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No Fear: Developing New Business by Asking

Learn the right way to ask for business, and you’ll not only lessen your chances of being shot down, but you’ll increase shop profits, too.

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Closing the sale has changed for most collision repair facilities over the last 25 years. Many have come to rely on direct-repair programs and other preferred-provider programs to do their selling for them. In fact, today’s estimators often spend more time processing paperwork than developing and honing their sales skills.

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And this is just fine for most shops. After all, if they had to ask for and close the sale themselves, they’d run the risk of hearing that dreaded word that strikes fear in the hearts of men: No. (Heck, some of us actually got married so we wouldn’t have to deal with rejection ever again. Funny how marriage doesn’t exactly solve that problem. But I digress … )

If you’ve been in this industry for more than a few decades, you know that things were certainly different before the 1990s. You likely built your business on a low percentage (or even no percentage) DRP customer base, so closing the sale is probably already one of your standard business practices – at least it should be.

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But because today’s market is much different than it was in previous decades, many shop owners now rely on insurer referrals rather than their own sales skills to win them work. The problem is, being on DRPs doesn’t automatically fix your inadequate processes when it comes to sales, customer service and marketing. Why? Because someone will do it better than you in the near future, and then that someone will be in a better position to provide what the customer wants.

This is actually the key to closing the sale – delivering want the customer wants, when he wants it and at a price he perceives has value.

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Though the market continues to change, this key to closing the sale hasn’t – and it won’t.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit a large number of collision repair operations in the United States, Canada, South America, the Far East and Australia, and based on my experience, the key to closing the sale falls into three main areas:

  1. The process for determining customer needs;
  2. The presentation to the customer; and
  3. The honesty and integrity of the person or company.

1. The process for determining customer needs

Does your shop have a system for prequalifying customers when they walk in? Do they want an estimate, or do they want their vehicle fixed? There’s a big difference here, and rather than simply calling up the estimator and handing off responsibilities, your front desk staff needs to be trained to determine what the customer really wants.

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Time management is of the utmost importance today for an estimator who’s responsible for file closing, supplements and other duties. And frankly, the customer doesn’t want to go through a 30-minute process either if it can be avoided. This is why the front desk asking the right questions in a few seconds can save a great deal of time and will help you to determine the customer’s needs.

Successful shops have some sort of prequalifying process. And handing the customer a form and asking him to fill it out isn’t the right way to handle the customer or the right way for you to learn what the customer really wants. How often does the customer skip key questions for qualification, such as, “Do you want us to repair your vehicle?” or “How soon do you want to get you vehicle repaired?”

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Your front desk person should ask the customer the questions and fill out the form for the customer. All the while, the front desk person can observe the body language of the customer while he’s answering the questions.

But the fact is that, at most shops, front desk personnel aren’t prequalifying customers. Why? The No. 1 reason front desk staff gives is, “We’re not salespeople.”

Wrong!

The first and foremost concept everyone in your organization must realize is that they’re a salesperson first. Their “official” job duties come second because, without the sale, there’s no need for their position (and the rest of ours either).

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Because many front desk staffers may feel uncomfortable with the prospect of selling, you need to train them so they perform this role correctly – and so they present the type of first impression that you want customers to receive. In some of the shops I’ve visited, the front desk person makes the sale even before the estimator gets involved.

Wouldn’t it be music to your estimator’s ears if the front desk person introduced the customer to him like this: “John, Mr. Marks has brought in his vehicle for us to take some photos, which I’ve already done, and he’s scheduled for this Thursday. I thought you’d like to take a quick look to see what we’re doing and to provide your expert insight into anything I may have missed.”

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Sound unrealistic? It certainly isn’t. All you need to do is develop a system that works – or use an already established system – and then train and coach your front desk personnel.

The bottom line here is that having your front desk personnel build a relationship with the customer will significantly improve your shop’s closing ratio.

2. The presentation to the customer

When you go into the one of today’s super stores for office supplies, electronics or home-improvement items, it’s important that the products be displayed, organized and easy to find. And when you’re looking for a salesperson, you likely look for someone you perceive knows what he’s talking about. The same can be said about a customer coming into a collision repair facility.

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The old ARMS skit by industry veterans Chuck Sulkala and Jeff Hendler about a customer and a shop owner provided a comical rendition of what the customer experience may have been like in the late ’70s, early ’80s: Since there’s no office, the customer walks directly into the shop – and all the dust and noise – and quickly becomes unsure about the credibility and competence of the repairer.

The purpose of the scenario was to push us to become more professional in our presentation and more sensitive to customer perceptions. We’re no longer expected to just repair the vehicle. We also need to look good doing it.

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We need to make sure that what the customer sees and experiences is of a high standard – 100 percent of the time. In my travels, I’ve seen shop office facilities that appear as professional (or more) as the best doctor’s, dentist’s and attorney’s offices. The facilities are impeccable.

In many cases, however, the processes within don’t reach the same level of professionalism and can cause the customer to form a negative impression of your shop, despite how great it looks. Some very big “No Nos” to always avoid:

  • Parts, supplies, etc., delivered through the front office.
  • Technicians in the front office.
  • Staff activities that look unprofessional.

Because the customer presentation requires the proper time and conditions to be consistently successful, if at all possible, try to:

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  • Have a private room available where the customer can sit with the estimator to discuss the job, so the conversation can’t be heard by others.
  • Keep this room clean and organized (not cluttered). Don’t fill it with files in progress, parts or other junk.

In this room, the estimator can review the job specifications with the customer and spend adequate time with him to assess his needs. But don’t bore him with facts he cares nothing about. Talk to him about what’s important to him, not you. For example:

Bore: You just bought a new computerized measuring system.

Score: You measure every vehicle before repairs begin and provide a complete printout to him of before-and-after readings for his records.

Bore: You have a new paint system or spraybooth.

Score: Your staff is certified by the paint manufacturer, and your company offers a lifetime warranty.

Bore: You’re president of the local body shop association.

Score: You’re a member of the Chamber of Commerce and involved with the Better Business Bureau.

Sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it? From our experience, however, the presentation performed daily your shop just might surprise you.

Some of you may be thinking, “If they want to get their car fixed by us, this stuff doesn’t matter.” Or “We have such a good reputation, we don’t have to worry about this.”

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I, too, can still remember the advice for travelers 25 years ago or so: If you wanted good food, look for a truck stop with lots of vehicles. The food must be good, even if the place doesn’t look good. And 25 years ago, the public accepted that.

But today’s buyer is changing and expects service, delivery and value – mostly based on perception. If you’re in a smaller community tucked away from a metropolitan area, you may still be safe. But remember, you probably go to the closest Circuit City, Best Buy or Home Depot to buy things you would’ve purchased in town 25 years ago, so why would a consumer getting a car repaired do any differently?

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3. The honesty of the person or company

The first two areas we’ve looked at are considered externally controlled. They can be purchased and trained with very little difficulty. This last area, however, is internally embraced and is sometimes, with some people, very difficult – if not impossible – to make part of their being.

Honesty and integrity are the most important factor in closing the sale. They’re what truly builds a strong, customer-focused business.

We’ve all experienced great service over the years, and we always go back because we felt the person selling us the service was honest with us. It’s no different for our customers.

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With all the bad publicity about fraud, bad repairs, diminished value and such, we have to work hard and be committed to presenting an image of honesty and integrity.

Having spent a number of months now in Malaysia working with estimators, customer service personnel and floor managers of a new state-of-the-art facility we designed, I’ve had a difficult time ingraining into everyone “to do what you say you’re going to do.” This may be a very simple concept to us, but in many countries, it’s not. In fact, in many shops right here in the States it’s not.

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What’s interesting is that they do a good job making the speech to the insurer and customer, but when it comes time to deliver, they don’t. Too often, items were listed for replacement only to be repaired instead, replaced with a sub-standard part or just not done at all.

Interestingly, when we had an opportunity to actually rebate the insurer $1,700 for a part we didn’t need, no one believed we were going to actually give it back. We did (after a great amount of coaching), and our credibility with the insurer instantly surpassed that of our competition. Now we’re getting customers and additional insurer referrals because we’re truly honest about doing what we say we’re going to do and not overcharging (over-writing) the repair order. And we actually proved it.

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To get the jobs, however, you also have to be able to openly and honestly ask for the sale – something too many shops still don’t do. Why? Because we don’t like to hear the word “no.” After all, if you ask, you may get an answer you don’t like.

On the other hand, if you don’t ask, you’ve likely just wasted your time. Closing the sale isn’t just about going over the estimate line for line and then saying, “We’re running a couple weeks behind and we’d need to order parts, so give me a call if you want us to repair your car.”

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Don’t hold your breathe for that call.

Be honest here. If you’ve determined that the person isn’t just a shopper (all part of the prequalification process), that you understand the customer’s needs and that this repair fits within your services offered, close the sale.

This is done by saying or asking: “We can schedule your vehicle in tomorrow?” Or … “We can get your parts ordered today, so they’ll be in …”

There are many ways to close the sale – based on what you gather from your conversation with the customer during the process. Just don’t expect the customer to do it for you.

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Your Chances Are Good

More often than not, the customer does want the vehicle repaired. Our business isn’t like those in a shopping mall. There, people spend hours just looking around and, many times, don’t buy anything. Collision customers don’t wake up one morning and say, “Hey Fred! Let’s go down to the body shop today and shop around.” They visit a shop because they have a need that, most likely, someone will be fulfilling. You just need to ensure that this someone will be you.

Contributing Editor Tony Passwater is president of AEII, a consulting, training and system-development company. He’s been in the industry for more than 27 years; has been a collision repair facility owner, vocational educator and I-CAR international Instructor; and has taught seminars across North America, Korea and China. He can be contacted at (317) 290-0611, ext. 101, or at [email protected] his Web site at www.aeii.net for more information.

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Questions Front Desk Personnel Need to Ask
Questions your front desk personnel need to ask customers can be divided into three key categories:

  1. Customer and vehicle information;
  2. Sales and marketing questions; and
  3. Relationship and qualification questions.

1. Customer and vehicle information

It’s a good idea to have signage that asks customers to bring in their vehicle registration, insurance card, driver’s license, and any insurance or appraisal estimates if they’re getting an estimate. Even during telephone conversations scheduling the estimate, mention these items. Why? Because they’ll supply 80 percent of what you’ll be asking. This way, the customer can have a seat in the waiting area while you complete the customer profile. Once you get this information, you can then ask for additional information, such as:

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  • What type of claim it is (first party, third party or customer pay);
  • Telephone numbers and best times to reach them;
  • E-mail addresses;
  • Other insurance information needed.

I mentioned “scheduling” an estimate. Why? To ensure you have the time to provide your customers with the attention they require – and to give yourself and the sale the best chance of success. When three people are waiting for an estimate, two are there to pick up their vehicles and another is waiting to drop off his vehicle, the time spent to “sell the job” gets cut short. Avoid this by simply scheduling customers appropriately.

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How? When the phone rings and the person on the other end of the line asks, “What are your hours?” properly trained front desk personnel won’t respond by saying, “We open at 8 a.m. and close at 5 p.m.” Why would someone ask for your hours except to determine when he’s going to come in to get an estimate, drop off his vehicle or pick it up? The proper response is to find out the true needs of the customer. Something like, “Sir, for an estimate?” Then, when you come to a mutually beneficial time, you can be sure six people aren’t going to be there at once to see the same estimator.

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2. Sales and marketing questions

  • Have we repaired your vehicles in the past?
  • Have you gotten other estimates? Where?
  • Have you been referred to us? By whom?
  • Will your insurance company be handling this claim? What is your company and agent?

At this point, if the insurer responsible for the damages is one you’re a direct provider for, then your process should change to “That’s great! We’re a preferred provider for your company. Have you notified your agent or claims office?” Then get the assignment and schedule it. The estimator will just have to look at the vehicle, take some notes and digital images and then the customer can go on his way – no wait, no hassle.

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Too often, I see estimators (already overburdened with a huge file load) spending 30 minutes to write an estimate and selling the customer – only to then have the assignment come over the fax or computer. Time management is extremely important today for an estimator who’s responsible for file closing, supplements and other duties. Be sure your front desk personnel ask the right questions, and it’ll save time all around.

3. Relationship and qualification questions

  • Do you want us to repair your vehicle?
  • How soon would you like your vehicle repaired?
  • Is everyone who was involved in the accident OK? (Be caring and empathetic.)
  • Would you like us to arrange a rental vehicle?
  • Would you like us to assist you with the claims process?
  • What’s your most important concern with the repair of your vehicle?

Arguably, some of these questions may fit into multiple categories. This isn’t the point. The point is that you need a process to qualify the customer. And normally from these questions, you can determine if the customer is a serious candidate for your services or a “shopper.” In fact, at this point, we often find that shops have already made the sale and either scheduled the vehicle or gotten the keys.

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If the customer says he wants you to repair his vehicle – and as soon as possible – that may mean: Make out the key tag, get the rental arranged and set up the file folder that includes a signed repair authorization.


Get Off Your Butt and Work for the Sale!
The industry average closing ratio (jobs taken in for a given period verses estimates written in the same period) has been hovering around 68 percent for years. For every 100 estimates written, 68 become jobs. What we’ve found by analyzing repair facilities around the world, however, is that if we factor out DRP and other direct providers, total losses and jobs you don’t want (rust, restoration, paint jobs, etc.), the actual closing ratio is much lower. There aren’t as many actual “walk-ins” as there used to be, and the closing ratio for these walk-ins is normally lower than the closing ratio for jobs referred to you. Many of today’s estimators are a little lazy when it comes to working for a sale because most work is directed to them from providers.

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This is probably why most organizations are moving to estimators who “process” rather than sell – much like service writers in a dealership. Many jobs are brought in by work providers. If this is true for your shop, your estimators are more like service writers, who just process the order. But if you’re not in this situation and you rely on people coming in for estimates, you have to be a better salesperson.

Even if you do normally rely on work providers to supply you with jobs, you still need to know how to win the job using good sales skills if – and when – someone comes in from an insurer whose program you’re not on. Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen shop owners tell a potential customer that they’re “not on their program and don’t do work for them.” Come on! How lazy can you get? Sell them on your shop. Who cares if you’re not on the program!

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Lessening Your Chances of Rejection
No one wants to get shot down – whether it comes to asking someone out on a date or asking a potential customer for the job – which is why we often don’t ask at all. But when it comes to running a business, if you don’t close the sale, you’re likely not going to make the sale. We can’t help you with your dating dilemmas (although showering regularly and smelling nice does help), but we can give you some tips to better prepare you for closing the sale:

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  • Be honest and believable.
  • Look professional.
  • Be courteous, but positive and assertive.
  • Be informative, and use phrases that assume you’re repairing the job.
  • Ask questions about their needs, such as, “How often would you like to be updated during the repairs?” “Do you have a preference of a day of the week?”
  • Ask for the sale (this the No. 1 forgotten question to ask).
  • Be prepared for “push backs,” such as: “I need to check with …” or “I need to talk to my insurance … .”

For example, if someone says, “I need to talk to my insurance agent,” you can say, “OK, let’s call him now to see how we can reduce your ‘running around’ and get your vehicle back as soon as possible.” Then call the agent to get the assignment or claim number. Or, when someone says, “I need to discuss this with my spouse,” you can respond with, “Because I’d like to ensure we order your parts as soon as possible and have a spot for you, can we call him/her while you’re here to find the best time to schedule? That way, I can answer any questions personally.”

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The key is to remove barriers and see if they’ve begun to “trust you” – or are they unsure of what you’re telling them? If it’s the latter, then your company needs to work on interpersonal skills to make customers comfortable with your company. Remember, customers come to your facility to get rid of problems, not to get estimates. You’re providing a solution to customers problems, so make sure they feel the same way.

For some customers, you can sometimes close the sale at the hand off by simply saying, “What’s a good week/day for you to bring in your vehicle?” You know to do this based on his customer profile when he answered the questions:

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Have we repaired your vehicle before? “Yes.”

Do you want us to repair it? “Yes.”

How soon would you like to get your vehicle repaired? “ASAP.”

If you’ve identified that the customer has reservations or you know his insurer is a strong DRP force in your market – and you’re not a partner – then you need to spend some time educating the customer about his right to choose (if he still has that right) and showing him why he should choose your facility.

If the customer is female and your estimator is male, the discussion about consumer rights and how she can demand your shop over the DRP one may be better communicated by your front desk person (if female) or by a female estimator. Very often, a female will “push back” regarding what you’re saying about her rights, unless you’re perceived as very trustworthy. This push back is likely no reflection on you. It’s just a gender difference. For reasons such as this, you may want to employ both male and female estimators. The advantages of having female estimators in the mix have been statistically proven by experience time and time again.

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