By Clarence Clark
One of the problems I see traveling around to different shops is the inability of the shop to let people know how good they are. Many of you spend lots of time and money improving the quality of your machine work and the engines you build. You should spend as much time and effort on promoting the shop. The problem is, most of your customers don’t have a clue about what you do and how much time and money you spend doing it. You need to put a plan in place that will involve customers more in the details of your business.
The Open House
One of the things I really like is a shop open house for customers. Bill McKnight, in charge of customer training and communication services for Clevite, was telling me about a really great open house he attended last year in Rapid City, SD. Les Stadel, the business principle of Johnson Machine, put a really terrific open house together for his customers. Johnson Machine is adjacent to its NAPA store so Stadel created a combined open house for both businesses.
All the factory reps had tabletop displays, and all 10 folks in the shop were at their workstations doing demonstrations and talking to customers. Customers could come through at their own pace, and since it was built around the lunch hour and food was supplied, the attendance was really good. Bill reported several good discussions with customers concerning the parts his company supplies to NAPA.
Another spin on the open house that I like is using your shop to host car club meetings. I know of one shop that once each winter hosts the Pontiac Club for an evening. The shop owner does a different project or demonstration each meeting. One time he’ll bore and hone a block, another time he’ll do casting repair, whatever seems to be of general interest. What a great way for a shop to show off a bit!
Another variation on this theme is a booth at a local car show or Autorama. Again, you’re reaching out to a focused audience that has one thing in common – love of cars.
Some shops have also used working with the local vo-tec or community college as a means of promoting their work. The shop will set up and do demonstrations for the students on engine rebuilding. This is a great way to make a good impression on future customers! I’ve also found that a good relationship with the local instructors helped me get first dibs on the best students after they graduate. I’ve even interned some co-op students over the years that later became full-time employees.
Finally, the last variation of the open house is not really an open house in the typical sense. It’s actually more of a PR opportunity. Make an appearance on a local radio talk show. Whether it’s a car specific or basic consumer oriented show, local radio is a great chance to make a good impression and let your customers and prospects know what you can provide them!
Try sending fliers out with the monthly billings to your customers. Often these fliers are available from your equipment manufacturer when you purchase a new machine. I’ve even had good results making up my own fliers. One I did recently was on magnetism and the importance of using a shop that understands the problem and how to handle it.
Your message can be as technical as possible, because your audience already is familiar with machine work and engine rebuilding – remember, they’re your current customers and prospects.
Growing Your Business
Many of the successful shops I visit have become successful not just by doing good work but also by finding a market for their work. You’ll often see them specializing in one or two things – such as antique tractors, pulling tractors, marine equipment or racing engines – besides their regular work.
Motor Rebuilders, a Toledo, OH-shop in its seventh decade of engine rebuilding, specializes in obsolete industrial engine rebuilding. Jack Story, owner of Motor Rebuilders, told me there’s about the same amount of labor in rebuilding a 60-year-old Buda as there is in a six-cylinder Ford, but with at least double the profit. Jack says the key value to his customers is the ability of Motor Rebuilders to find the parts needed for those old engines.
I visited Ernie and Sandi Holder of Holder’s Automotive Machine last fall. They are located in Ruston, LA, and specialize in racing engines. About 50 percent of their work is drag engines and about 50 percent dirt track. Sandi says they rely on word-of-mouth advertising as their main source of promoting quality machine work.
Ernie was recently named Machinist of the Year and has used my traveling machine shop clinic and attended Clevite’s machine shop training school in Ottawa Lake, MI. The point is that quality work doesn’t happen by accident. You’ve got to work and keep learning if you intend to build a reputation as a quality machine shop.
Into The New Millennium
Pay attention to the opportunities offered by (and on) the Internet. It’s become the tool of the times for many of us. Powerful search engines can find almost anything you could possibly want or be interested in. Clevite’s McKnight was telling me a story recently about a TR-4 engine he was working on. He managed to break the cast iron crank pulley and was at a loss as to how to find another one.
McKnight went home that night, did a search for TR-4 engine parts and within a half-hour had located two. He made an inquiry by e-mail to one supplier in California and within 30 minutes had it ordered. I can remember in the pre-Web days I might have spent several days looking and calling around for something like that pulley.
The point is, if those engine parts for a TR-4 weren’t on the Internet, McKnight would have probably never found them. How much business do you lose because prospective customers don’t know you’re out there, or don’t know what products or services you can provide?
Computers and Web searches are an everyday occurrence for millions of Americans young and old. Will they find your shop if they do a search on engine rebuilding, engine balancing, racing engines, antique tractors or any number of other possibilities in your line of work? I think you’re missing the boat if you’re not on the Web!
Prove it to yourself. Get on the Internet and do some machine shop/engine related searching and see what you come up with. Go to www.aera.org and see their member links. Talk to some of the folks who you see on the web and get their reactions. I think you may be surprised how positive it will be.