It was second semester of my freshman year at the University of Houston and I was quickly running out of funds. My car, once cajoled into starting with prayer power, now had the frequency of starting with 2-1 odds, not in my favor. I took my car to the mechanic around the corner for an oil change and asked if he could fix the problem. Secretly, I was hoping it would be inexpensive.
“Oh no. We don’t do that kind of work here. Just oil changes. I do know someone who can help you.” He looked both ways and leaned in towards me. His next words were spoken in a whisper, “Okay, turn right out of this parking lot. Make a right on Scott…” He continued to give me directions ending with, “… You will see an Auto Zone on your right. Park in the abandoned lot across the street from the Auto Zone and you will see a beat up brown van. Knock three times. A man named Shaggy Dog will come out. He looks just like an old shaggy dog. He can help you. His work is great and cheap. Tell him Will sent you.”
I thanked Will and as I started my car- thankfully it started twice in a row that day. I thought to myself, “I must be crazy. Shaggy Dog? I’m actually going to a man named Shaggy Dog?!?” Then I thought about my bank account.
I began to trace the route that Will gave me, in search of Shaggy Dog. When I reached the Auto Zone, there was no van across the street. Yet, I was not quite defeated. I walked into Auto Zone and spoke to the young cashier. “Ma’am, I know this is going to sound crazy. I’m looking for a man named Shaggy Dog who parks his van across the street.” She looked both ways, then leaned in towards me and in a whisper said, “You just missed him. I can tell you where to find him though. Make a left on Griggs…” She proceeded to give me directions and then ended with, “…and when you see the Pep Boys on your left, he’ll be parked across the street. Have you used Shaggy Dog before?” I replied that I had not. “Girl, he’s good and he’s cheap. Awesome work! Good luck!”
As I started my car- it took three attempts this time- I laughed at my situation. I was on a quest to find a man named Shaggy Dog to fix my car. However, he did receive glowing business referrals.
I followed the cashiers directions and, true to her word, the beat up brown van was exactly where she described. I parked and knocked three times. Out came a heavily bearded man who looked like a chocolate covered Bruce Vilanch.
Shaggy Dog preceded to check my car, write a list of parts for me to buy across the street at Pep Boys, and fix it for a fee of $30- all within an hour. Meanwhile, what did I do? Shaggy Dog pulled a few plastic garden chairs from the back of his van for me and his now growing line of customers. His friend, who owned a barbecue van, parked next to Shaggy’s tattered brown van. All of Shaggy Dog’s customers bought a plate of ribs and a can of pop.
Over the next three years, I referred many college friends to Shaggy Dog. Whenever I would drive by one of his mobile locations, he always had 2-3 customers waiting, enjoying barbecue. I also returned, whenever my run-down vehicle needed repairs, until, one day, no one knew where Shaggy Dog went.
As I think back on this story, it reminds me of the power of referrals. A strong referral network, paired with excellent service, can overcome many business obstacles. In the case of Shaggy Dog, it overcame lack of location, marketing strategy and possibly, a license. I am not endorsing business owners not having proper legal documents, I’m just emphasizing a point. The most remarkable thing- this was before the spread of social media as a referral tool!
What are you doing to create loyal customers who will refer business?