Unlike people in the collision industry, I've noticed that insurance agents seem to spend 90 percent of their time on the phone. Except for keeping current customers informed on the status of a vehicle being repaired, few collision repair shops do any calling of prior customers. Granted this would be a fairly extreme way to bring back prior customers. Postcards, letters and e-mails are much more natural and time efficient ways to keep in contact with them, but when extreme downturns occur, extreme measures may be in order.
Part of the problem is due to the very nature of collision repair. Unlike mechanical shops that enjoy returning customer business for oil changes, brake-jobs and tune-ups, collision repair is not normally a recurring need.
I often compare the difference between mechanical shops and body shops to the difference between family physicians and surgeons. People go to their family doctor for regular checkups and minor conditions like a cough or flu. They only go to a surgeon when in need of major surgery. And they don't select a surgeon out of the phone book or from an ad on the radio, TV or local newspaper. Unfortunately collision repair shop customers are like the surgeon's. Body shops are only sought out when auto body damage requires special attention, and like surgeons, customers mainly look for family, friend or professional referrals rather than considering advertisements.
A shop owner would be well advised to copy a surgeon's approach to getting clients. They belong to many professional associations and maintain close ties to general practice physicians who refer patients when they need surgery. Many shop owners do maintain relationships with local mechanical shop owners who they do rely on for referrals when collision repair is needed. But from what I've been able to see, this link is often undervalued. Surgeons cultivate a relationship with a large number of physicians, since they realize that patients will only occasionally be in need of surgery. Similarly, a collision shop owner should cultivate as many automotive repair relationships as possible to ensure having sufficient sources to bring in the volume of business needed.
And so we come back to the issue of phone solicitations. Unlike surgeons who generally thrive on major surgeries, body shops do get a fair amount of minor business to repair small dents, dings, scratches, plus theft and glass damage. During tough times, many vehicle owners will drive with minor damage rather than paying to have it repaired. These are prime prospects for a sales effort offering special discounts and add-on services. Postcards, letters and e-mails may do the job. But if employees are standing around during slow times, it couldn't hurt to follow the insurance agent's example and get them on the phone to check on the status of prior customer's vehicles. And of course it would also be appropriate to ask about other family member's vehicles as well.
This may also be a time when some selective customer education could bring in added business. Many shops have alignment equipment, but few people think of a collision repair shop when they're in need of wheel alignment. Most are also unaware that minor frame damage may be why their vehicle keeps going out of alignment. A sales effort emphasizing more complete structural alignment would be appropriate. Another point of emphasis could be auto glass. Today's typical vehicle has far more glass than vehicles fifteen or twenty years ago. Adding an auto glass specialty can give a shop another point of emphasis when contacting a prior customer.
One of the most important tools when contacting prior customers, is a database of information about that customer and his or her needs. Sadly, many shops don't collect much valuable information when customers come to their shops. Some do collect birthday and anniversary information so they can send greetings at these special times. And others ask for referral information like local mechanical shops or insurance agents so they can send a thank you for the referral. But customer information forms could also ask about employer's or employee's vehicles in order to offer discounts for fleet business.
A tactful survey call (or postcard) asking about other vehicles in a prior customer's circle of family, business and social connections could yield a wealth of new promotional targets. When the usual stream of insurance company and dealership referrals have dried up, more extreme marketing measures may be in order. And these approaches that draw on years of accumulated prior customers could sustain a shop in the toughest of times.