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There's No Crankshaft In A Search Engine: Internet Opportunities For Automotive Engine Rebuilders
By Greg Bukosky
Surfing the net for fun is one thing. Using it as a tool to grow your business is another. Recently we talked to machine shop owners, as well as a few suppliers, to get their take on Internet opportunities for automotive engine rebuilders.
Machine shop Internet usage
According to Babcox Publications’ Market Research, 61.8 percent of Automotive Rebuilder readers have Internet access either at their shop or at home. The average amount of time spent on the web each week is 4.2 hours. Shop owners reported that about 47 percent of this time was for business purposes only.
The majority of business-related Internet activity, 75 percent, involved automotive research. This includes visits to OEM sites, as well as supplier sites that shops do the bulk of their business with. In fact, 50 percent of shops surveyed regularly visit manufacturer websites for information. Much of this usage falls into the general category known as "surfing" where users browse for information, without always having a specific topic to research in mind.
When shops need to locate parts and equipment, those with Internet access use it 65 percent of the time. In most cases, an e-mail request is made at the website that is then followed up upon by the manufacturer. In talking with suppliers, most stated to have at least one full-time employee whose sole function is to process e-mail requests from the web.
Shop owners also use the Internet to find automotive repair information. Approximately 54 percent of shops surveyed reported that they regularly look for repair information on the Internet. These sites can be free, such as Automotive Rebuilder’s (www.automotiverebuilder.com) or subscriber-based such as All Data, iATN and others.
Research indicated that 18.4 percent of all machine shops subscribe to an on-line information provider. This is consistent with another statistic that showed that only 36.7 percent of machine shop owners would even consider paying for technical information from the Internet.
When asked whether they had ever purchased products over the Internet, 45 percent reported yes, but only 32 percent bought something business-related. As one machine shop owner stated, "This is still a touchy, feely business. I would consider buying proven parts over the Internet, but when it comes to the major purchases like equipment, I want to kick the fenders."
Machine shops with websites
A quick scan of the member links on the Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA) website (www.aera.org) revealed more than 60 sites that have been created by machine shops across the country. The Production Engine Remanufacturers Association (PERA) site (www.pera.org) contained about a dozen remanufacturer sites.
Of this growing list, most contained general information about their location, services, suppliers, etc. Very few contained actual on-line ordering capabilities, which seems to be one of the biggest drawbacks of the Internet for most shop owners. The exception seemed to be bigger shops that keep large inventories on-site like cylinder heads, for example.
One such operation is Richard’s Machine Shop of Madison, TN. According to Richard Inglis II, his site (www.cylinderheads.com) which has been in operation for nearly two years, generates quite a bit of business. "We do about 400-500 cast iron and aluminum cylinder heads per month," Inglis said. "Our inventory includes more than 2,000 complete, remanufactured cylinder heads.
"Instead of the telephone, we’re starting to get a lot of requests via the e-mail link on our website. A customer will have a cracked head. They give us the casting number; we look it up and get back with them. Either we’ll send them something from our inventory, or we’ll have them ship us the defective head and we’ll repair it."
Inglis added that his website receives about 500 page hits per week, due in large part to some "value-added" information provided on the site. "We have a torque table on our site that gets quite a bit of traffic. Anything we can do to get people here and establish ourselves as the one-stop source for remanufactured cylinder heads is a plus," Inglis concluded.
Perhaps one of the biggest concerns that small to medium sized machine shops have regarding the creation of an Internet site is the amount of business (or lack thereof) that the site can bring in. Although the Internet does provide worldwide access, most shops only do business in a very small, defined geographical area.
Dave Baker of C & P Machine in Fort Wayne, IN, related a somewhat frustrating story about his website (www.cpmachine.com) in regards to this topic. "We received a call one day from a young man who had a cracked cylinder head. We didn’t think to ask where he was from. Well, he told us about his new digital camera with which he could take photos of the head and send them to us on-line.
"He used our e-mail link on our site, and sure enough, we got the photos that same day. When he called, we told him that yes, he had cracks, and yes we could fix them. The only problem was, he was 2,000 miles away. As he put it, he had a shop near him to fix it, he just wanted a second opinion!" Baker said.
Stories like these are all too common for machine shops that have heard all the sales hype about the Internet, yet still struggle to realize its full potential. Other shop owners like Richard Hartmann of Hartmann Brothers, Abilene, TX, have taken the Internet for what it is.
"Our home site (camalott.com/~engine/) has been up and running for five years now," Hartmann said. "Visitors can request a quote on-line, but other than that, I wish I could tell you about all the thousands of dollars that we’ve made through our site – but I can’t. I will tell you that it’s an inexpensive way to get your name out there, and for sure, it’s the cheapest form of advertising you can have."
Sergio Bartolini of Motorworks, San Diego, CA, sees e-mail and the ability to access other websites as the greatest benefits of the Internet for his shop "We’re looking to rebuild our site (www.motorwrks.com) as soon as we see a good return on investment," Bartolini said. "Our goal is to make it easier for browsers to order some of our services. Right now, we’re solely an information source. Hopefully in the next few years, technology will change all that."
Tips for creating a website
So let’s say that you want to create a website for your machine shop. Who should you turn to and what should you expect from the process? According to Kerry Marich, sales manager for Babcox Publication’s Internet Group, you should contact an experienced aftermarket firm, start out slow and avoid all the "bells and whistles" that can make your site difficult to download.
"Many people start out on the wrong foot by going for the lowest price," Marich said. "Sure, you can find a college student to create the site for free, but how much do they really understand about your business? Furthermore, where will they be two years down the road when you need to make changes to your site?"
David Baker of C & P Machine echoed these thoughts. "I had a college student create my first site. He couldn’t tell a crankshaft from an exhaust pipe, but he knew computers. The long and short of it is, I was paying him a monthly fee that was supposed to go to the server. He was pocketing the money, and eventually skipped town. The server seized my site for non-payment; I never knew to get a copy of the site and was left with nothing. Talk about learning the hard way!" Baker said.
Designing your site for the lowest common denominator user is also a good idea according to Marich because not all browsers have the latest computer technology. "We try to avoid extensive graphics that make the site slow to download," Marich said. "Some web creators wish only to showcase their design talents at the expense of the customer. Common sense says that if your site takes forever to download, you’re going to lose potential customers."
Another area to consider is links to other sites like suppliers and associations. As mentioned earlier, AERA members can link their sites directly to the AERA site that contains a variety of regularly updated technical bulletins that members would find impossible to include on their own sites.
Other links like Babcox Publications (www.babcox.com) are valuable to machine shops because they are heavily promoted to the aftermarket industry. According to Marich, the Babcox home site is promoted in all seven Babcox automotive trade publications with circulation reaching more than 1 million subscribers. This type of exposure would be very hard for one individual machine shop to duplicate, but it comes free when Babcox develops the website.
In terms of creating a website, the process is really quite simple according to Anne Randles, Internet administrator for Babcox Publications. "The first thing we do is register the company’s universal resource locator (URL). This is the address for the website, e.g., www.machineshop.com.
"Next we take a company’s existing marketing materials and organize them in a simple, easy-to-navigate form. You’d be surprised at how many sites you can get lost in," Randles said. "You always want to make it easy for a browser to get back to your home page no matter where they are."
Randles went on to add that simple things like salesperson contact information should always be included. Usually this is in the form of an e-mail link that browsers can use directly from the website. According to the machine shops interviewed for this article, these e-mail links are the most heavily used portions of their websites.
Perry Crabb, marketing manager for AXE Equipment, Council Grove, KS, said that his site (www.axeequipment.com) has seen steady increases in e-mail traffic since its inception.
"Every six months our e-mail traffic has increased by approximately 15 percent," Crabb said. "Even though we don’t sell off the web, we feel that it opens the door for future sales, and it reinforces our other marketing efforts."
Randles added that machine shops and suppliers should design their sites with a pre-determined amount of maintenance included. "If you want to have sections with pricing and timely information, you should plan for monthly maintenance with your website creator up front. Smaller machine shops have every intention of keeping their sites up-to-date, yet can’t find the time or money to accomplish this. Our advice is to set your goals early in the process."
The Internet is here to stay. Realistically, though, traditional machine shops shouldn’t expect it to be the road to riches that other businesses have experienced. Selling Beanie Babies online is one thing. Selling cylinder honing or other shop services is another. This doesn’t mean that the Internet can’t be a new tool to add to your sales arsenal. It only means that you should manage your expectations, keep an eye on future technologies, and be poised to react when new opportunities arise.
Things like online training and sales seminars are popping up all over the Internet. Is it too far-fetched to expect that suppliers and machine shops will soon be able to demonstrate their equipment and machining capabilities via video to potential customers on the Internet?
We can only comment that very few thought the Internet itself was possible 10 years ago. Look at it now.