Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Shortly after launching their business last April, Edmonton entrepreneurs Uzair Ahmed and Asem Alsaadi decided to stage an event to promote it. They invited a certified auto mechanic to offer free vehicle inspections at a condo building to introduce their service, InstaMek, which dispatches mechanics to your home or office to conduct repairs.
One of the attendees mentioned that her car was making a weird noise. A friend had told her it was the brakes.
"Our certified mechanic with 15 years of experience looked into it. He did all the tests and explained to her there was nothing wrong with the vehicle," Mr. Ahmed says. "The look that she gave him – I've never seen a clearer look that said, 'I don't trust a word you're saying.'"
It's a running theme, he says – skepticism and mistrust have become status quo in the auto repair industry.
InstaMek aims to shatter those notions. Customers call, text or fill out a form online explaining their car trouble, their location and the make, model and year of their vehicle. The company responds within an hour and dispatches a mechanic shortly after with all the tools and parts required to repair the vehicle onsite. Mr. Ahmed says InstaMek is also developing a smartphone app.
Rates are about 30 per cent less than at a service garage and come with a warranty of 12 months or 20,000 km.
"Our 'meks' make no money on parts and don't work on commission. There's no incentive in our company to upsell," Mr. Ahmed says.
If the mechanic finds no problem with the vehicle, the consumer pays nothing. "We might lose money on this job, but the customer is going to tell all his friends we're a really trustworthy company so we make more money in the long run."
InstaMek has serviced nearly 2,000 cars since its founding. It has also grown its team to 12, raised $500,000 in venture funding and expanded to Toronto, Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa.
But overcoming the industry reputation has proved to be a hurdle. A 2012 Consumer Reports survey found that nearly a quarter of those polled had switched auto repair shops in the previous five years, citing mechanics that failed to fix the problem, high prices and being sold unnecessary parts or service.
"It's a pretty opaque industry. There are a lot of stories that go around about shady mechanics, maybe for good cause, maybe not," says Mr. Ahmed.
"We've tried to run promotions that didn't go anywhere because they were deemed too good to be true by the customers," he says. "If they think you're shady, you can tell them anything and they'll still think you're shady."
The Challenge: How can InstaMek change consumer perceptions about the auto-repair industry?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Brynn Winegard, marketing expert and principal at business consultancy Winegard & Co. LLC, Toronto
They are going to have to infiltrate social networks and get a lot of good word-of-mouth marketing done, more than they have already. It's easier with today's tools – but almost harder in a way because you have to convince people what you're saying is true.
InstaMek has a vested interest in telling us they're trustworthy, so they need to find other outlets, which means hiring key opinion leaders on social networks or forums. There are lots of online communities that are relevant to different people for different reasons, so they have to find those and get them to start talking about InstaMek.
In general, they've got a hook, given that they're going after the urban markets where providers can come right to the consumers. All the socio-cultural trends are going more toward this kind of service so I think they should play up this aspect of convenience in their marketing strategy.
Rebecca Reuber, professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
They need to figure out who their target market is. Is it downtown condo dwellers who just don't want to fight the traffic and are working crazy hours? Talk to them to figure out why they don't use their service.
I'm not sure it's the reputation of the industry. Personally, I'd be worried they wouldn't have the full equipment my regular garage has, or that they'd get oil all over the driveway or the parking garage in my condo. I wouldn't underestimate the dirt aspect of this – people like to take their cars to a garage because they think of this as being quite dirty work.
If it is a reputation thing, they need to get some reputational signals out there. I noticed on their site they do Uber inspections. If Uber uses the service, InstaMek needs to get that right up to the front of their website and let people know that well-known companies are using them for their fleets.
Gary Kaye, owner of El Cheapo Movers Ltd., Toronto
One of the things we did was increase the public side of our giving. We offer discounts to vulnerable people like seniors, students, people on disability, aboriginal people, non-profit organizations. We've been involved in relocation efforts with Syrian refugees, all the moves for Community Living Ontario in Toronto. We expanded our community connections and by word of mouth we've gained a reputation for that.
We also joined the Canadian Association of Movers, which enhances the industry as a whole because if you're a member of it you agree to a number of consumer-friendly regulations. InstaMek should look for a similar mechanics standard of excellence. They should join the Better Business Bureau, too, and keep a close eye on their rating.
These things will help establish that they will be responsible for the work of their contractors. It will assure their customers that there's a double-check system or a recourse back to headquarters.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Develop relationships with high-profile people on social media and with well-known companies such as Uber to build trust in the brand.
Communicate with non-users
Survey non-users to discover what they don't find enticing about the service.
Work with charities and disadvantaged groups
Offer discounts for seniors and students and develop partnerships with non-profits.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.