Profiting From Failed Competitors


“Dealers struggle with this because they feel the pain of their
competitor going out of business.
What do you say to this guy?
It’s not a fun conversation, but it’s something you’ve got to do.”

—Bill Shenk

Nobody likes to see a local business fail. The question is, How do you deal with it? How do you treat a competitor that has failed or is failing? Ignore his problem? Sympathize? Take advantage of his situation? What are you prepared to do?

What if you helped yourself and helped her at the same time… by quickly purchasing some of his most valuable customer assets?

It’s a sensitive situation, of course, especially if you’ve had a cordial relationship with the competitor. But the reality is that when that store closes, several things are likely to happen, and most of them are not going to benefit you unless you take quick action. For example, assuming that he has many of the same lines that you carry:

  • He’s going to have a closeout sale that’s going to suck many of the hot prospects out of the market. That means you lose sales today and in the near future as consumers move up their purchases.
  • When he closes, his OEMs may very well set up a new dealer, or dealers, and if this happens, the new competition very likely is going to be more aggressive and better financed than his predecessor. Now, you have a tougher competitor than you did before; that doesn’t sound like fun, does it?
  • Your OEMs may give you a chance to take over his point, or at least the OEM may sell you his inventory at a discount— if they don’t sell it to another of your competitors.

So, if you wait, your options aren’t very good and they actually could be bad enough TO PUT YOU OUT OF BUSINESS. What are you going to do? I asked Bill Shenk, head of PowerHouse Dealer consulting services and the key man in Dealernews’ Dealer Lab project, if this subject had come up in his 20 Group meetings. It has, he said, and he told me some of the steps that his dealers have taken in this situation.

“Going after ORPHAN CUSTOMERS is one of the best ways to boost your business in a tough economy,” says Shenk. “Orphan customers— those without a dealer relationship— are already in the lifestyle and they are looking for a dealership to take care of them.

“But you have to be PROACTIVE. Only one person is going to get that customer list,” emphasizes Shenk. “OEMs tend to split up the list among surrounding dealers. And the (failed) dealer may have brands you don’t carry; you want to get those names, too.”

First, put sensitivities aside, for the moment, and move into action. Make a list of the things that you can do to take advantage of the big change in your marketplace. Here is a sample Action Plan:

CALL your competitor and tell him that you sympathize with his situation and you want to do some things that will help both of you. Offer to pay him for pieces of his business that he won’t be able to sell elsewhere.

BUY his phone number and have calls to his store forwarded to your dealership. Set up a separate number coming into your store so that your employees know where the calls are coming from. Then they can answer with a special greeting. “You have to tell the customers that you bought the number from the previous dealer and that you are trying to take care of them,” says Shenk. This straightforward approach creates a comfort level with the new customers and creates confidence that you will service their needs, he says.

OFFER to purchase his customer list. There are more customers than the ones who have purchased new units; those generally are available from the OEM. “Say there’s a store 30 miles away that carries one of your lines. A nice store might be worth 100 new units a month,” says Shenk. “So, if you get a list of those who purchased in the last two years, you might get 2,500 names from the OEM. But there really might be 10,000 active customers on the total list, people who have purchased parts and accessories and service.”

REVIEW the dealer’s DMS. You’ll get more information here than you would from your OEM. The DMS probably will provide you with the customer’s entire purchase transaction record.

RUN ADVERTISING aimed at your competitor’s customers, offering inexpensive products and services. “It’s easier for these prospects to try you and this new experience for $100, rather than buying a unit for several thousand dollars,” points out Shenk. “It’s a lot easier to drive to your store and try it for a small, first time purchase.” But don’t spend a lot of money on splashy ads. “The cost for advertising to attract these customers can go way through the roof,” says Shenk. “There’s no ROI here.”

PAY THE DEALER to write a letter to his customers recommending your dealership as the place to go for service and support.

SCOOP UP an existing franchise that could fit your operation as quickly as possible. “My preference is to be a motorcycle dealer or an ATV dealer,” says Shenk, “rather than a single-line store. People would rather go to a store that has it all, rather than a one-brand store. That’s been proven.”

Working with your failed competitor isn’t something most of us want to do, but it’s something that you should definitely consider and then move on quickly. “This is a real time sensitive deal,” says Shenk. “Dealers struggle with this because they feel the pain of their competitor going out of business. What do you say to this guy? It’s not a fun conversation, but it’s something you’ve got to do.”  JD

Contact me with news tips and story ideas at or 952/893-6876

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