There are those who take the road less traveled, and then there are those who like to skip the road entirely. Several states, including Michigan, could open thousands of miles of state forest roads to off-road vehicles. What was once a hobby that was almost exclusively enjoyed by young males — typically bachelors — has become an activity for the whole family. However, the average soccer mom’s SUV may not be so ideally suited to off-road adventures, even if SUV means sport utility vehicle.
For general dirt roads, the average SUV is more than capable, but for serious off-road adventures a special class of vehicles is utilized. These require specialized servicing — creating new opportunities for service shops. Everything from serious off-road tires to specialized fluids can be offered to this potential customer base, and with the right relationships, accessories and other unique products can be offered to customers.
The first thing to consider is that like many activities, off-road can be a seasonal business depending on the part of the country. While those deep in the heart of Texas may enjoy going off-road year round, in parts further north, it is strictly a summer activity. Spring rains and fall foliage limit the season, while only extremely specialized vehicles can handle winter — but that means there are other opportunities, too.
“We live in an area that is pretty mild, so off-roading is pretty much year around,” said Dean Schwartz of Lloyd’s Tire & Auto Care in Santa Cruz, California. “Summer is busier though.”
Weather can play a role in other ways, too. The recent extreme drought in California meant that some trails were closed due to fire concerns last summer, and this year’s season had a slow start in the spring due to record levels of snow.
As with any hobby, the more serious enthusiasts will develop a relationship with the local shop, so catering to those individuals and establishing a good rapport can be crucial.
“The basics of working on off-road vehicles is very much one of customer relations,” said Andy Mousseau, master tech and franchise owner of the Auto-Lab Complete Care Center in Gaylord, Michigan. “We have to know what the customer is expecting from his vehicle, so we can customize our service around it.”
One part of this relationship is understanding what the customer knows about off-road vehicles.
“We mostly do repairs on the ‘wannabe’ off-road people’s vehicles,” Schwartz said. “Most serious off road guys do a lot of their own repairs, but we do all types of repairs.”
If the job is too big — such as transmission rebuilds and differential repairs — Schwartz said those will be sublet to another shop. This is important to avoid a potentially big and expensive mistake.
“Off-road can change the alignment angles. You do that wrong, and then the driver chews up an expensive tire,” Mousseau warned. “That doesn’t make for a happy customer.”
This is why having knowledgeable techs on the floor is crucial too, Mousseau said.
“The equipment isn’t that unusual, but it is making sure the techs know what they are doing and that enough are on hand to do the job,” he said. “It isn’t just the equipment; it is having the right manpower in place. One technician can put a tire on a regular car, but for an off-road vehicle, you need two guys. You need people who understand the vehicles.”
Ensuring the job is done right is also the best advertising.
“It is done differently than other services we offer,” Mousseau explained. “With off-road guys, it is really about the word of mouth. You need the customer to say, ‘I have a big truck, and these guys service it right.’ We get a lot of our off-road business through those referrals.”
As with many automotive hobbies, there are very different people who are into off-roading, and shops shouldn’t expect a one-size-fits-all approach to what those customers know or what they are willing to spend.
“Again, it is about customizing the service around the customer,” Mousseau said.
You may have customers who participate in competitions and push their vehicles to the extreme to a weekender who is new to actually using an SUV for things besides hauling groceries from Whole Foods.
“It is a very broad spectrum of customers and, hence, a very broad spectrum of what we can offer our customers,” Mousseau said.
Right Parts and Services
While a shop may not need new equipment to service vehicles, the vendor relationship becomes just as important as the customer relationship.
“We offer all brands of tires, but we sell a ton of BFG All Terrains and Mud Terrains,” Schwartz said.
Shops don’t usually need to stock extra products for what is actually a very niche market. Instead, knowing the vendors, suppliers and distributors is where a shop can have a winning strategy through superior service.
“Personally, I’m lucky as I’m in a part of Michigan where guys are really into off-roading,” Mousseau said. “That means there is a warehouse that stocks the parts and fluids we need, and we stock very little, as we can get what we need the same day.”
Accessories are a big opportunity for shops, so having a vendor relationship can be the difference between a customer going online to order it and going to the shop.
“Some accessories still need to be ordered, but we try to offer quick service,” Mousseau added. “It is stuff like floor mats from Weather Tech. These guys don’t want to let their vehicle get too dirty, so stuff like that is popular; same with rims and tires. It is about forging relationships and offering customers what they want.”
The basics are also crucial — this includes the filters and fluids.
“When you’re talking extreme, you need to do more basic maintenance, and from a lube perspective, any time you are in an extreme condition, you need to make sure you are meeting the demands of the fluids and changing them regularly,” Mousseau explained. “Simply put, large components can suffer if you don’t do this simple maintenance, and explaining that to customers is really important.”
One thing shops need to understand is off-roading is an expensive hobby — but as with any hobby, that doesn’t mean even the most hardcore enthusiasts like to open their wallets. For these reasons, it is important to stress the benefits of preventive maintenance and regular services, but also warn customers that some things can get expensive.
“Education is a must,” Mousseau said. “We’ve seen a bit of sticker shock, in part because some aftermarket products can be both expensive and affect a vehicle warranty. There are products that have a warranty but not when you’re taking the vehicle off-road and doing extreme things with it.”
Again, an ounce of prevention can go a long way. This is especially true of the hobby’s so-called weekend warriors — those who aren’t the classic car guys or hardcore off-roaders.
“We think it’s really important for people who do even ‘some’ off-roading to get regular service because they’re the ones most likely not to catch something wrong with their vehicle until it’s too late,” Schwartz said. “The hardcore guys usually will go through their vehicle and check everything out after a hardcore off-road trip. The casual off-roader may never check or know what to check after being off-road.”
If off-roading is popular in your area, or if you live in a city with weekend warriors who might not know much about their cars, maybe it’s time to think out of the box — or off the beaten path — and make sure you’re taking care of all of your customers’ auto service needs.