Economic slumps can be found, quite often, in the details.
Don Cape has seen it firsthand in the behavior of his customers at Quick Lane Tire & Auto Centers.
Cape is national manager of Quick Lane, the $450 million car service brand of Ford Motor Co. with both dealer-based and off-site locations. During the economic slide of the past two years, Cape has seen how little decisions by customers can have a big impact on a business.
“One of the challenges over the past two years has really been getting customer traffic into the stores,” he says. “Customers that normally come in three times a year for service have been scaling back to once or twice a year.”
The routine auto maintenance that Quick Lane provides has become less of a necessity to customers looking to save a few bucks. Car owners who used to change their oil every 3,000 miles are now trying to stretch the interval to 5,000 miles and beyond. It’s less healthy for the car, but healthier for the purposes of balancing a household budget.
But Cape and the leadership team at Quick Lane couldn’t simply accept the situation as a negative side effect of the economy. They still needed to drive business. They still needed to open new locations and pull new customers into the existing stores.
Cape and his team needed to identify Quick Lane’s niche in the auto service market, and then put every location in a position to capitalize on that niche. The management team assessed the situation and recognized that if Quick Lane was going to continue growing, it needed to emphasize convenience and stay local.
With that in mind, Quick Lane fashioned a marketing philosophy called “own your own backyard.”
“In this service business, it’s really key that you focus on the consumers in a 10- to 15-minute radius from each location,” Cape says. “That is the sweet spot. We suggested a two- to three-mile radius around each location,and market to those people specifically. It was a bit different, because many times in the past, we had found that we were reaching out too far from each location, maybe spending money in a way that didn’t get maximum return for each location.”
To gain the best possible traction on a narrowly defined local level, Quick Lane’s management needed to let location operators make their own marketing decisions. Corporate management could provide a marketing template, but location managers were in charge of marketing to their own area.
It’s an approach that requires corporate management to take a backseat and do a lot of listening.Take it to the streets
To reach a narrowly defined customer base, you need to go against the grain of widely accepted mass-marketing principles. You don’t want to cast the widest possible net; you want to home in with laser-guided accuracy on the customers you’re trying to reach.
Often, that means thinking smaller, not bigger.
“Sometimes, more marketing isn’t better,” Cape says. “It’s about being focused, being efficient with your marketing. To me, it’s not how much you’re spending but how you’re spending the money you have. As you get into a tough economy and cash and available marketing funds are reduced, you have to get smarter at it.”
At Quick Lane, smarter means knowing what corporate management can and can’t do. Corporate management can define what the company brand should stand for, can establish overarching goals and can work to keep the organization pointed in the general direction of those goals.
What corporate management can’t do is come up with a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy that will get customers into stores from Maine to California and all points in between.
Realizing that, Cape and the Quick Lane management team have given individual store operators a great deal of latitude in tailoring their marketing style to fit the potential customers who live and work within a 15-minute drive of the store. Store operators had one ground rule to observe: Convey the brand’s consumer message, “convenience with confidence.”
“We have a brand style guide where we make suggestions to store operators regarding how they brand and advertise,” Cape says. “We do provide a road map to be consistent and uniform, so that it supports the brand. But the road map isn’t a mandatory marketing program. We try to structure things in a way where there are choices. What we’ve found is that when the dealers have more choices than they could leverage at one time, they still find what is best for them.”
Cape says taking a big-picture marketing philosophy down to the customer interface level requires a balance. You can’t let each store owner or salesperson take your brand in a different direction, but you want to stimulate small-scale innovation and creativity.
To ensure continuity without stifling creativity, you need to communicate with your people and make sure you are giving them an opportunity to communicate with you. The representatives in the field need to know in what direction the company’s compass is pointing, and upper management needs a clear view of what is and isn’t working in the field.
“Your employees are the ones on the front lines dealing with consumers,” Cape says. “They understand what the consumers are telling them. In our case, they might understand why a consumer may not want to buy a set of tires at that moment. If your front-line people are listening to the consumer, they’re going to understand the consumer’s wants and needs.
“Then, they’re going to come back to you and talk about the trends they see, which helps you understand how to tweak things from a marketing, pricing and process standpoint. In the end, it’s all about serving the customer. If we can meet customers’ needs in terms of being timely, affordable and having a good consumer experience, they’re going to continue to choose us.”Get everyone talking
You want front-line employees engaged in a dialogue with you but just as important is your ability to facilitate lateral communication between departments and geographies. Lateral communication is the primary avenue for a good idea to become a best practice throughout your entire company footprint.
Building a collaborative mindset that endures the distance between stores and cities is especially critical to Cape and the other leaders of Quick Lane, who bring together 570 store-level managers to find who has been succeeding the most in their marketing approaches.
Sometimes, a basic, no-frills idea gains the most traction, becoming a best practice because of its simplicity and effectiveness.
“There is an area in the Boston region where a Quick Lane operator actually approached a pizza delivery place,” Cape says. “What does pizza delivery have in common with our kind of business? We both serve the customers in our own backyard. What we do, in that sense, is exactly the same thing the pizza business does. So that operator actually went to a pizza delivery store and approached them about utilizing advertising coupons. One side was pizza coupons and the other side was Quick Lane advertising.
“That is what went on every pizza box that went out for delivery, and all you’re really doing is printing these fliers. It’s very cheap, but you’re still serving the local area, and we found that we got a lot of traction with that. As a result, now we have hundreds of Quick Lanes around the country doing that.”
To help facilitate the communication between store operators, Qui ck Lane maintains a business-to-business website. Store operators can access the site, interface with each other and use a set of marketing tools to help craft a focused message, in addition to other tips on selling, managing inventory and training modules.
“We’ve found that the forum gets used a lot and is an effective method for sharing best practices,” Cape says. “We help reinforce that with some other incentives and recognition for them.”
Quick Lane also makes use of field teams that monitor stores in a specific region, analyzing marketing data to find out what is and isn’t working well. The teams feed their data findings back to the corporate level.
If you consistently ask for new ideas, and set an expectation that your customer-level people will share ideas, you will build a culture of collaboration and accountability.
“I truly believe in a collaborative approach,” Cape says. “I’ve always said that 10 minds are better than one mind communicating to 10. In the past six-plus years I’ve been on the job, that has really been part of the key to success. It hasn’t been Ford telling us what to do. It hasn’t been a particular dealership that has it all figured out. It’s all about these Quick Lane operators doing business every day, about us providing forums and mechanisms to them, working with them to achieve their goals and do it in a quality way, a growth way.”Grow strategically
To facilitate large-scale growth while still maintaining a local neighborhood marketing presence, you need to develop new stores to place in new neighborhoods.
To find new dealers and off-site locations that could potentially house a service center, Cape needs to take an approach that is equal parts sales and strategic planning.
“We really have two ways we grow,” Cape says. “One is our traditional way, where we communicate the strengths and attributes of Quick Lane to our dealers through all sorts of methods. They could be dealer events, regional meetings, or we might meet individually with dealers where we feel we have a good opportunity for expansion. You take a message, sell them and convince them to take it on as an active project.”
The other growth tool is technology based a program by which Quick Lane’s leaders can punch in an address and identify the growth potential for a store at that location based on a number of factors, including traffic flow, retail hubs, household income and population density.
To Cape, a good growth strategy boils down to finding where the soil is the most fertile for your product. And no matter how you conduct the research, in order to effectively market and sell your product, you need to have a clear view of the landscape you’re trying to enter.
“When you identify where the soil is most fertile, there is value in that because you can focus your resources on that geographical area,” Cape says. “You can form a more robust marketing plan for that area. For us, it is really about having a committed operator, a dealer that is going to grow and a back service center, providing them with the right resources and ensuring that they have the conviction and commitment we’re looking for. Overall, you want to balance your zealousness for growth with quality of growth, so that you can grow the right way.”
How to reach: Quick Lane Tire & Auto Centers, (800) 392-3673 or www.quicklane.com