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Rebuilding Business Confidence by Networking, Expanding Offering

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The last few years have been an eye-opening experience for most Americans. We got fat and complacent and didn’t worry about tomorrow. We also fell into the “If we build it, they will come” mentality and forgot how to actively and aggressively find new business.

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After getting my butt kicked, I believe that I have found the Holy Grail in the tire and automotive repair business. In the last 18 months, I have managed not only to survive, but to thrive. I’ve seen double digit increases in sales and profits by getting out of the retail store and actively soliciting business.

First, a quick history of how I arrived at where I am today. For 14 years, I made a comfortable living selling what no one needed: performance tires and wheels.

In 2007, the faucet shut off and I found myself wondering if I would be able to continue to work in an industry that I love so much. I wasn’t too concerned at first, but several months into the year my concern turned to fear. I know that everyone reading this can understand.

Exponential Networking
For the last 18 months, I have been a commercial account manager for a multi-store retailer. You may be saying, “I don’t need a commercial account manager, I have a sign and a nice store.” But guess what – so does your competition! Know what else? If your competition has an outside sales or account manager, this is probably where you are losing business without even realizing it.

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So what’s the secret? Well, actually there are many, but they all involve being diverse and having the ability to switch gears in an instant, and spending time developing relationships with other professionals and business owners who belong to a business referral organization.

You might think belonging to the local chamber of commerce is enough to help your networking efforts. Indeed, it will, but if you limit your networking opportunities to just the local chambers you are only scratching the surface of your potential.

How would you like to hire 25, 30 or more salespeople to find business for you and not have to pay them a penny? Before I joined this specific referral organization, I thought that I was pretty good at marketing and building a customer base. After a few months, I began to understand the dynamics of being around other business owners, doctors, lawyers and representatives from a wide spectrum of industries. I realized how much more I needed to learn and grow professionally.

Over the next 12 months, I became president of the chapter and have since become an ambassador to a new, recently formed chapter. Here’s the big picture with this organization: When you join the local chapter, you have access to any chapter in the world. Dues are just over $300 per year. Also, expect to pay a few dollars per month for chapter dues.

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What do you get for the investment? In my case, I got to establish a relationship with members of the aforementioned group who, once trust was established, actively began looking for leads and referring friends, colleagues and other potential clients for me. All for investing what amounts to $1 per day. Yes, I said investment, not cost. An investment provides a net return, while a cost is an expense.

However, a word of caution with this type of networking. If you join a professional organization like this and expect to gain new clients without providing a value to the group or without sending leads to the others, you will not gain the full benefit of the other members’ support and you’ll be wasting your time and money. There is no middle ground; you are either all-in or nothing.

These groups typically meet for an hour and a half each week and attendance is mandatory. You can send a substitute who is knowledgeable about your business. The substitute could be one of your clients who can give the group a testimony regarding your business.

Did you notice that I said “clients” and not “customers?” Consider the interaction as a “customer” at the grocery store vs. being in a meeting with your accountant or attorney. Which one refers to you as a client? The word “client” conveys a sense of a personal and professional relationship and that’s what I would encourage you to strive for.

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Further Expansion
Shifting the focus now from the marketing aspect, let’s discuss what you can do to add valuable services without adding more expenses.

First, many of my clients have medium-duty trucks, forklifts, farm implements or industrial equipment that require special equipment and training to service.

Since this is out of our scope of service at the retail store, I found a couple of companies to partner with that can service this side of the industry. I have established a relationship where we get a discount off of the retail price for the service call, labor, mileage and tires that are installed. We then bill the client for the retail price, which pays us for handling the logistics and accounting.

The benefit to my client is that we can handle most any of their needs without them having to waste time finding someone to service their equipment. Our benefit is a stronger relationship with the person who authorizes services for the passenger car and light truck fleet, which is our bread and butter.

Since I have a strong performance background, I’m able to market and sell custom wheels and performance tires. This is invaluable when a retail store calls and has a customer asking about a tire and wheel upgrade, or one who just needs some technical advice on diagnosing a ride complaint involving custom wheels.

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You may be one of the thousands of tire retailers that doesn’t sell custom wheels. To be successful in this segment, it takes time with a client to determine what works best. I suggest hiring someone who is knowledgeable in custom wheels, performance tires and plus-size applications and hand these clients over to that person to work one-on-one.

Most of my clients are not 18-year-olds driving 1986 Caprices with 26-inch wheels. They are 40+ years old with plenty of discretionary income. I sold and installed five tire/wheel packages in November and December, the lowest point of 2009, on vehicles ranging from a 2008 Silverado to a 1969 GTO. The average retail price was more than $2,000, with one approaching $2,800.

Inside the Wheel
Another approach that has worked very well is upgrading brakes and other high-wear components with very durable and superior aftermarket performance parts. If you repair vehicles, you are acutely aware of the poor quality of some OE brake pads and rotors.

I’ve spent months researching brake companies (not as easy as you think) to see which companies manufacture specific components. Some produce exceptional pads for nearly everything, but may not build a rotor for every application. Others build both pads and rotors, but only for specific applications.

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Deciphering this information is an ongoing process, but the more vehicle makeovers that I quote on, the more I learn. This education shortens the time it takes for me to provide a proposal. So far, I have provided several of these upgraded packages for major fleets. Also, after installing a pair of cryogenically treated and slotted rotors on my personal vehicle, I can give adamant testimony as to their shorter stopping distances and better wear properties.

Another Thought
You may be thinking that I’m making this stuff up just to spill some ink, so I want you to read and ponder the next paragraph as it relates to your business.

While writing this article, I went to a chamber meeting and met two women from Best Buy. The title on their business cards? Community relations. Their job function? To promote Best Buy to business owners looking to add A/V entertainment to their offices and to build brand awareness in the community.

How many tire dealers still have a small screen television with a dusty converter box on it? Expect Best Buy to be out calling on you to set up a flat screen, satellite and Wi-Fi to help you retain and attract new clients.

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There is a great deal more to learn and understand than can be squeezed into a couple of pages. Although I had to leave out some information due to space constraints, I also want to hear from those who recognize the potential value in acquiring this knowledge and implementing it in their business.

Contact me at 251-377-6724 or [email protected] to discuss your specific goals.

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