customer understand who you are. However, the marketing materials, whether it’s a mailer, a tv advertisement or a simple word of mouth conversion, shouldn’t dive too deep on what you were doing before.
“You don’t need to draw a lot of attention to the fact that you used to be a Honda specialist and now you do everything. If someone has a Nissan, they have no idea you existed and that you’ve worked on just Honda and Toyota. Don’t focus on that. You have so little time to capture attention,” Rodenberg says.
The frequency of the marketing should also mimic a shop opening. Get the shop brand out often and to the surrounding customers and make it clear who you are. While the shop has built trust with one customer base, it is starting from zero with many others.
The Narrowing-Focused Roadmap
Since Brian Walker started his marketing agency Shop Marketing Pros in 2011, he’s helped many repair shops transition from an all makes and models shop to a euro specialty. In fact, nearly all of his work is with European shops.
In his experience, the messaging for those transitions varies greatly from the steps Rodenberg and Natarella laid out for becoming a generalist shop.
While a newly transitioned generalist shop should likely focus on marketing location, quality and fair pricing, marketing for a speciality shop is going to be just that — specialized. It will require more demographic data than a generalist shop to understand each unique neighborhood and what cars are being driven so they can send specialized marketing campaigns to each group.
But as is the case with a generalist shop, there are different approaches for current and new customers.
For current customers, there shouldn’t be much marketing done at all. In fact, Walker does not recommend the shop to come out and say they don’t work on certain types of cars anymore. At least at the beginning. Instead, Walker recommends stopping any general marketing you were doing before.
“Let natural attrition occur,” Walker says.
This will organically thin the generalist customer base while supplementing revenue as the company grows its speciality brand. Slowly and slowly the generalist customers will be whittled down.
Once the specialty work is built up, then the shop can either choose to continue serving those longtime loyal customers or cut them off. This scenario allows the shop to avoid a situation where they are abruptly cutting off a large customer base and causes a more natural dilution.
The messaging to new customers is also different. Serving as a general shop before, it’s likely that the prospective customer base has at least heard of the business. The new marketing should be used to legitimize the business so customers who previously ignored it become intrigued, Walker says. For specialty shop customers, that usually means promoting the high quality and the convenience, as often these customers are business owners or executives and are focused on making things easy.
Tom Schearer has gone through both transitions. Originally a Volkswagen and Audi specialist when Schearer opened Schearer Sales and Service in 1995, the company switched to a generalist shop after going through a downturn several years in. It stayed that way till a few years ago, when the company narrowed its focus to just European vehicles.
Schearer followed many of the steps that Walker recommended. To this day, the shop still services any car that comes in the door, but it only markets to euro shops. It also has a deal with a local domestic and asian repair shop. Any domestic or asian vehicle that comes in and needs diagnostic work, Schearer will send them to their partner shop. Schearer offers to facilitate it himself or for the customer to do it independently. In turn, the other shop will send Schearer all European work that needs diagnostic work.
“We want to be their contact. So if it means we do some of the work that’s what we do,” Schearer says.
From a marketing perspective, the latest transition to becoming a specialist shop has been harder, Schearer says. With a generalist shop, all the marketing material can be the same. But when he switched to being European only, he began to target specific markets, from BMW to Porsche to Audi owners, each with their own marketing campaign.
It also required the shop to change the marketing company it worked with. The company Schearer had used to market as a generalist shop wasn’t comfortable, and didn’t have the knowledge to go after just European customers. The change helped tighten up the company’s Adword usage and help the shop navigate the switch.
Schearer’s motto through the transition has been “focus on your strengths.” He recommends any shop switching to a speciality do the same.
“We can do so much more because we are specialized,” Schearer says. So that’s what he markets. And that’s how he’s found success.
Shift the Perspective
Too many shops craft their marketing messages around what they want to hear, not what the customer wants to hear, Rodenberg says.
“What’s in it for me? That’s what customers are thinking,” she says.
That means incentives, discounts and other messages that persuade customers.
“Shop owners hate incentives, which I get. But you have to play in the confines of reality,” Rodenberg says.
To get in the mind of the consumer and what they want to hear, Natarella recommends joining different Facebook groups. Natarella is part of an owners group for Chrysler Town and Country vehicles and he also belongs to several restoration groups. Spending some time on those pages will give shops a great sense of the issues those owners are facing and how to market.
And the most effective way to understand the consumer is also the easiest and quickest way: ask them.
“You’ve got an entire database of contact information, use it,” Rodenberg says.
Commit to it
What causes marketing efforts to fail more than anything is a short leash, Rodenberg says.
“Whether you like it or not, marketing takes time,” Rodenberg says. “As a marketer, I hate it. I wish we saw results immediately.”
Making a business change is a big move. Naturally, shops want to see results right away, but that’s not often how marketing works. One month isn’t long enough to try something, especially when it’s new. When marketing the shift, the biggest push is the first one. After that it continually needs to be nudged.
Natarella likens it to pushing a car. The first shove is going to take the most energy and it’s only going to move an inch. But every push after that is going to get easier and after a while, the car will be moving on its own. That’s how to visualize marketing.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight, neither does marketing,” Natarella says.
Rosenberger’s revenue has increased dramatically since the change, going from $1.8 million before the transition to $3.8 million in 2021. While that has spiked, the changes have still been gradual. One of the main customers Rosenberger hoped to add by going to an all makes and models shop was euro customers. In the first year after the change, European vehicle repair made up just two percent of the business. After the second year it was five percent. Through three and a half years, it's now over 11 percent.
“It’s not a quick growth,” Rosenberger said. “You just have to get your name out there.”