Whirlwind national tour takes shops’ pulse
San Jose, Calif.—In February 2017, Todd Westerlund embarked on an ambitious journey to visit 1,000 shops to get a complete view of the industry from coast to coast. As a former technician, service writer and parts manager, Kukui’s CEO views the automotive repair industry from a varied set of perspectives.
“We left an ASCCA meeting in Sacramento in a Sprinter van and hit 29 states in nine months,” he says. “The tour started gaining momentum as more and more people started tracking our journey on social media. It was a highly educational trip and it provided us with a real long look into what shops are doing and the obstacles they are facing.”
Their biggest concern, without a doubt, is the technician shortage, said Westerlund, whose company, which performs online and offline cloud-based marketing and features a communications platform that helps shops to connect with their customers, is also a recent addition to the board at ASCCA. “Everywhere I went they said the same thing, ‘We need more qualified people right now.’ It’s frustrating from our perspective, because we can help these shops to get more business, but then they need more technicians to do the work. It’s become an epidemic and I saw some shops that are going out of business as a result.”
Why are shops flourishing while others are struggling?
Shops that are embracing technology are moving ahead of those that have been lagging or fighting it, he said. “The shops that can’t stay on top of it will close and then their technicians will re-enter the industry. The better techs will always want to work at the best shops, but we need to develop new programs to create more good people to fix these cars.”
Facility size is another industry-wide issue.
“If we can bring new customers into a shop through marketing, the next obstacle is capacity. We pulled out in front of 1,000 shops, and those with ample parking had the ability to grow more rapidly. The shops with five or six spots were full all the time, so it gradually becomes psychological — ‘We’re maxed, we can’t do anymore.’ So, those shops that can’t handle the new business, even if they’re doing excellent work, are going to be hindered if they don’t have space.”
When it comes to marketing their businesses, the leading shops in each region are aggressively doing everything they can to stay ahead of the game while the others are running in place, Westerlund added.
“Too many of these shops are walking a tightrope without a net. I was shocked to find out that approximately 80 of the 1,000 shops we visited didn’t even have websites. What they don’t realize is that when the industry changes, they won’t be able to pivot fast enough to adapt to new trends. The best shops in this country do it all — online marketing, direct mail, SEO, e-mail marketing, social media and rely heavily on their POS systems to be successful. Using just one no longer works.
“I will talk to shops about marketing, and they will say, “No, we’re good,’ and tell me about their CRM program. I tell them that is only one piece of the puzzle.”
Many shops also don’t commit to their marketing plan, he said. “In today’s market, you have to do these things continually and stay on the path to get results. You have to establish a page on Facebook, for example, and update it regularly. The shops that are doing these things are looking for more locations while the rest of the pack is either struggling or looking to get out, because the world around them is changing literally overnight.”
Importance of trade association memberships
As a new associate member of ASCCA’s State Board, Westerlund said he is poised to play a valuable role.
“It is a great relationship and it’s going to get even better. I tell shops that if you’re not involved in an organization like ASCCA, you need to be, so that you can be the first to know what’s going on in this industry. The shops that are members of these trade organizations have an advantage over non-members, because they’re at the forefront and that’s why they tend to be top operators in each region.”
It is the first time that a vendor has been added to the organization’s board and ASCCA President David Kusa says it’s an exciting move. “Over the years, we’ve created three new spots that are reserved for a retired shop owner, an educator and what we call a ‘corporate partner’ for our board in order to represent every aspect of the industry. We’re delighted to be working with Todd in this capacity. His knowledge and experience will make him a great asset