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When creative storytelling collided with destruction

A profile of a repair shop that traded in their wrenches for a marketing agency
Monday, April 29, 2019 - 06:00
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Within six months, Peak Automotive stopped fixing cars. A local road construction project cut off customer access to their car care center, ultimately destroying Brian and Kim Walker’s livelihood. Once ranked as one of the nation’s top 10 installers by Motor Age magazine, their $40,000 a week income stream ran dry by Christmas 2009. By then, the Walkers had exhausted every solution to revive their dying business and laid off their employees. Broken down, they quit Raleigh, N.C. for Hammond, La., to heal their wounds.

It took 10 years for this husband and wife team to pioneer an untested marketing model for the independent repair shop owner. Motivated by devastation and missteps from operating another facility prior to Peak Automotive, Kim Walker spoke to me at great lengths about her and Brian’s newly launched marketing and social media consultancy, Shop Marketing Pros, a specialist in storytelling. While there are no guarantees that their vision of marketing repair shop stories told through the experiences of a professional installer will humanize the car care professional segment, one admirable trait about this couple stands out—they personify a comeback on an intimate stage.

Make no bones about the Walkers’ trials, they learned the hard way about the power of projecting human-interest profiles. When Brian opened his first facility in 1999, he focused on overhauling engines, but not so much on what mattered dearly to his customers. Naming the business Behind the Star did not resonate with the Mercedes-Benz driver class that he was targeting. Women friends of Kim shared their sub-par experiences with their service writers or the technicians who made them feel inadequate. This lesson awoke Kim and Brian to close the empathy gap because people crave someone who can demonstrate a balanced sensitivity to them and their cars.

Brian and Kim Walker at their firm, Shop Marketing Pros.

Shop Marketing Pros strives to unite the installer with their audience through digital platforms, including social media channels and personal websites through a concept called StoryBranding. Rather than for a business to list maintenance activities that they perform, the ideal approach is to feature an authentic testimonial about the mechanic who solves problems described in emotionally engaging language and imagery. Put differently, consider a motorist with an unknown vehicle malfunction who seeks a mechanic to guide that person to an actionable plan. According to Kim, who adopted StoryBranding from an executive seminar, every story has a main character who relies on a humble, yet capable hero who defines personal empowerment. Through support, the car owner emerges victorious thanks to the hero’s guidance to a clear solution. In more concrete words, people relate to other people’s struggles and triumphs, and even cheer at the selfless hero such as Mr. Miyagi in the film The Karate Kid or the speech pathologist who supported his royal highness in The King’s Speech. Seen by Kim, customers don’t warm to hard sells or vague promises of what a repairer does.

One of Shop Marketing Pro’s accounts gave me his take on how he wraps digital content around his six-bay operation. Customers will judge a business by its star ratings said Bobby Danford, general manager of A-1 Quick Lube and Auto Care. Danford is actively targeting the city of Hammond’s smartphone users who research online for the nearest tech for convenience and competency. Danford knows the stress of who to trust and understands that the owner wants a frictionless path to find a repairer with the highest online rankings. Therefore, he turned to Shop Marketing Pros to tie together his Facebook page and website into a unified theme where his customers can read and post reviews.

Bobby Danford standing in front of his service center, A-1 QUICK LUBE & AUTO CARE.

And there is no doubt in Danford’s mind that he wants to become the anxiety-free persona. With more than 40 years of experience of twisting wrenches and gently separating the money from his customers, he hopes that visitors to his website will show faith in A-1’s mission to properly fix the automobile the first time with an eye on safety. To turn words into deeds, Danford places respectful interaction at a premium. Early in our telephone interview, Danford excused himself to usher one client through the service bay area to explain the extent of the complex work needed for the costly job. As Danford contemplated his rapport with his customers, one of his roles has become a reliable advisor, which he wants his techs to integrate as well.

Word of mouth or star ratings are not enough to woo the digitally fluent millennials, explained Danford, referring to the South Eastern Louisiana University student population that doubles the size of Hammond to 40,000. He wants his website to rise to the top of search engine queries ruled by algorithms. Danford encourages his customers to describe in their own words how their visit went. For his part, giving away free car care tips or explaining cost savings measures is another way to differentiate his shop from the stereotype of an indifferent repair business. While continuing to grow his NAPA car care center, Danford does not want to be perceived as a pushy sales person who takes money from others. Instead, his mission is to service vehicles and educate drivers who value what his entire team of technicians have to offer. To give the website more punch, Danford has inspired his techs to project their own hero personas by bringing Shop Marketing Pros on-site to film each installer in action. 

No one claims to be naïve about Shop Marketing Pro’s faith in the narrative. Kim accepts the long road ahead of Shop Marketing Pro’s mission to attract more clients and build upon the existing businesses. One time, Brian set a goal to canvass 50 prospect facilities over three days, yielding mixed results. Along the way, he tried to engage an owner idling in a recliner who was content to stick to his old ways, and not spend any time, energy or money to raise his customer count. But Kim and Brian remain optimistic because they have performed well in other industries from the parent company, 5 Stones Media that they launched in 2012. Their challenge for Shop Marketing Pros is to convince the prospect account that they cannot create a new model without at the same time destroying some of the old one.

With an uphill march of winning over the professional installer with the pitch that Shop Marketing Pros has solutions to their marketing problems, Kim concedes, that some candidates are more ready than others. In a follow-up email, Kim wrote that “our ideal customer is [someone] who is at the point in their business where they understand that marketing is an important part of their business puzzle.” This model has helped A-1 develop a compassionate face. Asked about their return on investment, Danford boasted that in past month, sales had tripled, and 2018 was A-1’s most profitable year.

Shifting resources to more productive activities requires eliminating less effective or unproductive activities. Seeing real benefits oftentimes are less visible as the devasting effects like what happened to Peak Automotive. In Kim’s world, she is happy with the trajectory of Shop Marketing Pros so far. Who can fault such courage and grit to overcome the loss of a business to then to go onto helping a fellow car care professional succeed? Go girl go!

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