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Stop Putting Out Fires and Attend a Meeting

I’ve spent some discussion time recently with both collision shop owners and paint, body and equipment (PBE) wholesalers, and I’m discouraged again that many small business principals don’t have time to attend a learning event that will make their lives easier.

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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.

I’ve spent some discussion time recently with both collision shop owners and paint, body and equipment (PBE) wholesalers, and I’m discouraged again that many small business principals don’t have time to attend a learning event that will make their lives easier. Whether it’s an instructional class or a business discussion among peers, they’re too busy to plan for better outcomes in the future – because they’re occupied putting out today’s blazing fire…one that only they, apparently, can extinguish.

My first thought is always that if your physical presence at your business is so critical that you can’t be absent for a day or two or even an afternoon with advance notice, then you’re sadly the perfect candidate for a little education. All the folks who did show up learned something that made their jobs easier and/or businesses more profitable. By staying away and staying at the shop or the store, you’re all set to put out tomorrow’s catastrophic fires instead of managing your business.

Rather than touting all the benefits of the great content at any collision-related “event,” I just want to remind you of what I’ve observed in 33 years as a speaker. The best information often comes from your fellow attendees during the breaks or in the bar after the event ends. This is always where you hear, “What I wanted to say when he/she said ‘that’ was…,” and then the real-world information is revealed. I suspect that the loosening of tongues and opinions might be correlated with the alcohol as much as the unstructured peer-to-peer talk time.

So, many years ago, I facilitated an evening 20 Group meeting where we served cocktails before and during the meeting. My hope was we’d exchange those same sincere and genuine ideas and timely concerns that I’d heard traded at the big table in the hotel lounges. Sadly, what happened instead is that several folks over-served themselves almost immediately and couldn’t wait to ’splain to everyone else exactly what they were doing wrong. Not the meaningful exchanges I’d envisioned! Having learned that lesson the hard way, I instead spent all my subsequent meeting and class times trying to create an environment where the participants felt they were both welcome to and expected to contribute.

Good Presenters and Good Attendees

Over the years, when I’ve confronted those folks who stayed home to put out their current fires instead of joining me at the venue, they were usually defensive: “Yeah, but I went to one of those things once and it was stupid.” Or, “I’d planned to be there for sure, but that fire just burst right into flames as I was headed out the door.” Whatever their reasons, the bottom line is they missed an opportunity to learn something about their own business.

Auto paint manufacturer classes, collision or PBE distribution industry trade events and any auto body peer-to-peer group contacts are the places they’ll be talking about what your firm does to earn its money. I’m confident there are great learning events where the discussions are about being a better leader generally or exactly capturing all the tax savings possible or even how to feng shui your office furniture, but the ones that will make you money tomorrow are the ones specifically about our business.

Sadly, I can’t make every event speaker or discussion leader good at it, sorry. I do suggest that you can be the type of attendee who gets the most out of every program regardless of the talent at the front of the room.

The first and most important trick is to show up. Then, speak up. When the speaker asks, “Any questions?” ask some. When the facilitator asks for a good idea to solve a common problem, volunteer your solution to it. One thing that will make you a welcome participant is to keep the cross-talk to a minimum. When the attendee next to you whispers a snide comment or asks your advice about something, refrain from starting another conversation at the same time the group is having one. Some of my past 20 Group victims contend my tombstone should read, “One discussion please!”

In my experience, the people who departed any industry event with written notes and action items based on what they heard there are very likely to implement some of them. Those who were there and didn’t take any notes or bother to pick up the handouts probably got something useful out of their time but are less likely to make an actual change in their business. And those folks stuck back at the shop/store fighting the morning fire got nothing.

Plan to Succeed

The classes, meetings and collision industry events I’m describing are a two- or three-time-a-year thing. The discipline and pre-planning required for those occasional opportunities to make your business better are absolutely time and effort well spent. Setting aside some manager’s planning time more frequently is the mark of a good executive. Daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly will do in my book. The trick isn’t the frequency of the planning time, it’s the discipline to actually stop beating out today’s flaming problems and plan to prevent them tomorrow. During the assigned planning time, turn off the phone and turn on your imagination. What’s the number-one problem with your business? Once you can answer that, you can plan to correct it.

Over the years I’ve led many classes with owners and managers in the seats, I started every time with my best tip: Pause on solving today’s specific problem long enough to develop a viable solution and (best tip follows…) WRITE IT DOWN. From how to handle the receptionist’s request to take time off to see her daughter’s school play to the best way to get the cars off the tow truck’s hook in the back lot to who will be responsible for making the coffee during the day, writing down the solution and distributing it to those affected by it is a very effective way to manage a business. One-time solutions with no documentation leave the same problems to ignite another day.

Old Guy Reality

I know not everyone will see the light, but I hope that my suggestions to attend the next collision repair “event” with a positive attitude and a notepad will be adopted by many BodyShop Business readers. Likewise, the number of managers who will close the office door and specifically plan to improve their results without interruption.

I get it, fixing cars or selling paint is a full-time job. The goal, as I understand it, is to make money doing it. And someone somewhere is doing the same things your business is, but they’re making more money at it. Find out how by joining them at the next industry opportunity.

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