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“What Am I to Do?”

It’s a familiar plea to me now. Whether it comes by fax, e-mail, telephone or the good ol’ United States Postal Service, the message is basically the same: “I’m a small, independent shop and I’m at my wit’s end. There are two or three shops in my area that get all the work, and I can’t get on a direct-repair program to save my life. What am I supposed to do?”

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Jason Stahl has 28 years of experience as an editor, and has been editor of BodyShop Business for the past 16 years. He currently is a gold pin member of the Collision Industry Conference. Jason, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, earned a bachelor of arts degree in English from John Carroll University and started his career in journalism at a weekly newspaper, doing everything from delivering newspapers to selling advertising space to writing articles.

Usually, the shop owner wants a short-term solution, something he or she can do right now because time is of the essence. Unfortunately, most of the solutions out there are long-term ones. But that’s life. Overnight successes are few and far in between – usually, it takes a lot of hard work and a ton of patience before anyone sees the first fruits of their labor.

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Going “lean” is a classic example. As John Sweigart said last year in our “Lean & Mean” series (replaced this year by “Lean Success Stories,” debuting in March), converting your shop to a lean process efficiency operational model is a journey, not a destination. Expect it to take a long time, and the journey to never end, but eventually you will see improvements.

Evolution is probably a wackier and perhaps completely off-base example, too. Think about how many millions of years it took some species of animals to evolve into the lean, mean, eating and procreating beasts they are today. Guess what? If they had an appendage they didn’t need, it eventually withered away and fell off. If there was an appendage they needed but didn’t have, it grew on. They got rid of the waste to make room for something a lot more useful. But it took a heck of a long time – time that some shops don’t think they have.

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I’ve said it in this column before, but I’ll say it again: Another solution is marketing, which is a lost art in the collision repair world.

“Shops have forgotten how to market,” said Lou DiLisio, president of Automotive Industry Consulting, Inc. “Twenty years ago, we all marketed to consumers. You provided a good service, you got involved in the community and did other things to get customers in the door. But shops got lazy because, with one relationship, all of a sudden they had an influx of work. And now that influx has taken a stranglehold.”
As far as marketing to insurers, I think State Farm consultant George Avery put it best when he said, “Don’t just say, ‘Hey, I used to be on your program. Can you put me back on?’ Show me something instead.”
What he’s saying is that dropping off donuts to your local insurance office doesn’t work anymore. You’ve got to show them why your shop is special – that your customer service is off the charts (and you have a verified Customer Satisfaction Index to prove it) and that your cycle time is better than the industry average because you’re super efficient.

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Thinking of marketing to consumers reminds me of last summer, when I didn’t see one float in my city’s Fourth of July parade that advertised a body shop. I used to know a guy who owned a landscape company who dressed as Santa Claus every Christmas and drove around the city in his company truck, handing out presents to children. Hokey? Maybe. Effective? With a doubt.

The bottom line is that shops have to start thinking way out of the box. I recall a Society of Collision Repair Specialists meeting last year where an Oklahoma shop owner got a bunch of other shop owners chuckling about a competing body shop in his area that also served as a taco stand. Hey, I laughed, too, but now I’m thinking maybe this guy was on to something. People have to eat lunch every day, so serving tacos is sure going to bring more customers back more frequently than waiting for them to have another wreck. It’s like Scott Biggs, CEO/founder of the Assured Performance Network, said in his article, “Ditch Your One-Dimensional Ways,” (BSB October 2007): “Body shops are a one-dimensional business in a multi-dimensional world. It’s like walking into a 50,000-square-foot Wal-Mart to find they only sell poinsettias!”

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Am I advocating that every single body shop in the United States start selling tacos? Well, not unless they’re good. But seriously, shops need to start employing this type of out-of-the-box (or out-of-the-universe, in the taco case) thinking. They also need to re-learn how to market, improve process efficiency and find a niche. That’s the long and short of it.

Jason Stahl, Editor
E-mail comments to [email protected]

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