Tis the season to be savvy — Keep your shop busy, service techs employed by offering preseason specials

By Bob Clements

With the 2008 season winding down, most North American dealers are starting to brace themselves for the lean months ahead. Unless you are located in the snowbelt and fortunate enough to have gotten that first heavy snowfall that guarantees good snow thrower sales, most of the money you generate from now until next season will have to come out of your service department and preseason work.

Before you start thinking about specifics on how to generate service work during this slow time, I want to briefly touch on why it’s so critical your business. First and foremost, you need to maintain positive cash flow. It doesn’t make sense to work hard all yearlong only to lose all of your profits during the next few months. But almost as important as cash flow is the work that you can get done in January and February that would likely come to you in March, April and May. By having as much work as possible done in advance, you flatten the peak of your service season and free up more time to serve more potential service customers. It also eliminates the need for that extra technician you would like to have during the busiest part of your year.

The most effective way to generate preseason work is to make contact with your existing customers through either direct mail or by phone, or by using a combination of both. David Lightkep, owner of David H. Lightkep, Inc., Maple Glen, Pa., has been doing a direct-mail piece for preseason service to his customers for more than 30 years. On November 1, Lightkep and his organization mailed approximately 3,000 postcard-size pieces to their existing customer base, offering them a 5-percent discount on preseason service. In an average year, Lightkep’s dealership will have close to 400 pieces of equipment that will come in off this mailer. His offer expires at the end of January, which drives the volume of work in precisely when it is needed most. Lightkep has eight full-time service technicians, and the mailer allows all of them to keep busy even during the slow season. Best of all, the service work generates that much-needed cash flow during a time when most other dealers are eating into their credit lines to keep their employees and bills paid.

Lightkep’s mailer is simple. It is a yellow card, folded in half, with the offer on one part that the customer can tear off and mail in to schedule a pickup. As I talked with Lightkep about his preseason program’s success and asked him what advice that he would give a dealer who was interested in starting a similar mailing, he said, “Tell dealers not to give up, but to keep doing the mailing year after year, and it will catch on and the momentum of the program will build to where they will have plenty of preseason service to keep their service department busy.”

Lightkep is so committed to his program that he sends the mailer to first-time customers who purchased new equipment from him within the past year. He said that his goal is to train his customers from the very beginning to start looking forward to his preseason service mailer and get them in the habit of thinking about scheduling their equipment in for service doing the offseason.

So how do you get started with building your own preseason service work? Decide what and how long you are going to make the offer. I like what Lightkep does. It’s a simple 5 percent off of the parts, service, pickup and delivery. He is not giving away a lot, but it is just enough to make it worthwhile for customers. In his card, he talks about the advantages of having the equipment serviced during the slow time so that customers don’t get caught waiting until everyone else needs service and then lose the ability to use their equipment for maybe a couple of weeks. By creating a little perceived pain, Lightkep is moving his customers toward taking immediate action.

I caution you to be conservative in your offering. What you offer your customers the first year will set the tone for what they will expect year after year. Remember, the goal is to get business to come through the door, but it still needs to be profitable business.

Once you have decided on the offer, compile a list of all your customers and sort them by consumer, commercial and municipal. For the most part, you want to direct your mailing to your consumer customer base. Yes, there will be some opportunity to do preseason service with your commercial and municipal customers, but you may want to make them a separate offer, which includes special pricing on blades, belts and filters, for them to use over the course of the next season.

As you think about your postcard and prepare it for mailing, remember the following seven tips:

1) Keep it friendly. When your postcard arrives in the mail, you don’t want your customers to think of it as another piece of junk mail but rather as a message from a friend. That’s why my team of dealer advisors and I try hard to keep our dealers from going to the four-color, magazine-like cards that are available through some of the OPE suppliers. The simpler and more personal the look, the higher the response rate. A friendly looking postcard produces a better emotional response from the reader than an advertorial-looking one.

2) Drop the sales pitch. These are your customers, who have done business with you and know you. If this is the first time you have done a mailing, you want to generate enough interest from your customers so that they will either call you, or, if you call them, they won’t feel like you are hammering them for their service business.

Begin your postcard by briefly stating the benefits of getting the equipment serviced prior to the beginning of the season. Then, use the remainder of your postcard to motivate them to get more information by calling you or going to your Web site. Remember, postcards are delivered ready to read. Take advantage of this by getting right to the point so you can capture your customers’ attention immediately. If your message is quick and to the point, it makes it difficult for them to avoid reading what you have to say.

3) Send your postcards by first-class mail. It costs only $.27 in the United States if you make the postcards at least 3-1/2 inches by 5 inches but not over 4-1/4 inches by 6 inches. In Canada, it’s $.52 for a card that is at least 90 mm by 130 mm but not over 100 mm by 150 mm. As Lightkep will tell you, by sending your cards by first class instead of the standard or bulk rate, you will get more replies. Plus, if the customer has moved and the mail is undeliverable, it is returned to you so that you can update or change the information on that customer.

4) Timing is everything when it comes to direct mail. Send your postcards so that they arrive on either a Tuesday or Wednesday. The amount of mail delivered on those days in both the United States and Canada is usually light, giving your mailing less competition. By all means, avoid getting the cards in your customers’ hands on Monday. It is usually the biggest mail delivery day of the week and tends to be a busy day for most people, so your card could easily get lost in the bundle of junk mail or tossed aside, and perhaps never read.

5) Keep it simple. Don’t invest much time and money on designing and printing your postcards. Using a beautiful layout with a lot of color will be expensive and rarely improves your response rate. A simple postcard — designed to look like a message from a friend — can be printed on your own computer for a couple of cents per card or done by a commercial printer for a few additional cents per card. Put a postage stamp on the card rather than having it run through a mail meter. Also, write the customer’s name and address on the front of the card rather than printing off and sticking on a mailing label. The more personal the card is, the greater the impact.

6) Follow up with a phone call. This is one of the most important elements to your preseason service campaign. By following up with your customer, you can easily double the amount of preseason work.

When business is slow and your employees have some idle time, have them pick up the phone, call the customers on your mailing list, and ask just a few questions. Here’s a hypothetical example:

Employee: “Good morning, Mr. Smith! My name is Joe at ABC Outdoor Power Equipment. I just wanted to follow up and make sure that you received our postcard on our preseason service savings.”
Customer: “Yes, I got it in the mail.”
Employee: “That’s great! Did you want me to schedule a pickup for your equipment, or were you thinking about bringing it in?”
Customer: “Yes, please come pick it up.” or “Yes, I plan on bringing it in.”

If the conversation goes along those lines, then you’re good to go. However, if the customer is not interested, then your employee should thank them for their time and for being a loyal customer of your dealership. The phone call is simple, painless and a big dividend producer for you and your service department.

7) Be consistent and persistent. If this is your first preseason service mailing, don’t just mail it once in November, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Do it again in December and a third time in January. According to direct-mail marketing studies, your persistence will ultimately pay off. By mailing three times a year for the next few years, you will start to see similar results as Lightkep. He has won the preseason service battle through persistence and consistency. Every year Lightkep does his mailing, and every year his preseason business grows.

Start now to build your preseason service work. If you are looking for some ideas for your card or would like to see a copy of Lightkep’s card, go to my Web site at www.bobclements.com. Please feel free to copy the ideas or use them to stimulate your own ideas for your cards. Remember, your road to a successful 2009 season starts this month.

 Bob Clements is the president of Bob Clements International, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in the development of high-performance dealerships. His organization works hands on with dealerships throughout North America, helping them attain the personal freedom and financial wealth all entrepreneurs strive to achieve. For more information, contact Bob Clements at (800) 480-0737 or bob@bobclements.com or visit his Web site at www.bobclements.com.

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