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Adapting to Self-Educated Consumers

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Every month, more than 20 million people look online for automotive-related information, and, more and more, consumers are turning to social media and mobile applications for tips and advice.

A recent survey conducted by AutoMD.com concluded that users posted more than 80,000 questions to the company’s new online repair “community,” a post-your-question forum called Auto Answers, and to its applicable mobile applications.

Of those questions, 70 percent dealt with diagnoses of a vehicle problem, and 30 percent were focused on “making sure I am not paying too much for a repair.”

Brian Hafer, AutoMD.com’s vice president of marketing, says this trend means one simple thing: Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in furthering their knowledge of automotive repairs.

Now, what that means for repair shops may be a little trickier to pinpoint.

“Everybody knows how much parts cost nowadays,” says Ray Kunz, a former shop owner and current industry consultant. “It’s become a much more difficult thing for us to sell at the mark-up that’s required for us to do business.”

Of all the automotive aspects consumers are interested in, Kunz says the most apparent—at least from a shop owner’s perspective—is price. He says customers are increasingly interested in being well equipped for the ongoing “price battles” with service advisors.

The key is helping customers understand the value of your shop, Kunz says.

“We have to approach people differently and bring more service to the table, more warranties to the table,” Kunz says. “Most dealers have (6,000-mile, six-month) or (12,000-mile, 12-month) warranties, and we advise our clients to have 24 and 24. We need to give better warranties, give better service. … We need to show customers that the same people are here every time, where as dealers can have a constant changing of the guard.”

Companies like AutoMD.com, meanwhile, focus on creating a level playing field between the consumer and the repair shop. Through its online services, AutoMD.com provides how-to guides for repairs, help with diagnosis, information about pricing, a forum for questions and a shop locator.

“People are looking for convenience, ways to be more efficient, and obviously the Internet and all the tools out there have enabled that,” Hafer says. “Over the last 10 years or so, we’ve really seen this progression of people turning to the Internet for this type of help, whether it’s our site or another one.”

AutoMD.com, Hafer says, isn’t trying to make life difficult for shop owners or take away repair orders by launching a new generation of do-it-yourselfers. Really, it’s the opposite, he says. Creating a more educated consumer base should create more willing customers who now have even more reason to trust in an honest shop.

Some shop owners are skeptical.

“I think it could be great, but it all depends on the information they’re getting,” says Gary Armando, owner of Little Falls Auto Service in Little Falls, N.J. “People have always said that the less a customer knows, the better. But if they have accurate information and really do understand what’s going on, then it should help us in getting the repairs or maintenance done. Educating a customer is always part of our jobs, and it helps if they have that knowledge—as long as it’s accurate.”

Hafer says that accurate information is AutoMD.com’s biggest priority. Repair tips are derived from a staff of ASE-certified mechanics, and prices are gauged from surveys with shop owners. In fact, Hafer says that shop owners and mechanics can participate in discussions to help draw business.

The site also has a shop locator option, and Hafer says it is a simple way for shops to connect with customers who may be looking for a new service center.

“Even though we knew it was going to help consumers, it presented a great opportunity for shops, because it gave them a place online where they can go into and update that information and start that communication with the consumer,” Hafer says.

Kunz says shop owners should try to treat this educated-consumer trend as a positive. It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate why it’s important for customers to pay your labor costs, your price mark-ups—it’s all about the service and value you’re providing them.

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