Man, it’s tough out there.
Lots of shop owners want to grow their operations—year over year, decade over decade, until they have a franchise they’re proud of or something they can sell. But anyone will tell you it’s hard to grow. The diesel industry has a lot going for it, but there’s also a lot of obstacles the enterprising shop owner has to dodge—the tech shortage being a big one, but also general problems sourcing parts and even finding customers.
Then, of course, there’s the competition.
Larger operations don’t necessarily have it easier, but they do generally have more capital to throw around when it comes to…well, everything. That’s the way it’s been since time immemorial: the big fish just do better. They make it harder for the little fish to scoop up the chum.
(Did I get that fishing reference right?)
But don’t count out the little guy. David did beat Goliath, after all. The Rebel Alliance took down the Empire. Frodo disposed of the One Ring despite the eagles’ stubborn refusal to help him.
While we’re not equating running a small repair shop with going up against a Dark Lord, there’s something David, the Rebels, and Frodo (okay, and his Fellowship) had in common: they were few (or one!) against something much larger and better organized and equipped. They toppled their foes, not through brute strength but through smarts and hard work.
You can probably see what we’re getting at here. Maybe you aren’t about to throw your fellow shop owners into the fires of Mount Doom (you had one job, Isildur!), but you can help your shop grow despite not having all the armies and dark powers—er, capital and space—of your competition.
Let’s dive in.
CORPORATE SHOPS AREN’T FOR EVERYONE
Jay Goninen, President & Founder of WrenchWay, wants you to remember that not all techs want the same thing. While there is a sort of stereotypical mental image of a diesel technician (usually someone who likes hunting and fishing and only drinks coffee), the reality is every tech is a little different. Sure, there are some out there who probably crave the experience of working for a big dealership—the money, the prestige, the cool uniforms. But there are just as many that don’t.
Compare it to the white-collar jobs of corporate America. Some folks are all about the boardroom. They can’t wait for Elon Musk to buy their company and flip the script. But plenty of people don’t want that. They want #startuplife, or boutique agencies.
LEAN IN TO “SMALL SHOP ENERGY”
Yes, you are a smaller operation. All that means is that you take up a little less acreage.
How much you grow—and how you stack up against even much bigger shops—comes down to the relationships you build. And you have a built-in advantage right there, points out Stacy Conner of Equipment Experts, Inc. “Big stores may have a competitive advantage—a broader selection, the ability to rent, loaners, things like that. But people want to do business, at the end of the day, with the people they trust and have their best interest at heart.”
This isn’t a knock on larger operations, by the way—more a statement of fact. Bigger, more corporate shops are often going to have more people involved in every single decision. They have to work extra-hard to keep up some level of small shop relationship building. This is sadly the truth for every business.
Some of the smaller shops we’ve talked to have also expressed concern about their hiring power. The ongoing tech shortage means getting the right people is more critical—and more difficult—than ever, and the larger operations, sadly, can often flex more hiring power in terms of salaries and benefits. When faced with this fact, many small shop owners despair.
But wait! There’s hope. Remember Jay’s wisdom about techs not being all the same? It’s about to come into play here.
“Show off who you are,” Jay advises. “You will find techs who crave what you’re offering.”
Okay, Jay, you’re probably thinking, how do we do that?
You stop focusing on what you can’t do (perhaps match the salary range and snazzy uniforms of a corporate shop) and focus on what you can do.
The below is not a comprehensive, step-by-step list of everything you should do to make yourself a better option. It’s a collection of suggestions that you can implement, embrace, think about, or reject as necessary.
Capitalize on small-shop agility.
Yes, you’re smaller. Guess what? That makes you more nimble, says Stacy. When it comes to change in larger establishments, she points out, “You can go through seven people and they’ll think it’s fine … and then you hit one who doesn’t think it’s fine.”
If you’re a smaller shop, you can react to things quickly. You can enact change faster, simply because you don’t have to go through layers of corporate bureaucracy to do it.
Some of the things a smaller, less layered shop can do include:
- Better coffee and snacks in the break room. This writer will support a technician’s right to coffee and snacks until the day she switches to decaf.
- Flexible or alternative scheduling. Granted, this might be harder for you to enact with fewer techs—but if you can make it work, then make it so! Techs are more conscious of how much time they spend at work vs. at life than ever before. People have families, friends, hobbies—in short, other stuff they want to prioritize. Robots haven’t taken all our jobs yet, so flexible scheduling can make your shop extra appealing to those looking for a job.
- Additional training and certifications. Yes, when you have a smaller workforce, it’s harder to slot out time for them to obtain additional education, but it’s also something that will make them infinitely more valuable as employees. You don’t need any corporate OK for this, so make it happen.
- Partner with a local fleet. Maybe you can’t snag a big regional company, but look around your town—you may have furniture stores, home improvement stores, or even construction firms that need regular maintenance on their vehicles. This kind of recurring business helps you keep the lights on and can give you room to expand if you want to.
Bring people in on your vision.
You’ve probably got a vision and some goals (wait, what? You don’t? OK, get on that right now and then come back to this).
Techs, like many other workers, are kind of used to feeling ignored. They come in, they work, they go home. But by sharing your ultimate vision for the shop—whether that’s building it into an epic franchise, selling it, or even just selling some sweet diesel-branded merch—you involve them in the adventure. They now have a stake in it.
It’s much easier to do this in a smaller shop. If you have 10 people, you can get those 10 people into a room and share that vision. If you have 50, 100, or more employees…well, things start getting trickier.
One of the biggest perks of running a smaller shop is that you can get to know all of your staff. That’s not to say that larger operations can’t have a friendly environment—many owners and managers can and do put a lot of effort into getting to know their people. But it’s a lot harder to get to know 50+ techs, or even 20+ techs, than it is to get to know 5 or 10.
Emphasize incredible customer service.
If you’re up against the big dogs, you need more than general awesomeness in your back pocket—you need to be willing to step it up and give 100% for the customers that you do have.
This doesn’t mean you need to roll out the red carpet and perform a song and dance for everyone that walks into your shop (but if you do, please send us a video). Be the shop that meets a customer where they are. “You need to be the shop willing to come out when no one else will, and get the job done,” says Chris O’Brien, COO of Fullbay and former fleet person at Shamrock.
That could look like:
- Taking on after-hours or emergency work.
- Booking hotel rooms and/or arranging meals for stranded drivers.
- Taking the time to explain exactly what’s up with a repair instead of just shoving paperwork at them.
Build a digital presence.
People are not going to hire you (or be hired by you, frankly) if they can’t find you. Your digital footprint is more important than ever, so make sure you have a decent one! You can get a top-notch website from our friends at Dieselmatic, but the fun doesn’t stop there; look into Google Business, social media, and more to make sure people can find you when they need you.
Be an active member of your community.
In the words of Bon Jovi, no shop is an island—and good things come to operations that are active members of the community.
(Editor’s Note: That is NOT how the song goes…and you’ve used that segue at least eight times…but at least this won’t get us sued.)
Why is community involvement so important? Well, it takes you off the aforementioned island. Stacy tells us about a shop that booked itself space in local parades—its owner joined the rotary and city chamber—and described the network of referrals that utterly changed the way they did business.
“That’s a phenomenal way to differentiate yourself from another company,” she says.
Community involvement brings a lot of benefits—new colleagues, friends, and connections among them—but think about it from a business perspective:
- More word-of-mouth. Why are well-known members of the community well-known? Because they’re kind of…well…all over. Marketing is making people aware of your shop’s existence. Think of this as a sort of static marketing; people see Aragorn’s Repair Shop in passing enough, they’ll remember it when necessary. This leads to…
- More referrals. Ever play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? There’s probably a similar game called Six Degrees of Fleet Manager.
REMEMBER: YOUR REPUTATION IS EVERYTHING
But remember: all the referrals in the world aren’t going to keep your shop afloat if you’re not doing good work.
There is an old Norse poem—the Havamal—that conveys general instructions for living as dictated by Odin. Among the general advice (which includes notes about how great fire is, and don’t tell too many people your secrets) is a stanza about reputation:
Cattle die, kinsmen die;
The self must also die.
I know one thing which never dies:
The reputation of each dead man.
(Yes, folks, we’re adding more Viking wisdom to the Fullbay blog! Thor would be so proud.)
Your shop’s reputation is everything. As a smaller operation, the good work you do—and the good word of mouth you amass—can make all the difference when it comes to competing with the big guys for customers and staff. You can take to heart everything we said in this blog, but it won’t mean a thing without solid work to back it up.
But if your shop excels at what it does and you embrace the nimbleness and advantages that come with being smaller and faster—well, you can do some pretty amazing things, no matter how small of an operation you run.