THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (Aug. 25, 20126) — It wasn’t a bad personal experience in automotive retail that sparked the creation of AskPatty.com Inc. a little over a decade ago.
Rather, it was a glaring disconnect between female customers who make up the majority of vehicle maintenance decisions and what’s typically a male-dominated automotive aftermarket.
It was hardly a “female-friendly” landscape.
Ten years since AskPatty.com Inc. launched with blogs, a question-and-answer forum and a certification program for automotive retailers, founder Jody DeVere said she believes the company has made a positive difference.
“I believe I’ve had a great impact on getting those women’s voices heard out in the marketplace,” she recently told Tire Business.
In addition to blogs with advice on everything automotive, the website offers a forum where women ask female automotive experts a vast array of questions from how to change the oil in their car to what to look for in buying a vehicle.
The company originally offered a listing of car dealerships it had certified as “female friendly” after the staff had undergone training on how to improve customer service and appearance so as to improve their credibility and develop a trust relationship with women customers.
Aftermarket leads the way
In 2009, AskPatty.com expanded the certification to the aftermarket, which has taken the lead in the number of certified “female friendly” businesses. Ms. DeVere estimated there are just under 3,700 locations certified in the U.S. and Canada.
“Adoption by the aftermarket retailer is much higher than car dealers and a much higher percent of my client base are tire service, collision and quick lubes. I believe the aftermarket in this particular area has been much more savvy, from a competitive point of view, to embrace the concepts that women are the primary purchaser and decision maker and accommodate those needs in providing a better experience overall,” she said.
“With or without AskPatty, I believe (independent dealers) have been better adopters.… The two main reasons are that with most automotive aftermarket retailers, the owner is still having contact with consumers so they are much more aware of the actual reality of what’s happening in terms of the customer base. Whereas at the (car) dealership, I think the leadership is not in touch with the actual consumer experience as much as they believe.
“And, two, the automotive aftermarket, because their main competitors are dealerships, are smart and savvy and know that if they win with women, they will maintain a market share leadership in repair.”
Prior to launching AskPatty.com, Ms. DeVere developed a career as a business consultant and turnaround expert and worked in the technology field.
“I had been working in the automotive industry and doing a lot related to the women’s market and serial entrepreneurs,” she told Tire Business, “and I saw a black hole in the universe of automotive — something that was really missing, that was needed.”
When the website debuted in 2006, it joined a growing blogosphere that opened up a form of communication for women to get their voices heard by companies and brands and to connect online with each other.
“That has only grown exponentially over the last 10 years, and I think in some ways, timing is everything in that AskPatty has ridden the wave of women empowering themselves with more information about everything—including better information on how to buy and sell cars and certainly better information about basic maintenance and repair and tires because they have so much more access to information in the last 10 years,” Ms. DeVere said.
“I’m just smiling. I do believe this company has led the industry into this. I was the first in, and so I’m very proud of that. And even though there are competitors out there or other people working in the women’s market, I applaud them all because it will take a village to change it. It’s still a male-dominant field but I think the guys are getting much smarter about this.”
Room for improvement
About that AskPatty.com logo: It features “Patty,” a composite character representing savvy female automotive experts.
“I refer to Patty as the patron saint of automotive empowerment for women. And that is really happening.… I really believe that in the industry 10 years ago, there was a lot of unmet demand for women — how they were treated in their automotive retail experience and acknowledged and respected. And I do believe there has been improvement over the last 10 years.
“But there’s still room for improvement. I think the industry at large has recognized that women are the chief purchasing officer now and are gearing themselves to be more female friendly in general with or without AskPatty,” Ms. DeVere said.
She noted that the automotive aftermarket has become more savvy about improving its services and approach to women customers over the last 10 years.
“How do you differentiate yourself from dealerships or even other local competitors? I can charge a little less but that’s not actually the best plan — to lose money to gain market share. But delivering a better experience and advertising and marketing in ways that resonate better with women is a great strategic advantage that you can take advantage of.
“And I see it all the time — more and more ways to address women, to make the shop experience in the waiting room better and more women’s car care clinics, better advertising, better understanding of using social media which women connect well on,” she said.
A knowledgeable business owner needs to understand who the women are in the local market and what they will respond to because one size does not fit all for women, Ms. DeVere added.
“You need to do different things to attract different demographics of women. What works with millennials may not work with baby boomers. What you’re saying to single women may not work with moms.
“So it’s not just about women — that’s a big category — it’s about how savvy are they? But I applaud any attempt to change the (reputation), unfortunately, that the automotive industry in general has that women are not welcome and that they will be taken advantage of,” she said.
“I believe the industry has made great strides but there is still a long way to go. Women are still complaining about how they are misrepresented in advertising, for instance, or still not getting the exceptional level of treatment or respect that they deserve in their retail buying experience. So I still think there is room for growth there,” she said.
“Things are changing, but part of the challenge that women have is that they feel like they are being taken advantage of. It isn’t that the shop will (do that); it’s that they know they can be. It’s a huge gap there.”
She pointed out that in addition to businesses adapting to female customers, women have to empower themselves with knowledge about their vehicles.
“Part of having a great experience with your retailer is asking the right questions and communicating well with the advisor or mechanic or technician,” Ms. DeVere said. Noting the immense amount of automotive repair information available on the Internet today, she advised consumers to “do their homework.”
“It takes two to tango,” she said.
Over the decade, AskPatty.com also has evolved — becoming more active in social media, promoting automotive careers for women and helping launch the Women in Automotive Conference two years ago to promote a cultural change inside dealerships and increase the population of female employees in automotive businesses.
The company had to reinvent its website several times to accommodate the forum —one of the most popular areas on AskPatty.com to this day, she said, noting that it can sometimes field as many as 1,000 questions a month.
“Over 80 percent of the questions are related to automotive repair and tires, not car buying. One of the things I know, based on surveys and studies, is that women are much more savvy and feel more comfortable buying a car now, which wasn’t so 10 years ago, than they are about taking their vehicle in for repair. And so the savvy retailer will realize that and make education a big part of how they attract and create loyalty with women customers to empower her so that she feels more comfortable coming and feels more educated.”
Car care clinics also are popular among her client base. AskPatty.com just completed a project with Sears Auto Centers which held clinics at 620 of its 700 locations across the U.S., she said. The clinics were “extremely well attended and the women so appreciated it.”
The clinics address common concerns, such as what kind of oil to use, how to change a tire, how to replace wiper blades, how to check fluids, and other basic maintenance issues.
“I love what I do because it’s really making a difference, not only in the lives of consumers but also for my clients and the industry at large… Another piece is we have done a lot of work to help women in their careers in automotive and promote careers for automotive and been involved in many women’s organizations, including two years ago launching the Women in Automotive Conference, which has been very successful and timely,” she said.
Despite the automotive industry’s continued evolution, it is still a male-dominated field, according to Ms. DeVere — obvious in the percentage of women working in leadership and management roles. So there is “room for a lot of growth there,” she added, and the industry provides careers that have longevity.
“One thing people can say about me is that I stick to my guns, and this is something you have to be committed to to bring change about. I think I will continue along that path and also develop innovations in how to connect automotive retail to women and develop tools that meet the needs of women in today’s market and in the future,” she said.
“I’m grateful for my team, my brand and the industry for embracing AskPatty. I think if anything else, I have a brand and company that has a very high level of integrity in the industry.”
Ms. DeVere now works with 22 employees, where a decade ago she started with about five.