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Wednesday, 31 August 2005 17:00

Understanding customer needs is first step to new biz

Written by Tom Franklin

During the past dozen or so years that I have assisted body shops with marketing, when I speak to a potential new client I often hear the same complaint: "I've spent a lot of money on fancy literature and photos and sent packages to many insurance companies, agents and other potential sources of business, and haven't gotten a darned thing!" 

Active Image

When I look into the content of the literature and the letters sent, I generally find the same thing: the entire emphasis is on what the shop has to offer with no real grasp of what the person or company on the receiving end of this promotion really wants.

The oldest sales tool I know of is WIIFM: "What's in it for me." Every sales person knows the path into the customer's pocketbook is finding out what the customer really wants and filling (or seeming to fill) that need. The first step is always finding out what the customer expects is in it for him or her. The most effective sale is always a win-win deal. The customer gets what he or she wants, and the seller makes a nice profit.

Getting inside your prospect's head

When a customer brings a car to you for repair and refinish, finding out what the customer wants and expects is a piece of cake. You've been doing this for years and know exactly what to ask and what to offer. But dealing with executives in corporate entities like insurance and fleet companies or auto dealerships is another thing altogether. You can ask what they want but you won't always get a straight answer - or any answer at all! At this point you have to turn to an old sales trick: You have to tell them what they want and sell them on the idea!

How do you do this? I recently assisted a shop in putting together a proposal for a group of dealerships. In some areas, the practice of paying a dealership for their collision repair business has muddied the playing field. The problem with "payola" is that it is license to forget about giving the customer any special treatment. The referral is guaranteed anyway - why bother? The company that buys into this short-sighted arrangement is actually short-changing his or her customer. The concern is no longer what shop will provide the highest quality repairs and enhance the dealership's image the most. The only concern now, is who will kick back the most money!

The proposal I crafted for this shop emphasized the role of the shop as the representative of the dealership. The customer coming to an attractive repair facility that reflects well on the dealership, getting highly courteous, professional customer service, and getting an excellent repair job will get something far better than "payola" back for the dealer: That customer is more likely to go back to the dealer for his or her next car, and far more likely to tell others to do the same!

Mutually beneficial agent strategy

In recent years, agents have become less and less reliable as a source of referral business for body shops. Many insurance companies have gone to a "direct" marketing plan and cut out agents altogether. Others have set up 800 number call-in claim lines so that customers can bypass the agent completely. Other agents are required to refer customer claims only to body shops that are on the company's direct repair program. After all of this, it would not seem to make much sense for a shop to market to agents.

Fortunately, there are some other changes that have made it profitable to stay closely in touch with agents to get referral business. One of these changes, of course, is the higher deductible many customers choose to keep their monthly premium payments lower. When an accident occurs, however, that high deductible of $1,000 or more can come as quite a shock. When damage is only another $1,000 or so, many customers will opt to self-pay for repairs to keep their premium from going up. This gives the shop that is willing to give self-pay discounts for agent referrals a potentially profitable opportunity.

But there are many competing shops around. How do you get the agents to select your shop as the best one to direct their referrals?

Ask, "what's in it for the agent?"

Many shop owners market to agents by sending someone around with donuts, pens, pads and other trifling inducements. Will an agent really risk a negative backlash by referring a client to a shop that may reflect badly on him or her? Not likely! The first concern must be convincing the agent that his or her clients will report back that they were treated the best ever, and that they are everlastingly grateful they were referred to such a wonderful shop. How often will that really happen? Unfortunately, not often. But delivering cleverly created propaganda with the donut, pen or pad, may gradually convince the agent that your shop is indeed the best around (call me for more details). And, of course, if you can arrange to repair his or her vehicle to demonstrate the quality of your shop, that's even better.

But we still haven't addressed "What's in it for the agent." I'm well aware that, again, there are some unscrupulous shop owners who will flaunt the anti-payola laws and try to bribe some agents. The smart ones will resist this, knowing, as stated above, that the shop owner may assume the accepted pay-off is license to forget about giving the customer any special treatment. There is a better way to build business for both yourself and the agent.

Make the agent the "good guy"

Most agents think of a collision claim as a liability - that it reflects badly on their record. One agent, who spoke at a claims conference, told how he tripled his auto insurance business by assisting a shop with the collision repair process. "How," you might be asking, "could an agent possibly assist a shop with the repair process?" At first glance it doesn't seem to make sense, but he went on to explain how it worked.

The agent arranged with a shop to which he referred an occasional customer to notify him at various points during the repair process. The shop would let him know when body work was completed and the car was going into the paint shop. The agent would then call his customer to update her on the repair process. At first most customers were surprised by this call. How many of us hear from our agent except when it's time for renewal or an increase in coverage? I know I never hear from any of my agents, and you probably don't either.

This agent realized he could provide a special service for his customers that other agents never thought to do. The result was glowing statements of gratitude from his customers, and also referrals to friends and family that tripled his auto insurance business.

Making the offer can't hurt

Will most agents leap at the opportunity to work with you to be the one to update customers on repair and refinish progress? Probably not, but one or two might, and when others see an agent getting a competitive advantage they don't have, they too may come your way.

There are no guarantees, but this is an offer that recognizes that an agent's main concern is keeping existing customers and possibly adding new ones - just like you. Success in working with an agent, may also open the door to developing direct repair relationships with insurance companies he or she represents.

Many times we're so focused on our own needs and desires, we forget the old sales rule: Every prospective customer wants to know WIIFM -- "What's in it for me?" Answer that question for agents, dealers and other potential sources of business you're approaching - and you're far more likely to get their referral business.

Tom Franklin has been a sales and marketing representative and consultant for forty 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 e-mail:


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