Monday, 04 June 2007 09:28

A strategically planned open house serves a larger purpose than soliciting new customers

Written by Tom Franklin
    Recently a shop owner in my area was promoting his shop to several different types of prospects. They included some dealership principals, some insurance executives, and some local business owners. He knew he would have to invite each of these prospects to visit his shop at some point — not an easy task in the course of a busy week. Nearly complete vehicles had not been delivered yet and many new jobs were just being disassembled for repairs and refinishing. Ideally, he would like to have the shop in pristine shape to take even one of these prospects through.

    That would mean a lot of cleanup and preparation every time he planned to take someone through on a tour of the shop, and that was nearly impossible. I know of several shop owners that have chosen to concentrate that preparation activity into just one event, an open house for just those few specific prospects, rather than for the general public.
Key elements for a prospect open house
    When I came into the industry in the early 1990’s, I didn’t find many people who knew what I-CAR, ASE, or ASA were. Times have changed. One shop with an insurance direct repair relationship came up for renewal. Unfortunately he had not updated many of his technician’s I-Car trainings. To retain his direct repair status, he had to go on a crash program to get his staff trained up to the expected standards.
    An effective open house should showcase estimator, customer service and technician certifications. An ASE certification test for estimators is easy and inexpensive to obtain (see www.PassTheASE.com), and shows a high level of professionalism. Certificates posted by each technician’s bay and each estimator’s desk should be a high priority in preparing for a tour. Needless to say, all of those spaces should be neat, clean and orderly. Fortunately that shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain for one day.
Funding an event
    An event can easily become costly. Cleanup, catering and other amenities can add up quickly. One shop owner came up with a way to spread out the cost. In addition to showing off his shop, he realized some of his attendees would be interested in the technical side of his business. A call to his paint vendor yielded a representative, demonstration materials and even some funding. His paint vendor set up a table in front of the spray booth to show off a new color matching system. Another call to his 3-M rep resulted in a display table to exhibit adhesive repair materials. A call to his resistance-welding supplier brought a demonstration version of a new unit to the open house.
    Once he found he was on a roll with getting vendor support, he called his frame machine and frame-measuring vendor to come in and demonstrate some new technology he was considering adding to his shop. He also made a call to Enterprise Rent-A-Car and invited them to come and set up a table. He knew they would never pass up an opportunity to show that they had a competitive edge.
    Finally he realized he needed to provide some freebies to get some prospects to attend. He advertised a free car wash for any attendee who wanted one, and he called his paintless dent removal guy to come and pop out some dents for those  who were interested.

Bringing in an audience
    This is the toughest part. No matter what day you choose, it will always be a day some of your best prospects can’t come. All you can do is invite a wide enough range of prospects so that you get enough to make the event worthwhile. This means a couple of months of calls, letters, emails, faxes and possibly even live visits to try to lock-in the key visitors that you want to attend the open house.
    It can help to invite enough peripheral people who will encourage their supervisor or boss to come along. Adjusters, agents, lesser dealership managers, and even secretaries can be invited to be certain the word trickles up to the people you really want to see. The trick to bringing in these people is to have some great food and drink along with a few very desirable drawing prizes.
Reminders of your shop’s qualities
    With a captive audience to show around, you now have an opportunity to present your shop with the greatest advantage. Be certain to script a speech so your spokesperson can make a highly professional presentation while showing your guests around.
    To help your attendees remember what they have seen, take photos in advance and put together a little booklet displaying as many of the shop’s features as possible. These can be passed out to your guests as they arrive. Or capture the photos while everyone is there for the open house and mail the photo booklets afterwards.
    If this small event is handled well, you can be certain your shop has been viewed at its best, and you will have had an entire group of prospects present to make your case to them all at once.
    Tom Franklin has been a sales and marketing representative and consultant for 40 years and is the author of the books, “Business Battlefield Marketing for Body Shops,” “Tom Franklin’s Top 40 Marketing Tactics for Body Shops,” and “Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth.” His marketing company now provides marketing solutions and services for body shops and other businesses. He can be reached  for questions or comments at (323) 871-6862, by fax at (323) 465-2228, or by email: tbfranklin@aol.com.