Tom Franklin (122)
Similarly, a customer's first contact with a collision repair facility may very well determine that customer's view of the entire shop.
This was brought home vividly to me this past week. A local shop that was experiencing a major downturn in business was also downsizing expenses wherever possible. One approach was to cut employee hours or pay rather than letting them go. This was working well up to a point, but when an exceptionally good front desk lady quit and was replaced by a lower-paid trainee, I could see even more trouble ahead for this shop. I surmised the reason she left was a cut in pay or hours.
I've watched this lady at work for a while and I believe she was seriously undervalued. This isn't the first exceptional front desk person I've seen leave a shop. I think many shop owners fail to grasp how important it is for a new customer to feel welcomed and understood by the first person they encounter. I underscore the word “understood.” The assumption that any reasonably attractive, intelligent person can be quickly trained to understand collision repair customers and to handle the front desk of a shop, underestimates what that person can do to help capture and retain customers.
There is the belief that a new customer comes into the shop with a clean slate—no prior assumptions about what a body shop is or should be. This is a naive belief. Too many shops have given the industry a bad name in some areas. TV news people have warned prospective customers to watch out for inflated or fraudulent estimates. Some prospective customers may arrive already suspicious, just looking for a reason to move on if they sense something may be wrong. A front desk person familiar with the industry, the collision process, and the often difficult task of converting an estimate into a paying job can make a major difference in whether or not a customer leaves his or her keys and car.
This is not to undervalue the role of the estimator who has the final task of selling the job. But Prima Donna estimators may also fail to appreciate the value of the preliminary work of orienting a new customer who has been greeted, consoled, and somewhat educated by a knowledgeable front desk person. From my observations of the lady who left the aforementioned shop, I would have increased rather than decreased her pay and hours. I believe her contribution to the shop's capture rate warranted it.
While we're on the subject of “first contact,” it’s also a good time to mention the importance of upgrading all “first impression” elements. When business gets as tight and competitive as it is today, the last thing a shop should cut is the quality of first appearances. Shabby furniture, old magazines, worn carpeting or floor tiles, questionable rest room cleanliness and other waiting room elements may need upgrading. When we live with a space day in and day out, we tune out small imperfections but the new customer generally has the opposite experience. It's human nature to notice imperfections first. The otherwise beautiful face with a wart on the cheek will draw attention to that imperfection first. That's just how we are and it's urgent to correct any small waiting area and front office deficiencies at a time like this.
It would also be wise to carry that “first contact” mentality out to the parking lot. Because I've visited so many hundreds of shops and had to park my car to pay a visit, I've noticed how powerful an effect a carefully painted parking area with designated spaces can be. Blacktop and white paint is cheap. Right now, I would guess that most shops have painters with some time on their hands. The absolute “first contact” most visitors make with a shop is parking their car. To see a well-defined space with a small sign that says “visitor” or “parking for estimate” gives that prospective customer an immediate sense that this is a well-organized, customer-friendly shop.
If that comfortable experience is followed by a knowledgeable front desk person who greets, consoles and educates the prospect immediately when he or she enters a bright, clean, cheerful front office, the task of selling the job is more than half done.
Regularly updating a website and related literature gives a shop an opportunity to keep in contact with previous customers and potential new insurance or commercial prospects. When new equipment or technology is added, a simple letter sent out inviting prospective customers to take a look at the website can replace the need to create a new expensive printed brochure. Literature can be updated once or twice a year, but a website should be updated much more frequently.
To add interest to your website, you can always write about the latest collision horror story of the month. Then add some driving safety and collision prevention safety tips. This simple action can make you a valued resource for driving instructors and other advocates of vehicle operating safety. After all, probably a fair percentage of collision customers are relatively new drivers.
Can a Website Really Bring In Business?When most shops are reaching out to a radius of less than one hundred miles for most customers, does it make sense to invest in a medium that reaches around the planet? The answer is a solid “YES” because it forces a shop to create an image —a focal point to communicate that shop’s emphasis to anyone visiting the site. Most sites have a history of the shop and the owner or manager. Many have a photo of the owner and key people a prospective customer will meet upon arriving at the shop. Every site should post its credentials: insurance and fleet affiliations, employee’s ICAR qualifications, paint brand used, type of frame machine and measuring equipment used, and more.
Beyond that, the site gives the shop the opportunity to tell about community involvement and possibly key customers served. Does the shop do work for the police or sheriff’s department or other city or community agency? Is the shop involved in the Chamber of Commerce, Junior Achievement, Department of Parks and Recreation or some charitable organization? Many owners are content to use their website to provide a map directing prospects to their shop, but credentials and connections like the ones listed above can begin to convey an image that will easily be remembered.
Capitalizing On Your Shop’s StrengthMany websites also feature an area where current customers can enter their name or license plate number and see an update on the status of their vehicle in the shop. Cycle time is becoming an increasingly important statistic when insurance companies are evaluating a shop for potential DRP status. One of the biggest complaints received during CSI surveys is “car not completed and delivered when promised.”
Managing turn-around time is also vital to a shop’s financial health. Posting and updating projected delivery dates on a website provides a dimension of enforced discipline on the shop to meet or adjust estimated delivery dates. Some management systems also force updating the projected delivery date and even provide e-mail notification of the customer, insurance company and rental car company. If a shop has an exceptional record of meeting projected delivery dates and keeping turn-around time to a minimum, effectively presenting this strength on the website can be a powerful selling tool.
Selling SafetyOne site I particularly liked featured a super-imposed image of a family over their vehicle. It emphasized the importance of getting a vehicle repaired to pre-accident condition, completely safe to operate regardless of the extent of damage caused by the accident. In many large metropolitan areas, fraud is found to be a common problem in smaller shops. Shoddy repairs, incompletely straightened frames, and the use of sub-standard parts can result in a supposedly repaired vehicle that is unsafe to operate.
If a shop has a record of many years of untarnished quality and integrity, this fact should be documented on both the website and literature that is sent out to develop business for the shop. Photos of customers with small children along with comments on the solidity and apparent safeness of their repaired vehicle can make an impressive statement about a shop’s dedication to satisfying this concern.
Links To Reputable AssociatesI have used the same mortgage loan broker several times over the past fifteen years. I know that his primary source of new business, very much like collision repair shops, is referrals. I refer business to him whenever I can because I trust his judgement and integrity. If a link to a collision shop appears on his website, his customers will trust his judgement and consider using that shop. A resourceful shop owner will seek to swap links with other reputable businesses and professionals. Most shop owners will surely have a wide array of professionals they trust: a doctor, a dentist, an attorney and more. They’re all looking for referrals too, and will be pleased to exchange links.
Add A Charitable Dimension To Your Site
Demonstrating a civic-minded interest in a local charity shows a shop to be more than a profit-making machine. It adds a human dimension that can attract like-minded customers. Images from charities that assist children or pets will help humanize your website, and those charities will be eager to have a link on your site. If you choose to get more deeply involved, sponsor an event for the charity and you will surely get mentioned on their website too.
Getting involved with charities can also provide a stronger bond with some customers. Ask each new customer to note the address and phone number of any educational or charitable organization they belong to or support. Offer to donate two or three percent of the job total to a special customer’s favorite organization. Those donations can form a basis for a website story and also generate a press release to a local newspaper or other publication.
The shop website is a window to the world, where every visitor can come away with a fairly good idea of what a shop is like. But the shop webmaster has to take the time to continually create and update an image that will most effectively invite the website visitor to come to the real shop site.
One shop, for example, has been sending and delivering a newsletter for more than five years. Every month, about 200 newsletters are hand-delivered to agents, a dozen are sent with cover letters to DRP coordinators, and others go out to dealership and commercial prospects. I learned that some agents didn’t begin sending work until they had received the newsletter for more than a year. Others took even longer. Apparently they finally noticed that this shop was going to be persistent. And perhaps they also guessed that any shop that could be that consistent and persistent with a monthly newsletter should also be persistent in seeing that every vehicle they work on is repaired right.
I also learned that many real estate agents in the area were leaving the business because of the dramatic downturn in the sales of homes. What surprised me was that one insurance agent said locally active insurance companies were getting many prior real estate agents to become insurance agents. He noted that this was heating up competition for him. But from the body shop’s point of view this could be an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with these new agents. The shop did a monthly Internet search for new local agents and immediately promoted to them to get referrals with positive results.
Going Local and MoreA shop in Pasadena, California, recently hired a local lady to handle marketing. Because she had lived in the area for years, she was aware of auto body repair opportunities that someone with less local familiarity might have missed. For example, she had worked for years helping to build floats for the annual Tournament of Roses parade and knew that they had a fleet of support vehicles. She had also worked with the Sheriff’s department. She said they posted a notice when they didn’t have damage on a vehicle for more than two weeks. And she had been attending classes at a local college that she said also had a fleet of vehicles that were frequently damaged. She immediately set about on a persistent effort to get these fleet repair jobs for the shop.
That shop had tried unsuccessfully for several years to get some additional DRP relationships. Many of the insurance companies had no local contact and the local contacts for other companies were not responding. The new marketing lady decided to ignore the local contact issue and focused on persistently contacting home offices wherever they were located in the country. The last I heard, this strategy had allowed her to send applications and photos to many more DRP coordinators with some promising results.
Another shop had found a local source of business I don’t think many shop owners would have even considered a possibility. I noticed a number of U.S. Army vehicles being repaired in the shop. I asked the manager how this could possibly have happened. He said they were vehicles assigned to local U.S. Army recruiting offices. Since there is no military base close enough to the city to use a base motor pool for maintenance and repairs, the local recruiting personnel are authorized to use local civilian sources. His persistent efforts to capture local business paid off in an unexpected way.
Prior Customer PersistenceAnother shop that keeps busy focuses exclusively on prior customers and referral sources. The owner sends out a holiday-focused postcard every month: A New Years greeting in January, Valentine’s Day in February, St. Patrick’s Day in March, and so on through the year. He says he has persisted with this marketing for a couple of years now and it brings in nearly eighty percent of his business.
Like many other shops, he also asks for birthday and anniversary dates on his customer information form and sends out greetings regularly. Another shop carries this a step further and subscribes to a service that provides birthday greeting letters with interesting historical information about major events that occurred on this same day over the years. Naturally a birthday or anniversary letter includes a gift of a discount coupon.
The key to success in all of these promotional actions is persistence. While advertising and promotion is often the first expense many businesses eliminate in tough times, these shops continued to persist and stayed relatively busy while competitor shops in the area were empty. Apparently persistence does pay!
When there are numerous professionals available in any field, the one factor that makes the difference whether one has work or not is often the willingness to go out and hustle for business. Is this also true of body shops? I believe it is.
The only thing stopping many shop owners and managers is reluctance to get out and sell. This isn’t surprising. Most people aren’t comfortable approaching strangers to solicit favors or business. They know many business people will virtually slam a door in the face of any salesperson. Shop estimators are comfortable “selling” a job when a prospect drives in for an estimate, but it’s a different matter to go out and directly solicit business.
One trick to avoiding the salesperson rejection reaction is to arrive in a different role. Arriving at the door bearing a gift usually works well. Naturally you could stop in to see local business people bringing a small holiday gift during the season (and then take a minute to inquire about the condition of their company’s cars or trucks). Other times of the year, you could stop in with a coupon or gift certificate for a free car wash or detail. This works fine as “the neighborly approach” in your own neighborhood, but it’s a bit of a stretch when you’re canvassing the outlying areas.
Another non-salesperson approach is the survey call. You announce that you’re planning to offer a new service in the area and you’re asking local business people for their opinion before investing in the new service. Your “new” service could be the installation of theft prevention devices like a welded barrier to prevent catalytic converter theft. Or it could be clear bra installation to prevent front-end sand and rock pitting. Or it could simply be rapid small dent repair with paintless dent removal. All you need for this approach is something new to talk about.
A more complex approach that I have used for years is the “reporter” approach. I write newsletters and articles for various businesses, so I can always say that I’d like to interview the business owner to publish the interview in my newsletter. If you write about someone, what can you say?
Psychologist Joyce Brothers says people respond to flattery, reward, guilt and fear, in that order. An article praising a customer or prospective customer is always welcome. And in fact these days, with e-newsletters, it’s not even necessary to go to print, but I still prefer the printed version of a newsletter. Many people like to take something to read while they have lunch or even go to the washroom. Real printed materials always beat out online publications in these instances. You may not have a newsletter in which to publish a newsletter, but if you have some clout with any local publication where you already advertise, you should be able to place an occasional article or interview.
One way to avoid on-the-spot rejection is to set appointments in advance. Unfortunately this can only be accomplished with extensive phone canvassing and can result in even more rejections. Often more can be accomplished with a cold call. When you’re standing right there in the shop or office, it’s harder to throw you out than it is to say, “Don’t come” over the phone. Nevertheless, just because they don’t throw you out, that doesn’t mean you’ll get to talk to anyone except the receptionist. You’ll want to have effective literature and a coupon or special offer to leave for the decision-maker you didn’t get to see.
Since you may actually get to talk to the decision-maker, you’ll want to have a well-practiced sales pitch. No salesperson calls on a prospective customer without a scripted presentation. What you say (or your representative says) should never be left to chance or spur of the moment, off-the-cuff statements. An easy approach to preparing a presentation is to turn on a tape recorder and do a practice presentation to a business associate, friend or professional consultant who could offer helpful suggestions. Ideally you should have a one-minute, five-minute and ten-minute presentation to be ready for unpredictable situations. When you play the tape back, you should hear points that need changing. Change them and record the presentation again. Listen again and change it again and again if necessary. In a real conversation, it’s unlikely you’ll use your presentation exactly as practiced, but having the prior preparation almost guarantees that you’ll present most of your key points effectively.
The reason most people resist making sales calls is lack of preparation. With a well-practiced sales presentation and well-designed literature to leave if necessary, you’ll have sufficient confidence that you’re ready to promote your business to any prospect. That confidence, along with your certainty that your shop provides excellent quality, will communicate to most prospects and you may be surprised at how many take you up on your offer to provide them with your superior collision repair services.
2. Much Marketing Money Is Wasted On The Wrong Target Audience. Define The Right Target Audience To Maximize And Leverage The Impact Of Your Marketing Dollars.
3. The Amount Of New Business Coming Into Your Shop Is Directly Proportional To The Amount Of Positive Communication Consistently Going Out About Your Business.
4. The Spider That Weaves The Biggest Web Catches The Most Flies. The Best Marketing Reaches The Widest Range Of Prospective Customers—As Frequently As Possible.
5. First Impressions Are Hard To Change. Use Appearance And Image To Create A Positive, Lasting Impression On Prospective New Customers Right From The Start.
6. Your Phone Image Can Create The First Impression Of Your Business. A Competent Communicator To Answer Calls, Plus A Convincing Sales Message On Hold, Creates A Positive Image And Brings In Business.
7. Knowledge Sells! Communicate Your Special Knowledge To Create Customer Confidence In Your Ability To Deliver A Quality Product.
8. Concern And Integrity Sell! Communicate Your Sincere Desire To Help Above And Beyond The Call Of Duty And Dollars.
9. A Cramped Or Cluttered Space Suggests Unprofessionalism And Scarcity. Create An Apparency Of Abundant, Orderly Space To Communicate Success And Superior Quality.
10. Speed Sells! Speed Of Response Reveals The Health Of An Organism Or An Organization. Today You Must Be Fast To Last And Prosper.
11. Creativity Sells! Color Sells! Repeatedly Communicate A Clever,
Colorful Image And Message To Attract Maximum Attention.
12. Success Sells! Keep Growing! Anything That Isn’t Growing Is Dying. The Purpose Of Marketing And Sales Is To Communicate Your Growth And Success And To Keep Your Business Growing!
I have often been surprised by the creative approaches used by some shop owners to increase business. While just about everyone says they want more insurance work, I still find shop after shop that relies strictly on previous customers, word-of-mouth, and a good sign out front to bring in a few additional drive-by customers. Nevertheless, many of these tell me their business is continually dwindling and ask, what should they be doing?