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Desperation is the Mother of Invention

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Audra Fordin

I remember the first time my dad took me to his auto repair shop. It was during the late 1970s and I was in first grade. I was immediately fascinated by vehicles and thought it was cool how all the little parts work together in an effort to accomplish a common goal.

Ten years later, I got to do my first repair. It felt good to get a car back on the road. I felt empowered. There was no reason to be afraid of breaking down. As long as I had the right tools, I could get moving again. I believe America is great because we are a nation of problem-solvers. This was, and still is, my contribution.Twenty years later, I bought the family business from my dad. It was a dream come true. But sadly, the honeymoon didn’t last. Five years after I took over, we found ourselves in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Thousands of New Yorkers lost their jobs. Savings accounts took a hit, too.

I drive past a lot of my customers’ homes when I road test cars. During the good times, their driveways were empty most of the time. That changed in 2008.

I started to notice more and more cars parked in the driveway. It was a bad sign—people weren’t commuting. They were out of work.

New York City is not a cheap place to live. Most people don’t have much money left after they pay rent or make a mortgage payment. Auto repair is a necessity, but it’s far down a person’s list of priorities.

Our revenue took a nosedive. I was forced to operate with a skeleton crew. It became clear that I was in a “make-or-break” moment. If I didn’t turn things around quickly, we’d have to close our doors. After days of fearful thinking, I had a realization: Our demographics were all wrong. Our shop used to be a man cave. Why not serve women and families?

Most women feel uncomfortable at the auto shop. I needed to find a way to make them feel welcome. I’m a believer in community service, so I prepared an auto awareness workshop for women. I gave it a catchy name—Women Auto Know—and promoted the workshop with social media, press releases, word-of-mouth, and emails to friends.

It was a hit. I showed women how to get under the hood, change headlights, interpret dashboard warnings, check fluid levels and other basic maintenance. We collected donations from drivers and sponsors and used the proceeds to fund repairs for single moms. It was rewarding to make a difference in the lives of people who need it most.

Our shop received a significant amount of media attention for the efforts. I’ve been featured on 20/20, Rachael Ray, and the Today show to name a few. There’s no way to guess how many viewers got curious enough to visit my shop, but surely it made a difference. Second, many workshop participants told their friends about us and became loyal customers.

I know you’re wondering about ROI. First, think about COI. What is the “cost of ignoring” a driver’s needs? I can tell you this: our annual revenue has quadrupled since launching the workshops. We still host them because they are so popular. We use the same procedure with new customers. In our virtual world, using the person-to-person approach in a one-on-one setting makes all the difference. It takes less than 15 minutes! That’s not a steep investment for brand loyalty and better relationships with customers.

Think about it. If you connect with one new driver a week for 50 weeks, you will be out 12 hours. There’s no out-of-pocket expense. According to AAA, the annual cost of repair and maintenance is $766. If you convince half of those drivers to become your customer, you will make $19,000. It’s worth the effort.

At our shop, 1,300 drivers have been educated and empowered so far. If you want to host your own workshop, follow these steps:

1. Determine your demographics. My workshops are mostly for women, but we don’t segregate. Men come, too. You could focus on new drivers, elderly drivers, or people who drive for a living instead. This step will determine your content, presentation style, and promotion strategy.

2. Start promoting a month early. People have busy lives. If you announce a workshop the day before it happens, don’t expect a big crowd. Place a flyer that highlights the benefits at your service desk. Include a sign-up sheet that asks for a name, phone number, and email address. Send a reminder text and email.

3. If you want to provide free repairs, get a sponsor. It doesn’t have to be an automotive business. Nearby restaurants are a smart choice. Here’s a good way to break the ice: make a customer survey. Enter people who participate in a monthly drawing. The prize is a gift card to a partnering restaurant.

I can’t promise you’ll end up on the Today show, but you will be recognized if you do it right. Promote it well and you’ll get the attention of the folks who matter most: drivers in your community. Make a positive difference in their lives and they will remember it and share it.

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