Here in the great state of Wisconsin, we already have snow and we’re changing oil in our snow blowers, checking the shovel inventory and buying the bags of salt. And, the winter race is on!
The changing of the seasons tends to mean changes in the amount of business we see. We’re going to discuss some strategies employed by your peers to keep the dollars flowing while evening out some of the crazy high spots. Oh, and in case you are tempted to ignore this article because you are in the southern states, my research tells me you have exactly the same problems as your northern friends, but they show up differently.
We all face very similar issues with very similar causes:
1. People defer work, a cool snap hits, and suddenly your shop is deluged with no starts. Everyone works like crazy to keep up with demand, and the tow trucks keep coming.
2. You stand in your shop all by yourself with few customers in sight and watch as your best technicians load their tools to head to another shop that has work. It’s January and your customers are getting their credit card bills from the holidays. The weather isn’t helping and the news keeps harping about the lousy job situation, wage issues and more.
“It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
– Henry David Thoreau
Early-season ideas
The ideal situation is to do your level best to avoid both of these scenarios and not catch the dreaded “Winter Doldrums.” It’s a lot nicer to have a constant flow of business that is halfway predictable all because you helped your customers earlier in the season.
The following are real-life business strategies from shops around the states. It’s not necessary to employ every one of these ideas right now. But, if you pick out a couple, you’ll be a much happier person come May.
• To help avoid the emergencies later, offer your customers a low-cost special on preseason vehicle inspections. The advantage to them will be a more reliable vehicle and fewer midseason surprises. One shop even has a special preseason inspection form printed. It includes the usual items such as brakes, belts, wipers, etc., but has a special box on top for the battery, tires, lighting and other season requirements. And he includes specials on coolant and oil changes if done within a couple of weeks of the inspection. This is a very proactive way to help your customer and level out your shop capacity peaks.
• Offer a “Holiday Savings Special” around the holidays. It is critical to highlight how your special, particularly if it’s a maintenance item, will save them money. Examples could be wiper inspection and replacement with winter blades or “sun blades.” Or it could be something as simple as an oil change special. Mention you will be offering holiday cookies, hot chocolate and other.
• One shop offers a “Home from School” program to inspect and maintain student-driven vehicles while they are on their holiday breaks. A simple mailer or multimedia campaign will work. Remember, it will generally be the folks writing the checks. Be sure to offer them special savings or services as well.
• In the heart of winter, snow and cold North, warm and wet South, there are a variety of things available. Offer to host one of the classes virtually every school district offers to district residents. You will be listed in their mail-out program and registration form, and the evening’s handout materials. You could offer a program designed for seniors to help maintain their vehicles or one to the general public on how to maintain the “new technology” under their hoods. It is very important to be sure you are offering expert information and not a sales pitch. You will need handouts for participants. You want the people leaving with your name on the front page anyway. The group arranging the program can generally provide a head count estimate of sorts. If your class is fairly well attended, be prepared to come back the following year.
• People tell me every towing operation in town knows about them. But what do they really know? Having driven a tow truck myself, there are many times that someone I would pick up asked where they should go for help. If I knew someone had just the right service available, or had built a relationship with them to a point I knew anyone could trust their work, that shop was on my short list. It is important to remember that people with tow insurance are generally either covered only to a shop in the area or have a limit on their towing coverage. The result is that you may get a first time customer showing up at your shop and a chance to keep the customer coming back. As a result, it is important to put together a services list and get out to the tow shops with a box of cookies or donuts. Introduce yourself to everyone you’re able to find. A regular callback to stay “front of mind” is also a great idea.
So, how can this be accomplished without spending a bundle of money? Here are some ideas:
• Use postcards instead of letters for customers without email. A critical factor is the design of the card or email notice to be sure it’s attractive and grabs attention.
• Create notices (PR Notes) to send out to newspapers, local magazines, and special interest publications like senior newspapers that are offered free to charge to whomever picks it up.
• On mailings, partner with other stores and service providers to mail together, and if possible, offer joint specials.
• Use your imagination.
This time of year is also a great time to catch up on training for your technicians. Rather than competing with their ball games and all of their summer evening activities, it’s easier to have everyone sit tight for in-shop classes.
One last word. The short days, long dark nights, difficulty is getting outside and dealing with all of the typical family dynamics around holidays and the days after the holidays will often leave many people feeling glum if not outright depressed.
The result may be customers and technicians who are crankier than usual. Important to remember they may come in with a short fuse already in place. And, you may get some responses from technicians you don’t expect.
Maybe most important, it is mission critical to take care of yourself. The experts recommend the following:
• Get some exercise.
• Stretch your mind a bit
• Get some sun.
• Ask your doctor about possible dietary supplements to get vitamins that you would normally get from the sun.
• Take up or expand a hobby
The bottom line is to plan and implement a personal “mental health” plan. I recommend that you consider a simple, doable program, such as daily exercise and a new hobby that will actually leave you happier, healthier and more personally productive. Just remember that they tell us it takes doing something for six to eight weeks to make it a habit!
Winter is here, and with it changes in our schedules, our business patterns, customers and more. Now is the time to plan your business builders, your personal improvement plan and more.
Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius. 
– Pietro Aretino

Thomas M. Langer Jr. has a career spanning a lifetime in the industry and is combining his experience with new information to provide readers of Undercar Digest with information you need to build a better business.