One of the biggest, fastest-growing segments of the automotive performance industry is the off-road market, but beware of approaching it as if it were a monolithic mass. The market ranges from axle-busting rock crawlers and dust-eating dune racers to soccer moms whose grill-guarded, suspension-jacked, fog-lighted SUV’s never touch any surface rougher than the gravel drive at their weekend home at the lake. Each customer is different, but they’ve all got wallets ready to open to trick out their 4WD ride.
What differentiates these customers from each other is the way they use their off-road vehicle. What’s usually the same is what they want from the shop they choose: knowledgeable service. Industry experts believe that you’ve got to know the customer: “You’ve got the customer who knows the product, and he doesn’t want to talk to somebody who doesn’t know anything,” industry veteran Rusty Megois says. “Then you’ve got the other guy who has done the Internet research, read the magazines, but they’re still not sure. They rely a lot on what you tell them.”
That’s why shop and off-road park owner Carl Roy says he and his staff don’t sell anybody anything. Instead, “We explain things like the importance between differential ratio and tire size, weight balance and distribution, ground clearance, approach and departure angles, wheel speed versus the inertia of the vehicle.” He operates Performance Off-Road, Inc., in Alexandria, Kentucky.
Roy stresses the importance of learning as much as you can about the individual customer: “When it comes to what they want, it depends on their level of experience. For some of them, name recognition means a great deal, there’s a certain amount of brand loyalty. Others, it may come down to who had the best magazine ad that month.” The hard-core customer still sets the standard for the market, even though there are vast differences from one to another in that market segment and their tastes are changing, too.
Another factor to take into consideration is price. Price doesn’t seem to be as much of a concern to off-road customers as it is in other performance markets, although it’s always there in the customer’s mind somewhere.
There is also the influence of the Internet, which as Megois believes, “has made us all more competitive." But Roy believes that: “The Internet gives us a focal point to start the discussion. A lot of people will come in with an ad they’ve printed out and say ‘I’d like this for my Jeep. Can you beat that price?' That creates the opportunity for us to take them out and illustrate that there are differences—qualitative differences, warranty differences, product support differences, engineering philosophies—and how those transcend the price points of the product.”
Ultimately, the experts believe that quality time does the trick. “The amount of time we spend with the customer is our competitive advantage,” Roy says. “Everybody out there is selling the same stuff we are. The only advantages we offer are the experience and abilities we have.”
Dave Donelson distills the experiences of hundreds of entrepreneurs into practical advice for small business owners and managers in the Dynamic Manager's Guides, a series of how-to books about marketing and advertising, sales techniques, hiring, firing, and motivating personnel, financial management, and business strategy.