Working with a staff of reps with deep knowledge of the automotive aftermarket, but without so much as a website to back them up, they’re proving by the day that old school, high-touch, face-to-face business fundamentals still rule the roost when it comes to dealer expediting.
When it comes to promoting their services-including not just mobile audio but paint protection film, window tint, leather and sunroofs, among others-Sounds Good Audio does it the old-fashioned way, and they do it extremely well, Shepard says.
“When we’re out looking to expand our customer base, it’s either myself or one of our reps contacting them personally and building relationships,” he says. “We have maintained a website in the past and it really did nothing for us. These dealerships, they have 9 million vendors approaching them from every angle. They certainly don’t go looking online when they have a need. They already either have established networks of providers, or they ask those they do have for a referral.”
Strong Relationships, Diversification
That reality makes a personal, strong relationship with dealership buyers even more important, he says. Competition in the area is strong, but some of his dealer relationships run almost as long as he’s been in the business, dating back more than 20 years.
Back in 1990 when Shepard was working his way through college installing stereos, he happened to make the first of many important network connections. He got a call from a friend of a friend to assist on the installation of a new type of car alarm. That friend ended up being the primary buyer for the Phil Long Group, which has long been among the highest volume dealerships in the Denver Metro Area and beyond.
“We got started with that job and it wasn’t long before they started requesting audio and other products, and we always found a way to provide it,” he says. “Over the years, people started asking for DVD, then navigation units, and films and clear bras. We’ve never stopped diversifying our product offering, and they’ve never stopped coming to us.”
Today, Sounds Good Audio focuses primarily on mobile video and other electronics including rear-seat entertainment systems, iPod and XM satellite radio installations throughout Denver, with an additional 20 percent of its revenue coming from paint protection films and window tint, according to the company.
Sounds Good Audio operates strictly on a mobile basis, while performing on-site installations. The company also maintains a modest, 3,000-square-foot shop in Colorado Springs, Colo., which offers electronics products along with leather interior packages and aftermarket sunroof installations.
Keeping It Practical
Similar to forgoing a website and social media, Shepard avoids launching a high-overhead brick and mortar establishment in Denver. While a non-compete clause from the dissolution of a former partnership precludes his business from providing leather and sunroof work in Denver, Shepard identifies one simple reason for avoiding opening a physical store in the city: it doesn’t provide any notable competitive advantage.
“With our product lines, (having a location in Denver) isn’t a high priority,” he says. “We do the installs at the dealerships on-site, so having a shop here doesn’t help us with dealer accounts.”
At the end of the day, those dealer accounts are really what matters to expeditors, he says.
With increased competition from other expeditors-as well as from OEMs, which are increasingly rolling out models with historically aftermarket mainstays already included-”traits like flexibility and the ability to react quickly to changing market conditions have superseded the need for a flashy showroom, according to Shepard.
“A lot of what used to be key markets for us are shrinking as the manufacturers provide more of those products from the factory,” he says. “Add to that the struggling economy and a few competitors that seem dedicated to racing to the bottom on price, and you’ve got a pretty challenging situation. Adaptability in this type of business is really important.”
That dynamic business environment is complicated further by the rapidly accelerating changes to various technologies in the market, Shepard says.
“The technology today changes fast, so it is a challenge to keep up with it,” he says. “Some products change so quickly that by the time you have something in stock and ready to install, there’s a better option on the way and you might not be able to get it for another year.”
Expeditor Must: Market Knowledge
In a dynamic and competitive business environment, Shepard says product and market knowledge is the great equalizer for dealer expeditors.
“When competition is everywhere and products are changing quickly, you really need to be sure you and your reps are knowledgeable about the next big thing that’s coming,” he says. “You need to connect with organizations like SEMA and you need to talk with knowledgeable veterans of the business, the other shop owners. There’s no secret. You just have to try to predict the gaps and fill them.”
Within each market, different dealerships will be suited to different vehicle buyers, thus requiring expeditors to be prepared to meet their unique needs.
“When you’re doing a large volume of business, you have to prioritize and anticipate what products they will want,” he says. “In our market, a Lexus store in Park Meadows (an upscale shopping mall) will have much different needs than a dealership in a different part of town. I rank them accordingly and know how much volume each will do. At a high-volume dealership, the rep might be there three times per week. At others, you might only be stopping by once every month. But you’ve got to know your market to make that decision.”
Armed with that knowledge, today’s dealer expeditors can focus on another of the most important elements in building strong relationships: A willingness to go above and beyond for your clients and customers.
“What has allowed us to stay competitive is that we get requests for new products or services, and we never say ‘no,'” Shepard says. “You always do the best you can when you’re asked to perform. Sometimes that means jumping through hoops, with summersaults and twists thrown in. Sometimes you find yourself working on Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving, but if that’s what it takes, that is what you need to do to keep these relationships. They have to be able to count on you. When they can, most of them really appreciate that.”
Relationships Are The Business
Once those relationships are established they can sometimes last for years,
even as a dealer’s buyer moves on to new opportunities.
“We know that contacts at dealerships sometimes move around to new dealers, and if they like you enough, they’ll take you with them to the new place,” Shepard says. “With those contacts, it seems like they’re either in one place forever or they move around often. Either of those situations can be positive if you’ve got a strong relationship.”
Despite the challenges of competition, changing product technology and the effort inherent in building long-term relationships, Shepard says he still loves the business and the freedom it provides.
“It’s not an easy business, but I think the best part of it is being fortunate to make a good living in a business I enjoy. And there’s always something new coming,” he says with a laugh.
“You just try to stay up with it.”