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A bold statement, you may think. Are you thinking that it doesn’t apply to your business? You may think you’re doing okay. Yet my statement applies to everyone – from a one-man shop to a shop with 100 employees or more – because if you don’t do it, your competitor will!

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The most recent Machine Shop Profile Survey, Part II, published in the July 2009 issue of Engine Builder asked, “How old is your business?” The highest percentage, 18.3 percent falls in the 26-30 years category. The industry average is 27.9 years with more than half, 52.8 percent, in business some 26 years. These numbers are very positive and have been trending upward for several years.

The 31 years and older point is where we start to get in trouble and hit single digits. For instance, 31-35 years drops to 9.1 percent, 36-40 years drops to 6.6 percent, and 41-45 years drops to 5.1 percent until we again see a slight upward tick. Years 46-50 jumps up to 6.1 percent, while 51 years plus comes in at 7.6 percent.

Just as you need to regularly update your shop machinery and equipment, you need to update your marketing efforts. On average, our industry is a little bit behind other industries in our adoption of new technology. It wasn’t that long ago that one of our surveys revealed that less than 20 percent of Engine Builder readers had a computer at the shop. Fortunately, that has changed in the past eight years.

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More than 70 percent now have computers with Internet access in the shop and at home. What’s more, 82 percent have broadband access, while just under 15 percent struggle with a dial-up connection. These are great numbers and show that many shops are embracing the Internet and new technology.

But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?)… Let me share a few other numbers that have left me scratching my head. Of those shops that have Internet access, 85 percent use it to locate parts and equipment, 66 percent use it to research parts suppliers and manufacturers, 65 percent research tools and equipment, and 62 percent actually make purchases online for the shop.

Sounds like most of you are pretty comfortable with the Internet; in fact a recent survey on the Engine Builder Web site asked, “How do you view the Internet in your shop?” Some 90 percent answered that it was a great method to gain information and an invaluable tool to help their business function more efficiently. By the way, about 11 percent of you thought it was nothing more than “A fun way to waste a lot of time.”

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So I ask; since most of you seem to see the value in utilizing the Internet, why then do less than 50 percent of you have a business Web site? If nearly 90 percent of you use it to locate and research parts, tools, and equipment, don’t you think that maybe your potential customers are doing the same thing? You betcha!

An online presence will also be the lowest cost advertising you will ever do. You can have a decent Web site for less than $300 a year. Of course, you can also spend thousands, but your best bet to get started would be someone like Go Daddy, Intuit, Yahoo or Network Solutions. If you are a member of AERA, the association also has a program to get you on the Internet. Each of these companies has what is called a template-based system. They are very easy to use, but are somewhat limited in the amount of customization that you can do.

I am not here to give you any step-by-step instruction, but I do want to give you a place to start. If you want a custom site, you will need to contact a design company. More than likely you can find a local company; just be sure to do your homework. One good way to find a designer would be to find Web sites that you like on the Internet and find out who designed the site. Many times the designer has a link at the bottom of a Web site that he designed.

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One thing to remember, though, is that when your domain name is registered, make sure you are listed as the owner and have access to it. Just in case you have problems with your designer, you will want to be able to access your domain name.

You don’t need to have a fancy, flashy Web site, but you do need to have a site that is easy to navigate, so that visitors can find the information they want fast. If they can’t find it in three or four clicks, the odds are that they will go to another site. So, do yourself a favor and make sure you have the information they are looking for  and that it is easy to find.

A Web site needs to be a big part of your marketing efforts and if you don’t already have one, you are already falling behind. Very few people use the Yellow Pages anymore to find a business. When they are looking for something, the first place they go is the Internet. I know I do – I probably haven’t opened a phone book more than six times in the past three years.

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Babcox Research recently conducted a survey among Engine Builder readership with a goal of “providing you with ideas to create a content-rich, effective, user friendly Web site. Jeff Stankard, Group Publisher of Babcox Tech Group Publications came up with a list of ten “Must Have” features of a shop Web site.

According to Jeff, the following tips came out of that survey:

1. Service Specialties. Use the Web as a billboard to advertise the repairs offered by your shop, highlighting those services in which you specialize.

2. Ability to make appointments. Customers with busy schedules can log onto your Web site after hours to quickly, easily and conveniently schedule a repair.

3. Photos of shop/staff. A picture is worth a thousand words, and, in this case, they can be the determinant of whether a prospective customer will give your shop a chance. If they like what they see, you may attract a new customer in an instant.

4. Professionalism. Announce your employees’ qualifications. Promote their ASE certifications. Identify special tools and equipment that allow your staff to build quality engines and do the job right the first time.

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5. Hours/days of operation, directions. Make it easy for your customers to know the details about your business and how to get there.

6. Coupons/specials. Your Web site can be the perfect platform to advertise seasonal specials, run coupons and get the word out that you are working hard to earn your customers’ repeat business.

7. Community involvement. Detail the ways you’ve reached out to others and are “giving back” to the community in which your shop operates. Our business is a “people” business in more ways than one – and consumers tend to do business with people they know and trust.

8. Seasonal maintenance tips. Comple-ment shop-specific information that will help educate customers and position your shop as an “expert” place to do business.

9. Customer appreciation letters. If you collect comments from satisfied customers, use these word-of-mouth referrals as another way to extend your message.

10. Question and answer feature. Your Web site can host a forum where you can provide answers to customers’ questions for the benefit of all visitors to your website. This section of your Web site can also feature a shop owner blog/opinion section.

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In the next Fastlane, I am going to talk about the latest trend for marketing your business: “Social Media.” This is something you may already be doing; if not, you can bet your kids are. I am talking about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. I attended a seminar on the subject recently – you will be fascinated by what it can do for you. I was!

Jim Walbolt, a professional writer and photographer covering motorsports activities, is from Custar, OH. You may reach Jim at [email protected].updated regularly, the engine builder website (www.enginebuildermag.com) provides valuable business and technical information to you, your suppliers and your customers.Grooms Engines in Nashville (www.groomsengines.com) has a clean, customer-friendly Web site that offers a wealth of information.

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