Clark's Corner: May I Help You? - Body Shop Business

May I Help You?

It may seem like everyone through your door just wants an estimate, all day long. In fact, every person has a unique expectation.


As a paint, body and equipment (PBE) jobber in Iowa in the 1970s, we saw lots of do-it-yourselfers at our front counter. Some of them were highly skilled and well-paid folks who worked at one of the seven John Deere facilities around town, generally restoring some sort of hobby car or motorcycle. Some of them were full-time farmers, raising feed corn, soybeans or hogs on hundreds (or thousands) of acres of land each day and refinishing their fleet and equipment in the down times. Some of our DIY customers were economy-minded citizens who had collision damage they intended to repair themselves – for less, they figured, than what a professional might charge. And some folks just thought it would be fun to learn how to paint a car and wanted us to tell them everything about how to do it right now.

Just like any retail sales environment, they all wanted different things from my business depending on their unique issues. The first thing we did was try to look retail friendly. The door on our original building was industrial to the max, complete with the little wired glass window at head height and long, blank cinderblock walls. We replaced the door with one just like every other retailer used, carpeted our showroom and spiffed up the inside. But I’ll tell you now that the best thing we did to attract retail DIY trade was act liked we wanted it. Rather than offer them a big, long sigh like our competitors did when they asked them for any help, we wanted nothing else than to have them leave their money with us and tell their friends we did a great job for them.

Stealing Your Customers?

Starting 45 years ago when I first began advertising my business to DIY repairers and refinishers, I always advertised on behalf of my professional shop customers first. I ran newspaper ads (remember them?) that said Mrs. Smith could depend on a fair shake from my body shop customers, then listed them. I visited each of my professional customers and explained that my retail intentions weren’t to take re-paint or dent business away from them; it was to take it away from Kmart or the local hardware store. Over many years, I even ran several series of cable television commercials that linked my logo to my customer shops. We all offered “The Professional Advantage,” my tagline. I told those long-ago good shop customers that we would fully explain to Mr. or Mrs. Smith just how many separate steps and unique and expensive products were required to affect a quality repair. Some of those potential DIY customers decided that their neighborhood body shop’s estimate hadn’t been so far off after all and returned to have it done by a pro.

Thankfully, many of the DIY folks let us guide them to a nice dollar sale that included enough products and written instructions to get whatever their special project was completed, more or less correctly. The “more” customers were always happy and coming back to show off their successes. The “less” customers were back too, complaining about the runs and dirt we put in the can or the sand scratches we neglected to explain.

Listen to the Money

One thing that separated my business from others was our eagerness to help solve our customers’ problems. Whether they were dealership principals, shop owners, painters or Mrs. Smith, we tried to listen hard before we suggested any solution. The John Deere engineers told us in no uncertain terms what they wanted – by chemical name and acidity quotients sometimes! They wanted directions and instructions for each step in their project, and generally enjoyed good-looking outcomes because of it.

The farmer crowd was usually looking for the fast and cheap method. Why sand with sandpaper when a DA with a scuff pad is faster? Why prime when the only part you’ll see is the color anyway? We would do our best to explain the problems with skipping steps and eliminating products, but when we matched their expectations with their wallets and they got the final results they expected, we were both good.

Our economy-minded walk-ins were usually shocked at how expensive the entire bundle of products required to complete their project safely and successfully would cost them, but since labor time is the most expensive thing in collision repair and they were throwing theirs in, we made the sale. When their results were good, they would tell others and soon we had more full-margin, walk-in business.

The true hobbyist customers were often the most fun. Mastering, or at least trying, any new skill is a rush, and they mostly had the time and the money to do a nice job. I recall one customer in particular. He worked at Deere and wanted to build and paint a 650cc Triumph chopper motorcycle. I got involved in the paint part and, in 1973, we correctly prepped and painted his tiny tank and fenders with color-shifting paint. That was a long time ago for that trick, kids. From green to blue under the light; lacquer color and clear, of course. No front brake, rear drum brake the size of a hamburger and a high compression motor that would kick you back when starting. Super cool! I ended up owning that bike 40 years later, the color still flipped and it was still hard to start and scary to ride!

Sell Your Strengths

It may seem like everyone through your door just wants an estimate, all day long. In fact, every person has a unique expectation. What I learned in my retailing experience is to make sure you listen long enough to know your customers’ issues. Then, offer your help and proudly talk up your shop’s unique features, advantages and benefits to Mrs. Smith. Most importantly, act like you really want her business. It sure worked for me!

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