The body shop world seems to be divided into two sectors: those who use social media and love it, and those who don’t and are terrified of it. There’s definitely a learning curve, just like switching to waterborne/low-VOC refinishes. And embracing something new is scary. But there are a few shops where the outcome proved rewarding, one being Paul’s Quality Collision in Monroe, Mich.
Run by Paul and Tammi VanAken, Paul’s Quality Collision integrated social media into its overall marketing strategy on Jan. 27, 2010.
“Social media is a great resource and hugely underrated,” Paul says. “Social media is about revealing who we are to the community. It requires a commitment. It will expose both your strengths and weaknesses. But the object is to get the customers talking about us to other potential customers.”
VanAken can point to glass repair and towing jobs that were a direct result of the shop’s social media presence.
Camille Eber, the second generation of the Eber family to be owner-operator at Fix Auto Portland East, the former Roth & Miller shop in Portland, Ore., has found success with social media as well.
“Success in this endeavor is not so much that I can track that Mary Jones found us via Facebook, but rather, she can find us regardless of where she happens to be searching and let us know she found us ‘online,’” says Eber.
Finding out how the customer found them is not so easy, Eber says, particularly because they don’t want to be drilled beyond the initial question, “Where did you find us online?”
States Mark Claypool, CEO of Optima Automotive and Optima Social Media, Chicago, Ill., “Social media is the new frontier of marketing and, when done correctly, beats the pants off other examples of marketing. Yellow Pages? I don’t think so…hardly anyone uses them anymore. Radio can be expensive in some markets. Billboards might be okay, too.”
Brenda Kyle, customer service rep with Douglas Auto Body & Paint, Pasadena, Calif., says that not being a multi-shop operation means that TV and radio are not in their price range. But since social media is free, they’re all about it.
“With social media, the feedback is instant and more personal,” says Kyle, who also advertises in a local paper that has a loyal following (but no billboards since there aren’t any in Pasadena). “Facebook lets me know who ‘likes’ me the gender and age group too. It’s working for us in the sense that we get to build a rapport with previous customers and future customers at the same time, in a way that isn’t obtrusive. We don’t bombard our customers with emails, nor do we send out big mailers. We generally don’t ‘talk shop.’ We focus on the social part of social media. We give safety tips, tell jokes, give community news, post funny pictures and before-and-after shots.
“When a customer thinks of Douglas Auto, we want them to feel like they’re bringing their vehicle to a friend. Every once in awhile, we throw in a copy of an ad we’re working on, but we’ll also tell the story of how we came up with the concept. Our goal is to make sure our customers know we’re real people, and we’ll treat them like a real person.”
Some shop owners might bristle at the term “free”; after all, they have to pay someone to monitor social media. But other than an investment in time and giveaways you choose to offer, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and local bulletin boards are free. Claypool figures it shouldn’t take more than a couple hours a week to participate in all three of the big social media sites.
Fear of the Unknown
Fear of the unknown seems to be a big deterrent to shops that don’t use social media.
“Don’t be afraid to participate,” says Dusty Dunkle, vice president of SureCritic who believes social media offers the best ROI. “It’s most likely our strongest form of marketing to Generation Y, a quickly increasing percentage of our industry customer base.”
“Social media tops the market,” VanAken says, comparing it to other outlets. He notes that it’s much more than advertising – more an adjunct to a good community outreach or public relations campaign. “The key is to coordinate what is effective for your shop in your market.”
In his case, it’s leveraging a program to discourage texting and driving. They’ve given away 8,000 T-shirts with the same message they promote online. “It gets good PR and TV news coverage, too,” he adds.
Roughly 47 percent of social media users say that information from sites like Facebook and Twitter influences their buying decisions. Plus, they’re three times more likely to believe and trust peer opinions than advertising.
“Social media is not a fad or trend; it’s the latest way we keep our business in front of a huge number of potential customers,” Dunkle says.
Eber says the first steps in their success with social media were to have claimed, set up and verified (if verification is required or an option) profiles (listings) in directories such as Facebook, Google+/Google Places, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp, Angie’s List, Merchant Circle, City Search, Yahoo Local and YouTube, to name a few.
“That is success online, because there are still many shops that have not done this,” she says, adding that a greater measure of success would be to visit and update at least something on the shop profile every three months.
Time to Update
Updates don’t have to be all hard-sell auto body or paint matching. Any auto or music buff has to love the fact that Douglas Auto Body is located on Colorado Blvd., made famous in Jan & Dean’s song about the Little Old Lady from Pasadena. The shop plays that up with a video clip. They go farther, too, hyping local ties with the Rose Bowl Parade and football game and posting a dozen or more photos of the best cars in the parade. That’s the kind of soft-sell that draws users back to the site again and again.
Their “Name that Car” feature and safety tips seem to be most popular. Recently, Kyle posted a picture of a roadside emergency kit with a package of kitty litter. A customer asked, “Why kitty litter?” Kyle explained that it was for traction in icy conditions. That may be common knowledge for 75 percent of the country, but Southern California drivers may never give ice a second thought.
“She was rather appreciative,” Kyle says. “She was the only person who commented, but a substantial number of people saw it, including her friends.”
Blow Your Horn
Shop owners should not be shy about blowing their own horns. If you sponsor a Little League team, post pictures of the team to the account. If you bought 20 soccer shirts for the girls’ team, let people know about it. Update their wins and losses. Every ballplayer has parents, uncles, grandparents and neighbors who will feel just as good about seeing you support local causes as you do.
Eber notes that customers on the Internet have no idea how online information is generated.
“It’s get-fished for by search engines from here and there,” she explains, warning that the data may not be accurate unless an owner takes the time to take ownership of it. I have had friends contact me via Facebook with regard to business and then have them brag about us on Facebook. That gets spread around.”
Her shop also has cards in the office and QR (quick response) codes that customers can scan with their smartphones to get to their Facebook page. Earlier this year, Eber tallied 116 “Likes” on Facebook.
“It’s not a huge amount, but if I post something, it’s likely to be seen by all of them and any friends or the public they allow to see their information.”
Followers’ participation is measureable, SEO expert Claypool says. “Through Facebook’s ‘Insight,’ you can see how many people are participating in what you’ve been posting. You can see how many friends your followers have.”
The hard part for shops is getting people to follow them (i.e. “liked” on Facebook). Shops must take every opportunity to promote their social media presence. Hand out flyers, discuss Facebook when the vehicle is delivered back to the owner, position flyers with QR codes at the counter, and provide links on cardstock in the glove box of vehicles worked on.
Most shops, including VanAken’s, focus their efforts on the consumer market. If there is some carry-over with DRPs, that’s a bonus.
Lack of Understanding
Since almost every body shop owner has a computer, and there’s always some downtime during a typical week, why don’t more shops set up an online presence?
“I think they don’t understand it or the importance of it,” Eber says. “Many of the sites are difficult at best to navigate and figure out.”
Although Eber is quite tech savvy, she says she’s frustrated with the changes Google has made. “I’ve not had the time to dedicate to keeping up with their changes while I worked on some other projects. They may start to get it if they stop getting new business.”
“I think that other shops are slow to accept social media because they think of it as a waste of time,” Kyle says, noting people go to a body shop because they have to, not because they want to. “I was hesitant at first because we offer a service, not a product.”
But then she changed her perspective. “Our product is Douglas Auto Body & Paint. Once I thought about shifting the focus from ‘what we do’ to ‘who we are,’ it was easier. The ‘what we do’ falls into place.”
Creating an Icon
The first step to success is creating an icon that represents your brand, Claypool says. Then, to the extent that each system allows, create the background (or cover on Facebook) to further project your brand/image.
VanAken has an online avatar that’s trademarked. He says one reason many independents don’t have strong online presences is they feel the crush of the job in many areas and social media falls by the wayside.
“If it’s not important to you, it will not happen,” VanAken says. “It has to have a level of priority.”
“Regular posting of quality content is crucial,” says Claypool. That means, ideally, once a day on Facebook, minimum of once a week; twice a day on Twitter; and at least once every 72 hours on Google+. By “quality” content, Claypool means things that get followers to engage in the conversation either by liking, commenting or sharing what has been posted.
“Tweets take very little time,” says Kyle. “How difficult is it to type, ‘It’s raining out there, Pasadena. Slow down and drive safely!’”
Defending Your Reputation
The Internet not only gives people an opportunity to tell the world how great you are, but also how lousy you are. If people are saying bad things about your shop – poor workmanship, failure to meet delivery promises – it’s best you find out and meet those problems head-on before your online reputation is shot.
There are social media sites from Yelp to Angie’s List that rate the performance and service of local businesses. Whether you like it or not, your business is likely to end up being reviewed on some of these sites.
“All businesses need to keep a close eye on everything that’s said about them online,” Dunkle says. Shops need a consistent process, or program, in place that detects negative sentiment immediately. “Otherwise, there are immediate consequences.”
Negative comments are part of the bargain with social media, VanAken says. “Everyone is human. If we make a mistake, our first commitment is with the customer to remedy the problem.”
If a shop feels it was slandered, say on a Google review that was grossly off base, its first contact should be Google, VanAken advises.
When negative comments appear, it’s essential to respond immediately, whenever and wherever possible.
“In responding, never get defensive,” Dunkle says. “Show the online community that if a customer has a problem with your business, you pay attention, you care, you react quickly and you do everything in your power to satisfy the customer. Consumers know that no business is perfect, and when there’s a problem, they want to see how you react.”
Most reviews, positive or negative, are on review sites like Google, Yelp and Yahoo rather than on YouTube or Facebook. A shop might find more reviews on Twitter than Facebook.
Claypool agrees that, when faced with a negative review, a shop should respond professionally without being defensive.
“Point out your high CSI ratings, that you’re sorry you didn’t delight them with your service, and tell them that you’re hoping to have the opportunity to earn back their business again some day,” he says. “For positive reviews, shops can thank the reviewer for the opportunity to serve them.”
Kyle says, “At the moment, we have one dedicated person. Me!” One benefit is that the shop’s “voice” is consistent. “Plus, I double check my spelling.”
Fix Auto Portland East has had only one negative posting, and Eber says it was bogus since the shop does no engine work (the gripe was about them ruining an engine).
“It appears to have been posted either by a competitor or by a company attempting to sell a service that supposedly could remove negative reviews,” she says.
In response to it, she publicly encouraged the person who posted it to contact the shop to discuss the problem. She posted that they didn’t recognize the claimed scenario.
The same review was posted on Yelp and Google. Yelp filtered it out as irrelevant. Periodically, Eber responds publicly to favorable reviews by acknowledging them with a thank you.
“Plus, it’s an incentive to do the best you can do,” VanAken says. “It comes down to business ethics.”
Before a body shop attempts to use a tool like social media, it should have some idea of the size and scope of what it’s doing. The previously mentioned “Insights” feature on Facebook can help monitor this reach. Google also provides a similar service.
“With social media, many of the benefits are common sense,” Dunkle says.
For example, establishing regular communication with potential customers through Facebook and Twitter, along with maintaining a glowing online reputation, will have a positive impact on the bottom line.
Eber admits pinning this down can be tough. “I’ve found ROI difficult to measure other than people saying they found us online,” she says. “We’re only going to get back what we put in.”
Last year was “complicated,” she says, noting that she’s a bit behind in her social media efforts.
“I’ve tried a few deals in the past in order to track where people were finding us, but my experience has been the number of deals turned in is miniscule compared to the effort to make and maintain them,” Eber says. “What’s working for us are the positive online reviews we’ve received, and verified reviews – people tell us they see those and it was the differentiator.”
Eber predicts that, at some point, as online reviews compile and nearly everyone has many of them, their significance may decrease slightly. “But directories such as Google will continue to find ways to mix up the game, like they did last year, in an attempt to set themselves apart. We owners will have to figure that out, too.”
It can help upstream, too. “When we call on agents or market our shop to insurance companies, we always mention our Facebook page,” Kyle says. “We have gotten referrals from agents directly from our Facebook page. It’s a great way for companies that are out of state to get a ‘sneak peek’ as to who we are. It’s definitely more relaxed than our website, and has the added bonus of interaction.”
VanAken says the power of social media is experienced when you can trust your customers to do your talking for you and you give them a vast network of potential customers with whom to speak.
“You’re putting the microphone in your customers’ hands,” she says.
Claypool, who helped the VanAkens set up their original program, has long maintained that many shop owners are so busy working “in” their business that they don’t have time to work “on” it.
“When presented with new things, they dismiss them because they have enough to worry about already in their business (and one of those key things is that they could truly use more cars to fix, something that effective marketing campaigns like social media can do for them),” Claypool says. “The fact is, however, that I’m seeing more and more shops at least attempting to get on Facebook. Whether they’re doing it correctly or not, they’re making the attempt.”
One concern shops have is the time investment. “It is time consuming. It does take resources, either your own if you manage it yourself as I do, or money if you hire it out,” Eber says.
But Kyle says benefits are trackable since they can see how many people they reach, including demographics. “We get weekly reports giving us feedback on our posts, pins and tweets,” she says. “I find the info very helpful for finding more content to post. For example, the bulk of the people who ‘Like’ us on Facebook are women, but on Pinterest our followers are men. Once we attach ‘coupon codes’ for social media specials, we’ll be able to see how much traffic it will drive through our door.”
Gen Y’s Job
Many shops put their younger office staff in charge of social media.
“As long as parameters are established as to what can and cannot be posted to represent the business, that can work well,” Claypool says. But, he adds, owners still need to pay attention. “My company, Optima Automotive, provides these services as the shop’s outsourced partner, too. That’s another option.”
Dunkle points out there are individuals who live and breathe social media. “Many of them are efficient and effective. There are also vendors that provide turn-key solutions that don’t require the staffing and associated expenses. These options allow you to focus on the core of your business,” he says.
If you do hire someone outside of your shop to do the job, be sure you get someone familiar with the industry. Eber says she handles social media herself to ensure it gets done well.
“Initially, it would be easy to spend all day for several days to a couple of weeks getting things in order, depending on how accurate your information is portrayed already,” Eber says.
Someone has to develop a system to manage it, too. “The few things that I have hired out, I’ve been very disappointed in the outcomes,” Eber states. “Providers have not fully grasped that ‘auto body’ is not ‘auto repair’ and the work has been sloppy.”
The key benefit from social media use is brand recognition.
“Online reputation is a segment of social media that’s imperative to manage,” Dunkle says. Many shops have large advertising budgets and may use social media. “But if a poor online reputation exists, potential customers are lost,” he warns. “The marketing may have worked perfectly, but customers are lost due to a poor online reputation in the final stages. There’s no metric to prove how much business is lost at this stage. A positive online reputation eliminates this leak.”
“Social media is a great resource and hugely underutilized,” VanAken says.
The average person on Facebook has more than 200 friends, Claypool says.
“If they participate in what the shop is posting, their friends often see this participation, giving the shop brand exposure, or impressions, that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Claypool says. “Loyalty with existing customers can be expected as well, when they’re actively following the shop’s Facebook page.”
Curt Harler is a Cleveland-based freelancer specializing in the auto, technology and environmental areas. He can be reached at [email protected].