Customers are the lifeblood of an independent garage. The latest equipment, fancy signage and the best technicians will mean nothing if the workshop isn’t full of cars owned by paying customers.
Which is why, as we enter the new year, we’ve pulled together a list of things you could consider if you’re hoping to attract new customers to your garage in 2024. The good news is, you don’t have to be an expert in marketing or an ace salesperson to increase footfall and keep your customers satisfied.
In no particular order, here are some ideas to add to your action plan.
Email your customers
Even in the age of social media, email marketing remains one of the best forms of digital marketing. Indeed, it tops the list of the most effective digital media channels and, without wishing to bombard you with stats, the DMA (Direct Marketing Association) says it has an average return on investment (ROI) of 42:1. In other words, for every pound you spend, you can expect a return of £42.
You should gather the email address of every customer who comes in contact with your garage. If possible, segment the database to enable the effective targeting of each customer. If you see a customer once a year for an MOT, email them with an incentive for a discounted service. On a broader level, send seasonal messages, such as wiper blades and winter tyres in wet and cold weather, or air conditioning re-gassing services in the summer.
Remember to adhere to the rules of direct marketing; you’re only allowed to send marketing emails to individual customers if they’ve granted you permission. Similarly, you must give the customer the ability to opt out of further emails. Visit the government website for more information.
Discounts and promotions
It’s never been easier to tempt new or lapsed customers into your garage using discounts and promotions. You don’t necessarily have to offer a reduced price or a free gift; use the tactics employed by the big chains.
For example, tempt customers into your workshop by offering a complimentary wiper blade or tyre check. Alternatively, use your email database or social channels to promote an air conditioning re-gas when the temperatures rise, or to explain the benefits of better headlight bulbs when the clocks go back.
Ask for referrals
Figures vary, but many marketers agree that word-of-mouth is the most effective form of marketing. Deliver a great service to Mr X and there’s a better chance that he’ll recommend your garage to Miss Y and Mrs Z. Use this to your advantage by launching a referral scheme that rewards recommendations. For example, incentivise a loyal customer by offering a free MOT if they introduce you to a new customer.
The flip side is the fact that disgruntled customers will be quick to tell their friends, family and colleagues if they aren’t happy with your service. Thirteen percent of customers will tell 15 or more people if they have a negative experience. Worryingly, only one in 26 customers will tell a business about their negative experience; the rest simply leave.
Reconnect with old customers
According to Shopify, the cost of acquiring a new customer is dependent on the industry, business size, target audience and goals, but one thing’s for sure: it’s cheaper to keep hold of an existing customer. Equally, it’d be worth targeting lapsed customers who, for whatever reason, have taken their business elsewhere.
Consider a ‘we’ve missed you’ email when the customer’s car is due an MOT or service. Similarly, a ‘what did we do wrong?’ survey could work if the customer left without warning. Even if the customer doesn’t return, the feedback might increase the chances of you retaining your existing customers.
Collaborate and network
Hooking up with other local businesses can help to raise awareness of your garage and create partnership opportunities. You may have seen evidence of this in your area, such as a local Isuzu or Land Rover dealer having a presence in the car park of an animal feed/country store. It’s all about targeting the right people.
If there’s a new housing development on the edge of town, talk to the developers about appearing in their brochures or on their website. Once the houses are occupied, consider a leaflet drop welcoming the residents to their new homes and offering them a discounted service or MOT.
As well as attending local council and business development networking events, consider piggybacking the social media channels of non-competitor businesses. You could endorse a local barbers or cycle shop in exchange for them doing the same for you.
Look for sponsorship opportunities
Local community groups, sports clubs and charities are always searching for support and donations. Sponsoring the shirts of a grassroots or youth football team will ensure your garage’s name is on show at all home and away games. If the team is playing a level high enough to attract the attention of the local press, you may even see your name on the back pages.
Being visible in the local area is crucial, says Jane Wright of The Wright Consultancy. “Even the smallest garage business should think about PR and the way it communicates its messages to potential and existing customers,“ she advises.
“There are many ways to do this including submitting news articles to the media, running open days or events, being consistent on social media or sending newsletters.
“The aim is to become a familiar name, showcase how professional you are and offer helpful advice that costs you nothing, but means a lot to the customer. This develops the ‘Know, Like and Trust’ factor so when they need a garage, you’ll be the name that comes to mind and the decision to use you is likely to have already been made.“
Update your website
Jim Lang, managing director of Garage Services Online, says: “Customers expect you to have a website – but will they be able to find it?“
“If your website has anything less than a well-structured page for each service you want to be found for, you’re not strategically targeting work. Many websites fail in being interactive with how people search online and are incapable of generating the specific work a garage wants.
“You can take control and attract the customers with the jobs you really want by employing the right online specialist to work alongside you. This is a choice you can make and is why it’s vital to work with a website agency with years of specialist garage sector knowledge.“
“First impressions count – and it’ll no doubt be online so make sure your website is up to the job. Once a potential customer has found your garage, you want them to stick around and make a booking. Whether they do or not will be influenced by how easy it is to navigate your website and the ‘feel’ they get for you based on high-quality visuals and clear, informative copy.
“Does your website represent your garage on its best day? Does it show how well-equipped the workshop is, or how qualified your technicians are? Does it offer multiple ways to contact you or the option of online bookings? If not, you could be losing customers to the garage down the road whose website does.“
Use online review sites
On the subject of online review sites, Jim Lang adds: “Google reviews are crucial. Google’s search engine takes them into account when ranking a business in the search results. And the higher you appear, the more traffic and potential customers you’ll get.
“Customer reviews also generate trust and sales potential; they’re social proof that your garage is credible. Studies show that businesses with positive reviews tend to generate more sales. In fact, 93 percent of customers have made buying decisions based on an online review and 28 percent say they have looked up a business’ reviews whilst standing right outside its premises.“
Develop a USP or point of difference
Generally speaking, customers stay local when they’re looking for a garage to service, repair or MOT their cars. Travelling further afield to save a few quid is a false economy when a perfectly good garage is close to home.
But as we highlighted last year, customers will be willing to travel a long distance if you offer a specialist service, especially if it can save them hundreds of pounds. It’s why Palmers Garage in Exmouth attracts customers from across the UK who are after a cost-effective timing belt replacement on a Ford 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine.
Do you have a technician with a Level 4 Electric/Hybrid qualification? Make sure your customers know about it, because an increasing number of them will be searching for someone to look after their electric cars once the warranty has expired.
Host an event
Consider hosting a ‘cars and coffee’ event on a Saturday or Sunday morning. If you have a sizeable forecourt area or car park, you can throw open your doors, arrange somebody to serve hot drinks and bacon sandwiches, and play the genial host as car enthusiasts chat about all things motoring and share your garage’s name on their social media accounts.
You’re not selling a product or service, but you are raising brand awareness and aligning your business with people who care about their cars.
For a more general approach, approach your suppliers to see if they’d be willing to support a ‘meet the expert’ or car maintenance open day. The use of a big brand will give your garage a boost, plus you’ll benefit from their social media might if they give the event a push.
Garage Services Online’s Jim Lang said: “You may not know the customer yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them.
“Does Facebook get you in a fuddle, LinkedIn leave you feeling lost, or Instagram give you the ick? It’s time to get social and make your garage visible to potential customers who are using social media to ask for recommendations.
“You’ll also be making it easier for someone to reply to them; they’ll be able to post your Facebook profile link in the comments or share via WhatsApp or Messenger. Word-of-mouth recommendations are now predominantly digital.
“You can keep social simple. Start by creating a Facebook business page and complete the whole profile including information on who you help, how, and why someone should bring their vehicle to you.
“Then start posting; give potential customers an insight into your day, share stories about the vehicles you’ve fixed, developments in the business, and information about local events to emphasise how embedded you are in the community.“
Motor Ombudsman accreditation and an engaging Garage Finder profile
Bill Fennell, chief ombudsman and managing director of The Motor Ombudsman, said: “Standing out from the crowd is imperative for independent garages when operating in such a competitive sector.
“Accreditation to The Motor Ombudsman gives businesses the exclusive ability of being able to generate new business leads through an engaging profile on the Ombudsman’s online Garage Finder – used every year by more than 500,000 motorists, who are looking for a reputable vehicle repairer for ad hoc or routine maintenance.”
“The Garage Finder is a valuable shop window for more than 7,000 Motor Ombudsman-accredited businesses across the UK – an easy-to-navigate one-stop portal highlighting core services and expertise, positive first-hand endorsements and ratings from customers, coupled with the ability for consumers to make a booking quickly and easily.
“These features combine to deliver an attractive tool and marketing resource that can form an integral part of a new business generation strategy for garages, and make a positive difference to their bottom line.”
Above all else, continuing to exceed your customers’ expectations will provide a foundation for attracting new clients and building your business. With a strong reputation, an arsenal of positive reviews and an ability to think a little differently to other local garages, you could have a queue of new customers waiting at the door.
Then, you’ll be able to pick and choose the work that’s right for you. Have a happy and prosperous 2024.