2. Insurance DRP and agent referrals
3. Drive-in and call-in prospects
4. Local small commercial fleets
5. Dealership referrals
6. Local business exchange referrals
7. National fleets
8. Advertising, P.R. events and networking.
The larger the web a shop builds in these eight areas, and the more communication the shop sends out on this web, the more business will come in. In a sense you could say the shop is building its own "world-wide web."
Why is building a web so difficult?
Have you ever had surgery or gone to a surgeon?
If you didn't need surgery or suspect you might need surgery, it's not likely. I think it's safe to guess that almost no one goes to a surgeon who doesn't need their services. In this sense, a surgeon's practice is very much like a body shop. Few people come to a body shop unless they have a damaged auto in need of repair.
The surgeon has a far more difficult time acquiring patients than a doctor who treats patients frequently and provides check-ups and annual physical examinations. Similarly, the body shop owner has a more difficult marketing task than an automotive mechanical service shop that provides regular tune-ups, transmission service and other maintenance procedures that bring the customer back again and again.
Building the web
Because a surgeon's patients see him or her so infrequently, like a body shop's customers, a far larger database of potential customers is needed, with a much larger web to bring them in. Typically, a surgeon relies on referrals, mostly from other doctors or health maintenance organizations (HMOs) similar to DRPs. While the HMO may be a reliable source of patients for a surgeon, it is also likely the surgeon will be paid less and will wait longer to be paid - just like DRPs.
Almost certainly, a surgeon would prefer referrals by other doctors or previous patients where the limitations of an HMO wouldn't apply. But how does the surgeon build these referrals? At an absolute minimum, he or she will belong to the American Medical Association and a variety of local medical groups, hospitals and societies. Networking with potential referrals sources is an essential activity. The surgeon may also seek to build his or her reputation and credibility by writing professional articles, speaking to groups, and even serving as an expert witness or consultant in controversial cases.
How many of these web-building activities can be realistically duplicated by a body shop owner or manager seeking a larger circumference of business referral sources?
Networking with other professionals
Shop owners, in my opinion, often fail to give themselves credit for all of the expertise they possess. Among doctors, the surgeon is a specialist of the highest order, often performing life or death operations. Similarly body shop techs are responsible for seeing to it that a vehicle stays together in one piece, and is driveable. Among automotive repair specialists, a mechanic may have to possess as much technical knowledge as a body shop owner but, like the human body, the overall automobile body must function well if it is to be driven on the road.
Perhaps the wise shop owner should participate in more automotive service organizations than just the local auto body association, and he or she should seek more referrals from other automotive professionals. Insurance professionals and agents also have associations that may be profitably attended by a shop owner. And while many shop owners don't care to get involved with personal injury attorneys, networking with attorneys or any other professional groups would widen the shop's web of potential referral sources.
There is one additional benefit to networking with a wide variety of professionals and people that is not widely recognized. In addition to the specific professional circle of associates, every person has what we might call his or her own personal "world wide web" of connections.
Personal web of connections
Each of us has our own personal circle of service providers: hairdressers, barbers, auto mechanics, auto dealerships, appliance repair people, stock brokers, bankers, dentists, doctors, optometrists, other health service providers, home maintenance people, insurance providers and agents, entertainment and sports contacts, and more. And these don't even include an employer, fellow employees, an employer's customers, and other business contacts. On average, most people probably have several dozen regular or occasional repeat contacts.
When you think about word-of-mouth referrals, all of these contacts are referral prospects. Why aren't more of your prior customers continually referring at least some of these contacts to your shop all of the time? Probably the biggest reason is that accidents are random events and it would only be by chance that one of a prior customer's contacts would mention vehicle damage in time to prompt a referral.
So what can you do to capture more of the potential business that exists in your prior customer's web of contacts? A simple thing is to give every customer and prior customer a fist full of $100 coupons to keep around to give to anyone who mentions an accident or vehicle damage. But that alone isn't likely to prompt much new business. You need a better way to connect to their webs.
Brief window of opportunity
There is a brief moment, when a customer brings his or her car to your shop, to add some of that person's contacts to your expanding database web of prospects. On your customer information form, ask who is the customer's insurance agent and even his or her mechanic. But if you begin asking for hairdressers, dentists, doctors, bankers, brokers and more, your customer will think you're prying into his or her personal affairs. So how can you get this information to add to your database for future mailings, e-mails and other promotions?
One easy way is to create a game with a valuable enough prize to get your customer to play. For example, you could post a sign: "Let us take you to your next movie for free. Just fill in one of these forms and you will be eligible to receive two free movie tickets in our customer bonus game."
On the form, you ask for information about ten or twelve of their service providers that you say will be receiving discount coupons for services at your shop. When one of the contacts calls or comes in, your customer receives the tickets or other game prize offered. When the new contacts receive discount coupons, they can also give them to people in their own personal network, further enlarging your potential web of prospects.
There are many ways to make this contact game more effective. One way is to call contact people and service providers rather than sending coupons and invite them in for a free or discounted service. You can also go beyond giving movie tickets to finding out which hairdresser or barber a customer prefers, and offering a free hairdo or haircut as a prize. Similarly you could offer a free oil change or tank of gas and arrange that exchange with their selected gas station or mechanic. Each contact provides another potential web that you can tap for prospective customers.
Weaving an expanding web
Like the surgeon, you need an enormous database of prospects to bring in customers who only have an occasional need for your services. Many shops get by with letting an insurance DRP do the work for them, but only a few shops can obtain major DRP status (and many prefer not to). Building the database web by yourself is a huge job and must be worked at constantly to generate any significant volume of business.
Creating a game where your customers, your employees, and even your vendors and sub-contractors can help expand your web of prospects will make the job much easier - and possibly even fun. Getting the game right so it really generates new business for you may take some experimentation, but if you get it working, you'll be glad you did.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.