Prime the marketing pump to continue cash flow

By Bob Clements

It’s just a matter of time before winter is here and the slow season is upon us all. As a dealer, you know that it is a time customers stop coming in and cash flow starts to dry up. You will have a parts department that has little to do, a shop with even less to work on, and equipment sitting in your showroom just waiting to come due. Most of you have come off a tough year and your cash reserves are as tight as they have ever been, but now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to prime the pump for the upcoming season.

Having grown up on a farm, my family had a well with an old-style hand pump that had to be primed so that it would pull water to take care of the livestock. To prime the pump, we would have to pour a small amount of water — which we had saved from the last time we used the pump — down the top to help create the suction needed to pull the water from the well. If you didn’t prime the pump, it didn’t matter how hard you tried, the water simply wouldn’t come out. It’s a good analogy for what you need to do during the upcoming slow season. As a dealer, you have to take a small amount of the money that you are hanging onto for dear life and invest it in priming your business for the upcoming season.

John and Elaine Estrada purchased A-1 Saw & Mower in Lodi, Calif., a few years back and have worked hard to convert it into a profitable dealership. I recently began working with them to improve the margins and efficiencies they were getting out of their parts, service and wholegoods. As in most dealerships this year, money is tight, so we are looking at low-cost ways to get and stay in front of their customers on a continual basis. Because the Estradas have done a great job developing an extensive customer list, my company is helping them harness that information with a yearlong direct-mail campaign. The campaign’s mission is to keep in front of their customers with preseason service offers and specials on products like chippers and log splitters that they want to convert to cash and move out of their inventory.

So where do you start?

As in life, success in marketing is about timing. Just like John and Elaine Estrada, knowing who your customers are and what they are looking for in a specific time frame will help you achieve success as you invest your money. Let’s say your goal during the next 12 months is to send a direct-mail piece out to select customers every other month. If you looked at your calendar, starting in November and December, you might consider marketing toward the gift-giving season. Making a gift card or a gift certificate available for a spouse to purchase for a Christmas present is a great way to improve your cash flow, as well as to generate sales you wouldn’t normally make during the slow season. You might also want to think about marketing your preseason service. Again, it’s a great way to generate some cash flow, keeping the shop busy during the slow season and reducing your service peak in the spring. Remember, marketing is about consistency — it’s about keeping that pump primed. John and Elaine’s goal is not to do just one mailing, but a series of mailings during the next 12 months — approximately one every eight weeks — to keep themselves in front of their customers.

Your goal as a dealer is to be at the front of your customers’ minds when they think about their lawn equipment needs, and you do that by keeping in front of them on an ongoing basis. We know that your customers don’t need your equipment or services all the time, but when they need it, they really need it. If you are willing to invest a small amount of money in a very focused way, you will be the one they come to when they are ready to buy or have their equipment serviced.

If you have attended one of my workshops or regularly read my articles in OPE, you know that I am a big believer in direct mail. When people ask why, I tell them because it gives you total control over the presentation of your message. With direct mail, you have the ability to blend advertising and sales into one neat, tidy package. You can present your products or services, make an offer (e.g. free pickup and delivery, a discount, or free blade sharpening), and then create a call for action. Direct mail allows you to target your message to a very specific customer. It’s not overly expensive. You can send out what you can afford, and there is no annual contract you are required to sign. One of the great aspects of direct mail is reader involvement. For at least a second or two, your customers will have to interact with your direct-mail piece. They will have to hold it, scan it, and make a decision on what they are going to do with it.

When it comes to the direct-mail piece you are going to send, I tell my dealers to use a combination of postcards and letters. The keys are to keep it simple and to get it noticed. When using postcards, use the white ones that you can buy at your local office supply store. Avery Labels make a great postcard, and you can download a template to help create your design. And don’t forget colors. I encourage my dealers to use red and yellow highlighters to draw attention to the offer they are making. Highlight with red any item or offer on your postcard that has to do with price discounts or deadlines, and use yellow to highlight any key benefits with your products or services.

When you are sending a letter, use a standard, white business envelope and handwrite the customer’s name and address. It does take more time than printing and using mailing labels, but they shout “junk mail” to anyone who picks them up.  Your goal is to get it opened, and nothing works better than a handwritten envelope.

You also want to make your envelope “lumpy” by enclosing an ink pen, a refrigerator magnet, or maybe a key chain. Most of my dealers have a lot of ad specialty “stuff” they have purchased with their name and address on it, and it’s perfect for that “lumpy” look you are going for in your direct-mail piece.

Four keys to grabbing customers’ attention

Let’s look at four things you can do to maximize the results from your direct-mail piece.

Strong headline: First and most important is the headline. Make it strong and focused on the key benefit that you are offering. If you are sending out a mailing to bring service in during the slow season, you might start with “Free Blade Sharpening.” If you are going to offer free pickup and delivery, make your headline “Free $50 Certificate.” The headline needs to appear in bold or larger type than the rest of your letter and should be highlighted in red.
Conversational style: Write in a friendly, conversational style. Write like you talk. I recently spoke at a manufacturer’s dealer meeting, where a dealer approached me and said, “I read your articles all the time and had never heard you speak before — you write like you talk.” What a great compliment!
P.S.: Use a P.S. at the end of your letter to restate your offer’s benefit. Most people will read a P.S. first before they read the body of your letter, so it is important that your P.S. makes a very strong sales message and a call to action.
Incentive: Understand that everybody cares about one thing in life: “What’s in it for me?” Put yourself in your customers’ shoes and ask yourself, “If I was receiving this card or letter, why would I want to act on it? What’s in it for me?”

Five mistakes to avoid

Just as there are things you can do to make your direct mail more effective, there are five mistakes that will waste all the money you have invested.

Mailing to customers who can’t use the offer. When you send a free pickup and delivery offer in January to those customers who had you service their equipment in December, you are asking for an angry phone call. Make sure that everyone on your mailing list can take advantage of your offer.
Making all of your mailings sales offers. We all have “friends” who only call you when they want to get something or to ask you a favor. Don’t do that to your customers. Make a few of your mailings “non-selling.” It may sound a little crazy, but by blending a few non-sales messages with your sales offers, you will improve your overall response.
Not proofing the offer. No matter how good your offer may be, typos, bad grammar and misspellings will make you look like an amateur. You may not think it’s a big deal, but it is. Make sure you have a good proofreader look over your mailings. It will save you time, money and embarrassment.
“Look at me.” If you open your Yellow Pages, you will find that everyone does the “Look at me” approach: “We’re the biggest, oldest, fastest, best, cheapest, most convenient, won the most awards, hold several degrees, and belong to many organizations.” Just tell your prospects how this benefits them, and you will be light years ahead of your self-impressed, babbling competition.
Not following up. This is the direct-mail marketing “unforgivable sin.” You have spent the time and money to get the mailing out, and then you sit back and hope. A direct-mail offer can be improved by more than 200 percent on average with one simple phone call from one of your employees. You can even set this call up in advance by letting the customer know in your letter or on your postcard that you will be calling in a few days to answer any questions they might have.

Yes, I am a fan of direct mail, and I am a firm believer that it should be done on a consistent basis throughout the year. With all the money spent on marketing, none will have the dollar-for-dollar impact that a strong, focused, direct-mail campaign will have on your dealership over the coming months.

We all know that you are entering a time when customer spending is going to slow. For many dealers, this time of year brings doubt and fear. If you are like John and Elaine Estrada and willing to risk a little money now to keep your marketing pump primed, you will come out of the slow season healthier than your competitors, as well as be positioned to take advantage of what I believe will be a good 2010 season.

 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 owners strive to achieve. For more information, contact Bob Clements at (800) 480-0737 or or visit his Web site at

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