Maybe the weather has been different this summer. Perhaps fewer people are driving because of the price of gas and maybe the number of accidents are down for this time of year. But is it true that everyone's slow? Not a chance! Another shop less than a mile away from the shop I'm visiting is swamped with work. And a shop farther down the way turns away work they don't feel will be profitable enough. These shops are definitely not slow!
So what kind of shops are slow? As I've attempted to help a variety of shops with their marketing, I've seen a pattern that prevents many shops from realizing their full potential. Generally the shop has the space, equipment, body men and painters to accommodate more work, but the work coming in is sporadic - up and down. They need a more consistent flow of work to survive well. What are they doing wrong?
I've found that most of the calls I get to help with marketing come when a shop has become seriously slow. This is like waiting until you're nearly bankrupt to try to get a loan. The best time to market is when you don't really need to.
Shooting at an empty spot in space
A while back a space probe was fired at the planet Venus by N.A.S.A. The technical calculations that were necessary to make this venture successful were awesome. When the probe was fired into space, it was essentially aimed at a spot in space where there was absolutely nothing at the time. If all of the calculations were correct, the probe would travel at a speed that would result in it arriving at that spot in space at the exact same moment the planet reached that point in its orbit.
A casual observer watching a multi-million-dollar probe being fired at an empty spot in space would think it was an insane waste of taxpayer money. But a physicist friend of mine who works in the aerospace industry assures me that the complex calculations necessary to get the probe to arrive right on time are now routinely accurate thanks to many years of developing rigorous observation methods and computerized systems to do the computations.
Marketing with an unknown future
When I thought about that space probe being fired at an empty spot in space, I couldn't help thinking how similar it is to planning a marketing campaign. Business owners often wait until business gets slow before they start thinking about doing some serious marketing. But the sharp shop owner knows that the time to start marketing is when there is no sign of a slowdown in sight.
Like the space probe being fired at an empty location in space, a long-term marketing plan is generally aimed at an empty, future point in time where it can be expected to produce future results. What will actually be there when the plan reaches fruition, the long-term marketer can only guess, but if it's an educated guess, there's a good chance the marketing will be effective.
Professionally predicting the future
Rocket scientists have come a long way in a few decades. With the help of computers they can allow for hundreds of tiny variables in their calculations to accurately reach a target point in space. To accomplish a similar feat in marketing, a shop owner would have to be able to calculate and predict the future moves of the economy, the competition, the insurance industry, autobody and paint technology, and the social and psychological changes that may occur in both men and women automobile drivers between now and that target date sometime in the future.
Since you don't have resources at your disposal comparable to those of N.A.S.A, you're not likely to collect enough information to calculate all of these factors, but you can duplicate at least one characteristic of the scientists who work in the aerospace field: You can strive for the same high level of professionalism that goes into the spending of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to put a space probe on the moon, Mars or Venus.
Targeting the right spot in space
Over the years, I've had an opportunity to inspect the marketing letters, ads, and miscellaneous literature of dozens of shops. While many had invested in high quality graphic designs, slick glossy color brochures with professional photos, and usually professionally written copy (although not always), there were always at least one or two key elements missing.
Most commonly missing was an aim at a specific marketing target. A general brochure or piece of literature to be given to individual customers or prospective customers is unlikely to be the best message for knowledgeable corporate prospects. Insurance direct repair program coordinators and professional fleet managers will be interested in much more technical detail. A dealership principal may be more interested in your specific CSI rating.
Even different kinds of individual customers will respond to different messages. Some customers shop price, others speed of turn-around, and those with top-dollar luxury cars may be most concerned with the quality of finish. In this age of the thousand-dollar deductible, more people are choosing self-pay rather than chancing a rate increase by going through insurance. These potential customers will shop price and probably be concerned about the cost of a rental car during the repairs.
Marketing aimed at the wrong target is comparable to shooting the space missile in the wrong direction - a colossal waste of money!
Timing your marketing missiles
The most essential missing element is that of timing. Timing the firing of the space probe was by far the most demanding technical feat. Shop owners don't need that level of precision, and there are some simple ways to master the "timing element." It's no mystery to most shop owners that business slows down at predictable times of the year. Whether it's vacations, tax time, weather or holidays, most shop owners should be able to predict most of these slow times. If they want more precision, a simple gross income graph maintained throughout the year will show the peaks and valleys of income very graphically. A good management system will display the information even more accurately.
But knowing when business will slow down is not enough. There has to be a willingness to do something about it early enough to compensate for the approaching slow period. Many shop owners are reluctant to spend much on marketing, so unless they're pressured by an immediate lack of business, they can't seem to bring themselves to spend what is needed to produce a result. The fact is, spending when business is good is always easier than spending when it has already slowed down.
Making the most of marketing dollars
How much should a shop owner spend? This is always open to debate, and it will vary depending on a shop's size, location and longevity. I've heard some financial consultants to the industry say that around seven percent of gross income should be dedicated to marketing. I haven't seen many shops that dedicate anywhere near that amount, but I've rarely heard complaints about business being slow from those shops that do spend proportionately on marketing.
You can actually get the most "bang for your buck" when marketing is carefully targeted. The shop that has an on-going marketing effort will get the most value from dollars spent. Advertisements run long-term always get the best rate. Advertisements directing a reader, viewer, or listener to a website can be brief, depending on the website to present the longer story. Literature or mailings going out consistently month after month should be brief and need not be as expensive as a slick, one-time effort. The message is what must be effective in continuous contact marketing (as long as the literature quality is respectable).
The autobody business doesn't much lend itself to offering "specials." Not many people have accidents on demand (unless you're repairing deliberately crashed vehicles for the motion picture industry). Shops that also provide mechanical services like air conditioning and radiator service, tune-ups, brakes and tires, alignments, and other periodical services have an easier time running seasonal ads and promotions. Shops that provide fleet services also have a way to promote a more consistent flow of business. Otherwise, marketing efforts should be carefully customized, whether for a dealer, an agent, a fleet manager or an insurance executive. That's the best way to keep the cost down.
The everyone's slow generality
The "everyone's slow" disease isn't limited to shops with unprofessional marketing or even to shops that wait until business becomes slow to start marketing. I've also heard this comment from owners of well-structured, substantial shops with great marketing procedures. In these cases, I believe the owner has fallen victim to the "unsupported generality" fallacy.
Compared to much of the rest of the world, life in the United States is remarkably consistent. We find McDonald's and mini-malls and gas stations that look much the same in just about every corner of the country. Our laws are fairly uniform. We have the same kind of stop lights at intersections all over. After more than 200 years, we've created a country and an immediate world that most of us seem to agree is a desirable reality.
Our view of what constitutes "reality" can be shattered when we read and see what life consists of in places like Afghanistan. I recently read that the currency there is called "Afghans" and there are four different versions of the "Afghan," all having different values. We take for granted the wonderful convenience of our dollar being worth pretty much the same all over the country.
It all comes down to agreement. Whatever we agree on, whether through laws or through social customs, becomes the reality we live with. If a shop owner agrees that "everyone's slow," to some degree he helps to create that reality. He would be better off talking to someone who reminded him that there are hundreds of accidents every day, and if he gets out and markets his shop effectively, he'll get his fair share.
Tom Franklin has been a sales and marketing representative and consultant for forty years and is the author of the books, "Business Battlefield Mar-keting for Body Shops," "Tom Frank-lin'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: firstname.lastname@example.org.