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Getting Into Customers’ Heads: Increasing the Chances of Selling Every Job

Hopefully, we can all agree that collision repair falls into two distinct operations: sales and production. Your shop may have the very latest heated downdraft booth and the snazziest computer-driven structural-repair bench, but unless you can get the customer to let your shop perform the repair, all the equipment in the world won’t help.

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

Recent studies have shown that as many as 85 percent of body shop consumers said they were satisfied with the repair work performed on their vehicles. This speaks well for the actual process of collision repair. If the typical consumer got a typical repair and more than 80 percent felt the job was suitable, body shops are performing the production part of the equation pretty well. (This doesn’t address how fast the repair was done, which is where more sophisticated equipment will earn its keep.) But I contend that producing acceptable work isn’t most body shops’ biggest problem; selling the job is.

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What’s one of the best ways to increase your chances of selling every job? Get into your customers’ heads. Learn how they perceive body shops, how much — or how little — they know about the repair process, and how your attitude and actions affect their final decision.

Whose Head Is It Anyway?
In writing this article, I spoke with men and women about their attitudes and understanding of body shops. As many as 60 percent of people coming to typical body shops for estimates are women. Without the dreaded Y chromosome, women don’t pretend to know about cars like we manly men do. (My informal studies showed that neither women nor men understood much about the process of collision repair, but men didn’t want to admit it.) I spoke with both men and women whom I knew slightly or had met in a hotel or airport lobby about collision repair.

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Advertising Pays Off
One of the questions I asked was whether advertising ever caused these folks to visit a particular body shop. It did. Their reasoning: a body shop that could afford professional-looking ads was worth their consideration.

Put yourself in the consumer’s place for a moment and imagine you’re looking for a new television. There’s certainly no shortage of vendors. The local drug store probably sells some 13-inch portables right next to the flashlight batteries, and you might also visit the little appliance store in the strip mall near your home because it’s close by. Most likely, you’ll also shop the big guys — who have those full-page ads in the Sunday paper or those "come on down to our store" commercials on late-night television — to ensure you make an informed decision about your new television. You visited the little guy because he was in your neighborhood, but you considered the big guy because he advertised.

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The people I spoke with felt the same way about body shops. The shop that had a nice-looking 30-second spot on cable television or an eye-catching billboard caused many of these folks to consider that shop. Advertising works; people will come if you make your shop known to them. However, many people I interviewed also asked a knowledgeable friend or relative for a suggestion before they actually chose a body shop. A television set is an important purchase, but it’s still only a couple hundred dollars. Automobiles are most people’s second most valuable possessions, and based on my interviews, people want some first-hand advice before they have their very expensive transportation repaired.

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Honesty Is the Best Policy
Virtually everyone I spoke with had very little idea of how the collision repair process works. Among their biggest concerns was the honesty of the shop. Like it or not, body shops don’t have a very good reputation. Movies continue to show the seedy neighborhood populated with tattoo parlors, stripper bars and body shops. Like anything they don’t know much about, people are wary of being taken advantage of.

If indeed most people are leery of your shop’s honesty, the fastest way to establish you have none is to offer to bury their deductible. If you’re willing to shaft the insurance company for $100 or $250, you’ve established your dishonesty in a hurry. The people in my sample who asked a shop employee to bury the deductible weren’t offended when the employee explained that he couldn’t; in fact, they were reassured that the shop was honest.

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Everybody in my sample population also liked it when the shop was confident. One woman I spoke with was delighted to hear the estimator say, "No problem, we can have that back to brand new in no time. Our technician has just been to school, and he did a repair just like this." She was very worried that her car would never be the same, but the confident tone of the estimator set her mind at ease before the repair even began. If you immediately send your potential customers a message about your honesty and your confidence in your ability, they’ll want you to fix their cars.

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An Educated Consumer
If indeed most people at your shop have no idea what will happen to their vehicle during the repair, your job is to explain it to them. And don’t talk down to the women (a common complaint). They’re fully capable of understanding what you tell them about the repair process.

If a vehicle is hit hard enough to require mounting on your frame machine, customers are even more anxious that their cars will never be the same again. So show the customers, male or female, your 3-D measuring system. Show them the frame book with the specifications for their particular models. My sample population was happy to see evidence that the body shop had the tools necessary to repair their cars.

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Many people were also very concerned about color matching. They’d all seen a neighbor’s car with different colored doors on one side, and they certainly didn’t want that to happen to their cars. In fact, color matching was mentioned most often by the people I interviewed as a potential problem area. I think it’s because they don’t know enough to be worried about driveability or panel-gap issues. Anyone can see a bad color match, but poor strut-tower location or steering-axis inclination is way beyond the typical customer. One woman was particularly reassured when the shop owner took her back to the mixing room and turned on the agitator bank and the digital scale. He blew on the mixing scale, and the woman was very impressed by its super sensitivity. He told her that with sophisticated equipment such as the scale, his shop could guarantee a good color match. She had her car fixed there and, indeed, her repair was undetectable.

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The Value of a Diploma
>Not only were most of my subjects ignorant about the equipment required to repair their cars, they knew nothing about technician certification. No one I spoke with had heard of ASE or I-CAR. The GM owners had heard of Mr. Goodwrench but were unsure if the body shop employees were part of that program.

Several people, women mostly, remembered a wall of framed diplomas and certificates at their body shops. Unsure about what they represented, they were nonetheless reassured that the technicians must be involved in ongoing training. The people who hadn’t noticed any arm patches or framed certificates during their last repair experience said they would’ve been pleased to see such a display. Remember, these people know nothing about what you do. Every moment you take to explain the repair, show off the equipment or point to training diplomas will help sell the repair and reassure the consumer.

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A View on Aftermarket Parts
Only a few members of my sample had an opinion about aftermarket sheet metal. Two men were concerned enough to ask their shops whether aftermarket parts would be used in the repair of their cars. Neither wanted non-OEM parts. One fellow had a 1998 car and received original Ford parts. The other had a van several years old and was unhappy to find his insurance carrier would only cover the cost of imported parts. He was, however, happy with his finished repair.

Others had the issue of non-OEM sheet metal explained to them by shop employees. Depending on the estimate writer’s attitude toward those parts, the people were either distressed or reassured. Most people didn’t understand the difference. One nice lady told me her father had long ago explained to her that spark plugs need not be AC or Autolite, that Champion or NGK would work just as well. "Wouldn’t the same be true for hoods and fenders?" she wondered.

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After a little discussion, many in my sample thought the issue of correct fit should be the body shop’s problem, but the corrosion issue did concern them. They thought the shop’s job was to install any new parts with proper alignment. Most were aware that late-model cars didn’t rust anymore, but were surprised to learn that the imported sheet metal wasn’t galvanized, treated or primed like the original-equipment parts.

On the Legal Side
The concept of diminished value was foreign and somewhat alarming to all these people as well. They operated under the assumption that a correct repair with all the parts fitting and the color matched wouldn’t affect the value of the vehicle. After all, wasn’t that what was supposed to happen? Their cars would be returned to pre-accident condition, and life would go on. All had seen truly bad repairs on collision damage but presumed it was done by an ill-equipped, fly-by-night, do-it-yourselfer — certainly not by a reputable body shop of long standing. And they were probably right. Many in my sample also figured recovering money for diminished value would require hiring someone to establish what the lower value was and retaining an attorney to collect it.

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As for the issue of steering customers to specific collision repairers, it didn’t seem like a problem to the men and women in my sample population. In fact, most of them asked their insurance agents and carriers for suggestions about which shop should repair their vehicles. When the agent suggested a body shop, no one in my sample felt he or she was being railroaded into using that shop. To them, the agents qualified as knowledgeable sources because they were so much more familiar with the repair process than the consumer was. Suggestions from a distant insurance company employee had less effect than the local agents, but many in my sample still didn’t feel they were driven away from another shop.

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In addition, very few understood their legal rights as insureds and were skeptical when body shop personnel tried to explain what those rights were. They assumed their legal rights required an attorney to properly interpret them, and no one wanted to consult a lawyer just to have his or her car repaired. Two people (one man and one woman), however, had retained counsel to conclude a past collision repair to their satisfaction. Not surprisingly, neither had a good experience.

Making the Final Decision
After I better understood some customer perceptions, I asked everyone exactly what criteria they used when finally selecting a body shop. Though some thought they would simply have to accept the lowest estimate, others got additional estimates if the low-estimate body shop didn’t meet their standards.

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What were those standards? I expected the first criteria to be the same one that turns up year after year in insurance company surveys: cleanliness. Interestingly, a clean facility was mentioned by almost everyone I spoke with as a very important determiner — no one wanted to leave his or her car in a slovenly looking shop, even if it had a great reputation — but the attitude and actions of the people in the shop were the No. 1 decider of where my sample population took their vehicles. Having eliminated some shops from the street because they looked so poorly maintained, many I questioned chose their repair shops based on how they were treated by body shop personnel: Who greeted them, how they were dressed and what they said made the most difference.

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Neatly dressed estimators who took the time to listen to how the accident happened impressed those I questioned. I know you’ve heard it all before, but your customers are new at this whole collision thing and they want to explain the only part of the repair they’re qualified to explain — the accident itself. Those shops that expressed sympathy and reassured their customers that everything would be right in the end closed the sale.

In Bodyshop Business’ annual Industry Profile, one of the most interesting numbers to me is the closing rate, running somewhere between 57 and 62 percent. Improving that rate is the easiest way to run more business through your shop. For every 10 estimates, only six are fixed in the typical respondent’s shop. Improving your closing rate is much cheaper than advertising and simpler than constructing a bigger building. Those other four people were already at your door but, for some reason or another, had the work done elsewhere. According to my sample, the reason they went somewhere else was because you didn’t treat them very well.

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It wasn’t just polite, neatly dressed people that swung the vote, however. It was the estimator who explained in plain English what would happen to the vehicle while it was in the shop’s care. Everyone wanted to be treated like an adult, especially the women. Saying, "You wouldn’t understand," or "Where can I reach your husband?" sent the women out the door like a fire alarm would.

Enthusiasm and pride in your work also sell jobs. One man remembered that the shop owner had been so proud of his frame machine, he took the man back into the shop and showed him all its lights, senders and probes. The consumer I interviewed couldn’t remember the brand or exactly what it did, but he knew the shop owner was proud of it and, therefore, it must be a good thing. He had his car fixed there and was very pleased with the results.

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The people who remembered the repair experience in the most positive light were those whose vehicles were sparkling clean when they got them back. They didn’t know if the camber was correct, if the shop used weld-through primer on the new panels, if the clearcoat was sufficiently thick or if the technicians were certified. What they did know is that the engine compartment was free of overspray, the doorjambs free of sanding dust, the windows clean and the trunk vacuumed. I was surprised that they named "friendly people" ahead of "clean premises," but I was reassured that they still noticed an over-prepped car on delivery. So don’t forget to list the "complete detail" at no charge on your ticket. After all, if you’re going to give it away, you should get credit for it.

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Getting Into Customers’ Heads
Now that you’ve had a look inside the heads of your customers, take what you’ve learned and apply it to your business. More than 80 percent of collision repair customers are pleased with the final job; the trick is to get them to let you do the work.

How do you do that? Listen to customers tell their stories. Be vocally proud of your employees and equipment. Express your confidence in completing an invisible repair. Thirty-second radio spots or brightly colored billboards may get customers to your doors, but your actions will be the deciding factors in getting them to be customers of yours.

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Writer Mark Clark, owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa, is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He’s been a contributing editor to BodyShop Business since 1988.

Putting Our Heads Together
There’s a new source of unbiased, independent research about our industry. The National Collision Marketing Institute was created by the Louisiana Board of Regents in August 1997. Officially a part of the College of Administration & Business at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, La., these educators hope to gather information about the collision industry and disseminate it to literally everyone interested.

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The institute’s goals include conducting unbiased research about the attitudes, opinions, purchase behavior, profiles and needs of our customers. Following are some of the first findings of the group, which intends to publish an annual Industry Analysis summarizing these and other findings.

In addition to polling consumers, the group included input from insurance personnel, shop owners, vendors and trade groups. After getting help from the industry about what to ask consumers, they also posed base questions to establish consumer opinions about business in general.

In studying the results, it seems to me our main problem is that the consumer doesn’t know much about our industry. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. "The industry needs more consumer education," says Dr. Gene Brown, head of the institute. "No one segment should be responsible. The shops, the distributors, the insurance companies and the manufacturers all need to do more." Through advertising and public relations, he suggests we improve our image and educate the consumer.

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I agree. The easiest way to begin is with the next estimate you write. Tell the vehicle owner how you’ll fix his car and emphasize the quality job you’ll do. Don’t just assume he knows what will happen to his car; it’s pretty clear from the survey results he doesn’t.

Body shops make excessive profits

65% agree 35% disagree

Insurance companies make excessive profits

85% agree 15% disagree

Insurance company prices for insurance are fair

33% agree 67% disagree

Insurance companies are honest about needed repairs

60% agree 40% disagree

What’s your general impression about the overall quality of service insurance companies provide when collision repair is needed?

70% positive 30% negative

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What’s your general impression about the overall quality of work collision repair centers provide?

70% positive 30% negative

If you were in need of collision repair, would you prefer aftermarket parts or original manufacturer parts be used?
80% would prefer OEM
17% had no preference
3% would prefer aftermarket
(Note: 80% of respondents indicated they believe OEM parts to be of higher quality, 19% believe OEM parts and aftermarket parts to be of the same quality, and 1% believe aftermarket parts are of higher quality.)

If aftermarket parts can save you money, would you rather have aftermarket parts or original manufacturer parts?

60% would prefer OEM
5% had no preference
25% would prefer aftermarket

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Do you know your consumer rights with regard to getting your automobile repaired due to a collision?
28% said yes 72% said no

Of those consumers who had a collision repair in the last five years:
17% indicated their insurance company suggested a single shop

19% indicated their insurance company gave them a list of shops to go to

Of those having a recent repair (within the last two years):
85% were satisfied with the overall quality of repair
15% were dissatisfied
46% were extremely satisfied with the overall quality
5% weren’t at all satisfied with the overall quality
80% would recommend the repair shop to others

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Did anyone explain the difference between original equipment parts and aftermarket parts?
5% said only the insurance company
20% said only the collision repair shop
10% said both
65% said neither

Do you believe it’s OK for your insurance company to choose a repair center when your vehicle needs repaired?
19% said yes 81% said no

Body shops are honest about needed repairs

47% agree 53% disagree

Body shop repair prices are fair
50% agree 50% disagree

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