A shop is a shop is a shop, right? That’s what consumers often think until they really need collision repair services. But after they actually get in a wreck, consumers start to think differently. They have a decision to make, and they realize, maybe for the first time, that it’s a pretty big one. Many consumers think to themselves, “Who the heck am I going to choose to work on my car? I don’t know the first thing about what to do or how to make the right choice. I love my car, I need it fixed ASAP, but where?”
Many factors come into play in the consumer’s decision-making process. collision. They include:
Word of mouth
Insurance company referrals
Location(s) and curb appeal
Past experience(s) (i.e. repeat business)
Consider each of these factors as they relate to your shop. Do you stand out in your marketplace in one of these factors? Two? Three? All of them? Be honest. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in the daily grind that we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to things like these. We fall into our comfort zones and do what we know, but that’s not necessarily what the business actually needs.
One of the things your business really does need is differentiation, especially in today’s economic climate. What makes your shop stand out in a forest of trees? For example, it has been reported by a mail list service that there are almost 10,000 shops within a 30-mile radius of the Meadowlands in New Jersey just outside of New York City. That’s a lot of trees. So how do you make your tree stand out in that forest? Let’s look at each of the factors listed above and apply them to your own operations.
The Good Word
Word-of-mouth is a powerful factor for consumers because they hear from someone they know and trust about an experience that person had with a particular product or service. But that can work for or against you.
For the most part, CSI scores reflect what kind of word-of-mouth you’re going to get. If you score consistently in the mid- to high 90s, your word-of-mouth is going to be strong. But keep in mind that people are more likely to express negatives than positives because of the emotions involved. If 5 percent of our customers say they probably won’t refer your business to someone else, they’re going to express that more freely than the 95 percent who had a good experience. It’s just human nature.
According to anthropologist Robert Schrauf, an associate professor of applied linguistics at Penn State University, when you compare different languages and analyze words that express emotions, you’ll find similar words that express essentially the same thing. In Dr. Schrauf’s studies of 37 different languages, he found seven words that had very similar meanings in them all: joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, shame and guilt. And amazingly, the negative words outnumbered the positive words six to one! Negative experiences and emotions require more thought and more expression, and there’s a psychological catharsis one gets from expressing them verbally.
So what does this mean for you? It means that you need to do everything you possibly can to provide your customers with as positive an experience in your shop as possible from answering the phones to greeting them as they walk in the door. Make a positive first impression. What’s your shop’s curb appeal? What does the reception area look like? Treat customers with respect and make them feel special. They’ve already had a negative experience relating to their car wreck, so your job is to turn that around, put them at ease and assure them that they’re going to be well taken care of. Make sure to communicate effectively with them throughout the process.
Joe Doddridge, owner of East End Body, Inc. in Huntington, West Virginia, says that his shop puts real emphasis on being proactive with its customer communications.
“We call our customers before they call us,” Doddridge says. “We believe this keeps their stress level down and makes them feel like they’re getting some priority service.”
East End also follows up any negative score on its CSI reports by contacting the customer to see if there’s anything that can be done to satisfy him or her.
Brad Mewes, operations manager of Craftsmen Auto Body in Cerritos, Calif., says that his shop focuses on doing the job right the first time.
“We focus on operational efficiency. Our mantra is fix it right the first time,”Mewes says. “When you do that, customers go home happy and so do insurance companies. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors. I’ve found that when we get too distracted with everything else, doing the job right the first time becomes extremely difficult.”
When you deliver cars back to customers, be sure to send them away with smiles on their faces. Avoid comebacks at all costs, and let that bring positive closure to what started out as a bad experience. That will increase your chance of achieving a high CSI rating and positive word-of-mouth.
A member of the general public is involved in a collision. She may never have been in an accident before, and now she calls her insurance company. She thinks to herself, “This insurance company deals with this kind of thing every day. They must know where some of the best shops are, so I’ll ask them.”
Now some might argue that logic (best vs. cheapest argument), but the fact is this happens every day in your market. It’s either initiated by the customer or the insurer. So, is your shop near the top of an insurer’s referral list? If DRPs are a part of your business model, how did you earn those relationships and what steps are you taking to keep them?
But let’s look past who will do what for how much. If a shop wants to give away something for nothing, that’s a business decision. It may certainly differentiate it from the competition and get some insurers’ attention, but it’s not good, long-term business and hurts our industry. As Mike Anderson of CollisionAdvice.com is fond of saying, “I’m not anti-insurance, I’m just pro getting paid for what I do.”
So let’s think about what makes your business stand out in the minds of an insurer. Anderson does an exercise in his workshops where he asks shop owners and managers to write down what their value propositions are and what they tell insurers and potential customers makes them special. The responses are then posted and grouped on a wall based on what they say. And guess what…they usually all say pretty much the same thing quality, training, experience, equipment, etc. So these shops are actually totally indistinguishable in the eyes of customers and insurers!
None of these things that shops say make them unique mean anything unless they can be backed up in dramatic fashion. One way to do that is to have an independent third party assess repair quality. The things that should be looked at include: welding, corrosion protection/seam sealing, proper measurement and following manufacturer or I-CAR procedures. Only the best shops that are willing to put their reputations on the line welcome this kind of assessment. Shops can then provide this quality assessment to insurers to demonstrate their true commitment to quality.
LC Automotive Group goes through just such an assessment at its five shops in southern California. The information gathered is shared with management, which spurs continuous improvement through technician coaching and training. Insurers are then alerted to these improvements in hopes that they will differentiate LC Automotive Group’s shops from competitors. In addition, each shop’s manager and co-owner can earn a bonus when their shop’s quality scores are higher than the California average.
East End’s Doddridge says that differentiating his shop to insurers is where it’s most aggressive.
“DRPs are here to stay,” he says. “Customers put a lot of stock in these referrals. So our focus has been on creating and enhancing those relationships. I work on outreach to our state and regional insurance people to build those relations. I’m on the phone with them monthly, asking them about our performance measurements, cycle time and CSI. I ask if there’s anything we aren’t hitting on their KPIs. I try to have East End be the shop that regional and state managers tell their local agents about.”
We’ve all heard that the three most important things a business must consider when determining where to locate are location, location and location. It’s one of the most critical things for most consumer service businesses, but maybe a little less so for our industry. When people need our services, they’ll find us, or the tow truck driver will. But having a visible presence helps if people drive by your location every day. When they need their vehicle repaired, they’ll remember you if you have that all-important element called curb appeal.
The image of our industry hasn’t helped (see “Image Is Everything,” BodyShop Business October 2002, search “image” at www.bodyshopbusiness.com). There are some pretty poor-looking shops out there with junk cars and parts all over the place, and those shops aren’t likely to change. But you can do something about it, if you haven’t already.
Making your business look appealing doesn’t have to cost a fortune. There are a number of things you can do to make an old building look good. And if you’re building a new facility, take the time now to do it right. Consult with experts, because what we might think is most important to the customer might not be.
Your front office and customer waiting area can really differentiate you from the competition as well. Sports and Imports in Duluth, Ga., has an ice cream sundae bar. Body Builders in Rolling Meadows, Ill., has a Kid’s Korner. Other shops offer cappuccino. Little things like these make a lasting impression.
Craftsmen Auto Body is careful about cultivating a clean and neat image as part of the overall customer experience. According to operations manager Brad Mewes, “We have a great location that separates us from our competition. We’re located on a main street that’s easy to get to and convenient for customers. We have a bright, well-lit and well-organized shop. We take time consistently to do basic housekeeping cleaning our booth every week, scrubbing our floors, adding stripes to our back lot and paint department to park cars more organized and efficiently, holding mini-5S events where we ask techs to get rid of their clutter and then walk through and give them feedback on their cleanup efforts. These aren’t once-a-year things but once-a-month things.”
Craftsmen’s front office looks out onto the shop floor so that customers can see the facility the moment they walk up to the counter. Mewes offers shop tours to customers and encourages them to get back in the facility to see where their car is being worked on.
“This takes the apprehension out of the repairs and allows the customer to visualize where their car is,” says Mewes.
Sports & Imports, a group of three shops just north of Atlanta, has taken extraordinary steps to stand out in its market. Owner Gene Hamilton built his newest shop near a mall.
“That’s where the money is,” he says.
Taking a page out of Carl Sewel’s book, “Customers for Life,” Hamilton spent $40,000 on his customer restrooms.
“Customers tell me that our bathrooms are like the Hilton,” he said. “They’re nicer than my own!”
Their waiting area features new carpeting, beautiful prints on the walls, newspapers and 12 different magazines, and a window customers can peer through to look at the shop in action.
“If they can’t see anything, I fear that the customers might think we’re hiding something,” Hamilton says.
Sports & Import’s lobby features special car and golf prints on the walls and training certificates in the hallway. It has 10 covered parking places where cars are staged. Hamilton also highlights the shops’ work with Ronald McDonald House charities and involvement with various associations.
Sports & Imports also holds as many as 20 I-CAR classes per year in its facility. Its training room comfortably holds 42 people. When insurers attend, Hamilton loves to offer a tour of his facility, which often leads to business referrals over time.
There are some shop owners, however, who don’t put curb appeal at the top of their priority list. Besides freshening up the inside of the shop by bringing its brand’s color scheme more into play with the color of the building, signage and awnings, East End Body hasn’t done a whole lot to enhance its image.
“Frankly, I don’t want to encourage walk-ins,” said owner Doddridge. “I don’t want that guy coming in thinking he needs three estimates. It’s a waste of our time. My DRP relationships are keeping me at capacity so I don’t need to concentrate in this area too much right now.”
Having a presence on the Internet is becoming more and more important every day. Consider this:
On an average day, about 68 million Americans (more than 20 percent of the total population) will go online.
Over 38 million people who go online will use a search engine.
54 percent of consumers referred a friend to a business they found online.
In the USA alone, there are 2.2 billion Web searches performed each month with the intent of finding local businesses or services.
Over 212 million people are currently using the Web in the U.S.
Where does your business show up when consumers scour the Internet via Google, Yahoo or some other search engine? Do you even have a website? If you do, what does it look like? You should have a presence on the Web and it should be a professional-looking presence.
Doddridge enlisted the support of experts to give East End Body’s website a fresh, clean look in the past year.
“We wanted to keep it simple and have something insurers could see since that is such a key part of our business model,” said Doddridge. The vendor that created East End’s new site also enhanced their position in search engines so they appear higher when someone searches for their site online.
If you don’t show up on the first page or maybe the top of the second page of an Internet search, you’re virtually invisible in your market unless someone searches for your shop by name. There are certain things that professional website developers can do to enhance your position on Internet searches, and this is called Search Engine Optimization. If you contract with a professional website developer, be sure to ask him or her about this.
Making the first experience with a customer a positive one will position your shop favorably for repeat business if and when he or she needs your services again. If you “wow” him or her the first time, he or she will remember you and likely come back.
“You should constantly be thinking, ‘How can I make this experience better for the vehicle owner,’ and always push your mind in that direction,” says Doddridge. “What can you do that will give you that competitive advantage in terms of quality, speed and convenience that will drive repeat business?”
Staying in touch with your customers after a repair can be a great way to keep your shop’s name in front of them. Some shops provide refrigerator magnets, while others send out quarterly newsletters, e-mails, birthday cards and holiday cards. This ensures that customers will think of them first when they need a repair the next time.
Hamilton at Sports & Imports sends out 31,000 Christmas cards each year alone! That represents customers dating back to the 1980s. Hamilton says that every January, customers remark, “I got your Christmas card. Thanks!” He knows this pays dividends in terms of repeat business.
Name of the Game
The name of the game is driving traffic to your door. To do that, you must consider each of the factors above and decide where you will concentrate your efforts to stand out from the competition. What factors will be most influential to your business model? Do you want more walk-in traffic, or are DRP relations more important? Strategize on what makes the most sense to you, then set goals to enhance your image and visibility in your marketplace. Make your staff members accountable and make things happen. If you do, your customers and insurance partners will see your business as a special tree in the forest.