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Wednesday, 31 January 2001 17:00

Tough times require a five-prong marketing attack

Written by Tom Franklin

I have often been surprised by the creative approaches used by some shop owners to increase business. While just about everyone says they want more insurance work, I still find shop after shop that relies strictly on previous customers, word-of-mouth, and a good sign out front to bring in a few additional drive-by customers. Nevertheless, many of these tell me their business is continually dwindling and ask, what should they be doing? 

Try a 5-prong attack

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There are five major sources of business. Effective marketing demands that you cover them, much in the same way that a winning football team must master the basics of blocking and tackling.

1. Repeat customers and referrals.

One shop I called on recently had taken on some adjoining space that allowed them to expand out to the street where they could have a more visible presence. They painted the building a bright color and put up several very bright, excellent signs. They were obviously trying to reach out to bring in a significant volume of new business.

When I asked them if they were going to mail flyers to announce their expansion to all of their previous customers and prospects, I was told they had never built up a database to mail to.

You all know that much of your business comes from repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals. So what have you done to expand and maximize that flow of business? What new creative effort could you make to expand that dimension of your business flow?

Become the autobody expert

I recently picked up a newsletter from Holmes Body Shop in Pasadena. It features a photo of Tom Holmes who also seems to be saying, "I have all of the answers when it comes to autobody repair. Come to me with your questions."

When you position yourself as an expert, you're going to get a lot of questions and give a lot of answers without being paid for the trouble, but that should be your expectation. Are you willing to be a continuing resource for your customers and their friends and family? Are you willing to always be available to answer their questions about autobody maintenance and safety, or about auto insurance? If you are, get the word out by postcard, newsletter, fax, e-mail, telemarketing and any other way you can imagine.

2. Insurance referrals

There can be little doubt that insurance referrals are an important source of much body shop business today. What have you done to increase insurance business so far? What can you creatively do to enhance and increase insurance business coming to your shop?

Let us first be clear on one point: New business only comes to you as a result of communication. So what kind of communication will lead to more insurance business? The most effective is direct, one-on-one communication -- live calls on agents and insurance executives. And you have to call on them repeatedly.

Persistent but not pesty

One skill that is often lacking is a grasp on how to effectively go back again and again, without being offensive or just being a "pest." Nevertheless, this is the key to obtaining new business. Few sales are made these days on the first call. The buzz word of the day is "relationship selling." That means going back repeatedly until your prospective business source gets to know and like you. If you go back, time after time, with your "hat in your hand," saying, "Are you ready to send us business yet?" You can be certain you will never get that business. Every time you go back, you had better bring that prospective business source something of value.

Your choice of that "something of value" is what will determine whether or not you will be successful. When you make your first call, that's the time you should be asking key questions to find out what this person values. Is she concerned about your long-term warranty? Are they concerned about I-CAR qualifications and training certificates at your shop? Do you have years of experience in restoring custom vehicles that could be important to their insureds?

For additional ideas, fax me a request for my article, "Ten Steps to Getting Increased Insurance Business."

3. Commercial customers

How many businesses in your community have you called on to solicit their fleet repair business? Could you provide a regular "detail" service to help businesses keep up the quality of appearance of their vehicles? Could you expand your ability to service bigger delivery vehicles? Are these business prospects aware of the need to keep their vehicles free of dings, safety hazards and body defects? Do they know how economical it might be to have you provide a vehicle body maintenance service on a regular basis rather than on a "crisis" basis? Is there a way you could initiate an effort to educate them?

Are there opportunities for you to make creative presentations to potential commercial customers in your community? Could you speak to the Chamber of Commerce or Kiwanis Club on crash tests and the safest vehicles on the road? Why not?

4. Drive-in and call-in prospects

I most often hear shop owners say, "It's a waste of time to go after any business other than insurance. That's where are the jobs and all the money are." Even if that is true, there's a key principle that will affect whether or not that shop ever gets much insurance business:

"Busy places attract more business!" When you're out looking for a new restaurant to try out, if you see a place that's nearly empty, are you inclined to go there? Of course not. But if you see a place with people lined up at the door, don't you automatically assume this must be a great place to eat if it's attracting all of that business? Of course you do. We all do.

The same rule applies to body shops. The idle, empty shop has little or no chance of attracting much drive-by, commercial or insurance business. Grocery stores run "loss leaders" just to get bodies in the door. When your shop is standing idle, you would be wise to do a few jobs at cost just to get some cars in the door and look like a going concern.


Call on mechanical shops

But even getting relatively unprofitable jobs in the door will take some marketing effort. One shop manager made a tour of all of the mechanical and other automotive service shops in a ten-block radius around his shop. He took along a stack of flyers and business cards and a prepared script to do some serious deal making. There are shop owners who are willing to pay a dealership for work, but not many who have thought of paying every repair shop owner in the area for sending body work to his shop. Typically there are fifteen mechanical shops for every body shop in an area. That's a lot of potential referrals.

5. Created business

By "created business" I mean work that would never have come into your shop unless you first called to the attention of the car owner that the repair was both necessary and affordable. For example, one shop owner ordered a laptop (notebook) computer to take along for outside estimating. He planned to take the laptop out to the parking lot of a nearby university and shopping mall and write estimates on the many high-priced cars that he saw had scratches, dings and other body damage.

He felt that by leaving a business card size estimate attached by the driver's door handle, he would get at least a percentage of that business, and at the very least he would alert these drivers to the fact that he has a body shop near by.

Most people don't fix minor damage because of the cost, high deductibles or simply the reluctance to use their insurance unless it is absolutely necessary.

A creative shop owner might come up with an autobody fix-up financing plan that would allow people to fix minor damage inexpensively or make payments on the work. That might attract business that otherwise wouldn't be using the services of any body shop. In other words, this is conjuring up business out of thin air!

Developing an effective sales script

"Communication" is just another way of saying "selling." Yes, it is true. To market a body shop today, it has become necessary to get out and sell!

Whether you're calling on insurance agents or executives, commercial accounts, fleet management accounts, or local automotive service or mechanical shops and other businesses that could refer people to your shop, you will have to sell them on the idea. To do this effectively you need a good sales script, not only for yourself but also for your people.

How good are your estimators at establishing "instant rapport?" Consider crafting a rapport-building sales script both for yourself and for your estimating and customer-greeting personnel--including a phone sales script. Consider investing in a little professional sales training for yourself and for these front-line people. If you do, you should realize a significant return on your investment!

If you want to craft your own sales scripts, pick up a book entitled, "Sales Scripts That Sell," by Teri and Michael Gamble (1992-AMACOM-New York, NY). While most of the scripts in the book don't apply directly to the collision repair sales situation, the multitude of choices of scripts should spark some creative ideas as you read through the book.

An equally useful book is "Sales Questions That Close the Sale," by Charles D. Brennan, Jr. (1994, AMACOM - New York, NY). The sub-title of this book is "How to uncover your customers' real needs." Perhaps the biggest mistake an estimator can make is assuming a repair estimate is all this prospective customer really needs. A bit of perceptive questioning may reveal a great many other "needs," the fulfillment of which could ultimately determine where this prospect actually has his or her car repaired in your shop.

And mastering that "question asking" selling skill yourself, could lead you to ask the "magic question" -- the one that will convince that insurance or commercial executive that your shop is right place to send dozens of repair jobs that you otherwise would never have seen!

Tom Franklin has been a sales and marketing representative and consultant for forty years. He is the author of the book, "Business Battlefield Marketing for Body Shops," and other collections of marketing articles. He is currently an independent manufacturer's representative for CCC Information Services. He can be reached for questions or comments by fax at (323) 465-2228 or by E-Mail:


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