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By educating and empowering customers via radio spots and organized classes, American Autobody has carved out a niche for itself in its market as a shop to trust.
Mariah Litton was only a year old when she started doing commercials for her dad’s collision repair business in Billings, Mont. Twenty-three years later, she has retained that initial interest in marketing but has worked her way up from commercial appearances to taking on administrative responsibilities.
At American Autobody, she has the official title of “customer service representative,” but you could also call her an “educator” and “advocate.”
“We want to educate and empower our customers so they feel comfortable coming to us with questions, whether it’s for a repair or something simple like changing oil,” she said.
American Autobody strives to make customers feel at home, and one way it accomplishes that is by hiring skilled professionals. All of the company’s estimators have prior repair experience, so they’re able to both work on cars and write sheets. In addition, the shop ensures that its techs stay in check by regularly attending I-CAR classes.
“We make sure all of our techs are updated on their education and that we’re aware of all the new trends coming down the pipeline,” said Litton. “We want to treat every car like it’s our grandma’s car or mom’s car. We’re making sure we’re taking really good care of our customers.”
Being business-savvy is as equally important as being able to properly fix cars. That’s why Litton and her parents stay as up to date as possible by taking continuing education courses. Her mom and dad frequently go to classes at the Masters School of Autobody Management, while she attends online, collision-focused classes as well as business and marketing courses at local colleges.
“There’s something to be said for being able to fix cars, but if you don’t understand the business aspect of it, it makes it difficult,” said Litton. “You need to know how much money you’re spending and how much money you’re making. That’s all going to tie into your work you do on the back end.”
One of Litton’s mantras is that customers should be informed as much as possible. To reach out to fellow drivers, she discusses car care tips on a local radio show every Friday. Topics range from how to check and change tires to repair rights, but the goal is the same: to educate and empower customers.
“The first time I went on there, we talked about how you have the right to choose the body shop that best fits your needs, and you have the right to only go to one shop for an estimate. You would be amazed how many people didn’t know that,” she said.
An increasing number of the shop’s clients are young adults, and Litton noticed that many of them get overwhelmed and are unsure of what to do when they get in an accident. That’s when she decided to take action by visiting local driver’s education classes and educating young drivers on the entire post-accident process – everything from towing a vehicle to getting an estimate to knowing their rights.
“We feel that being in an accident is already frustrating and upsetting enough that you don’t need to be driving all over town or feeling like you’re forced to go anywhere.”
Being visible in the community has resulted in “front-of-mind awareness” among potential customers. By discussing collision repair and car care at the local radio station and driver’s ed classes, American Autobody is subtly marketing its business while providing education.
“In a business where the average person has an accident every eight to 10 years, you really depend on that referral business.”
It’s an interesting time to be involved in the collision industry as it is rapidly evolving and changing. Rather than viewing other shops as enemies, American Autobody attempts to work with competing shops in the area. Working with other shops ultimately results in a win-win for both parties, according to Litton.
“You would be amazed at the ideas, especially once everyone starts to open up and realize you’re not trying to steal their ideas. With the way the industry is changing the way it is, I think it’s important for shops to stick together and talk because that’s what’s going to get us through this thing.”
American Autobody has toyed with the idea of expanding, but its main focus is currently on maintaining customer satisfaction.
“We understand that every body shop does things differently, but I feel when you expand, sometimes you lose that one-on-one experience your customers desire,” said Litton.
Litton is trying to learn as much as she can about the collision industry. Her mom, who currently handles the bookkeeping, is beginning to pass her knowledge on to her daughter so she can continue to grow her career.
“I want to be able to know what’s going on with the cars in the back as well as how our customers are doing up front,” she said. “Right now, my big goal is to prove myself and show that I’m worthy of stepping up to that next level of taking over.”
Eye on KPIs
Educating the customer is one thing, but without tracking key performance indicators (KPI) such as cycle time and touch time on every vehicle, the production side of American Autobody’s business would falter.
American Autobody job costs every job, considering everything from parts profit margin to the technician assigned to the job. They use management software to track KPIs and also use scoreboards to track sales and production.
“The boards are in a location where our employees can view them,” said Mariah Litton. “We have two daily progress meetings where our team analyzes jobs that are in progress. In one meeting, our technicians discuss their headway on vehicles they’re working on as well as address any of their concerns. In the second meeting, our office staff discusses sales and vehicle production. The office staff meeting can cover a range of topics from concerns that a customer may want addressed on a specific vehicle to any other factors that relate to our production and sales.”
Heels & Automobiles
Heels & Automobiles is a free, quarterly car care clinic American Autobody offers at its shop that’s dedicated to educating women in the community on the ins and outs of owning and maintaining a vehicle.
“We realized that many people can feel intimated by their vehicles and felt this would be a great way to reach out and help women in the community better understand their vehicles,” said Mariah Litton. “Heels & Automobiles also helps us to facilitate a positive relationship with community members before they get in an accident.
Rightfully so, many of our customers are upset when they initially come to visit us. They’re stressed about having just been in an accident and are worried about what’s going to happen next. This was a great way to invite community members to come visit American Autobody in a stress-free environment.”
The class can accommodate up to 45 women, who learn about:
- Checking various fluids in their vehicle (oil, transmission fluid and washer fluid)
- Roadside safety (how to change a flat tire and jump start a dead battery)
- Repair rights and what to do after an accident
- The importance of buckling up and not texting and driving
The shop even sets off an airbag for added effect.
American Autobody held its first class in January and will hold another one this April.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the response we’ve gotten,” says Mariah Litton. “Both our January class and this April’s class were so popular we had to start ‘wait lists.’ After the class, women made a point to sign up to attend the class again and invite their friends and family. We even had a gal save a spot for her sister-in-law, who is commuting three-and-a-half hours just to attend our clinic.”
Guests at the special event were encouraged to arrive early and check out the shop and take advatnage of free back massages, eyebrow waxes, makeup tutorials and hand massages. To view a video recap of the event, click here.
Location: Billings, Mont.
Square Footage: 17,000
Owner: Todd Litton
Number of Employees: 5.5 technicians (the .5 is a young man who
just got out of school and is still learning the ropes), 3 painters, 1
detailer, 3 estimators, 1 production/shop manager, 1 parts manager, 2
customer service reps, 1 finance officer, 1 owner
Gross Sales: $3.2 million
Repair Volume/Number of Cars Per Month: 120
Average Repair Cost: $2,200
DRPs: 6 (USAA, Farmers, State Farm, Mountainwest Farm Bureau, Hartford, Kemper)
Behind the Bays
Estimating System: Audatex and CCC1
Management System: Profitnet
Spraybooths: 2 Garmat
Measuring/Dimensioning System: Chief
Welding Equipment: Car-O-Liner, spot welders
Paint Mixing System: Standox Universe
Future Equipment Purchases: None