Earlier this year I wrote an article on "Going Straight to the Source for More Business" in which I suggested marketing your business directly to whomever sends you business or comes to your shop for services. But what happens when you can't get to the person who referred the business? Many shops still market their services to local insurance agents, but these days the agent has become less and less a part of the claims handling process. Many insurance companies now have an 800 direct number for reporting claims so the agent is completely bypassed. Older people may still call their agent but even they are referred to the 800 number. One Farmers agent told me if a client calls he just gives them the 800 number, saying it has made his life much easier. It may be easier for him but it makes it very difficult to send an acknowledgment.
Someone suggested that it would be appropriate to send candy or flowers to the claims handling department, but a little investigation revealed that many claims handling centers are located in far-away cities and there may be dozens or even hundreds of people in the office handling claims. It would be virtually impossible to find out which one directed business your way so you could send a personal "Thank You." When a company operates in this fashion, about all a shop owner can do is keep in touch with local representatives and send customer comments and CSI reports. Even then, a word of appreciation for their taking the time to review your reports would be appropriate.
Personal vs. impersonal "thank you"
It's common to walk into a shop and see a sign that says, "Thank you. We appreciate your business." I agree that the sign is a good idea, but is it enough? One advantage the independent shop owner has over large consolidators and corporate chain shops is the element of personal contact. That advantage can be lost if the independent shop owner doesn't take the time to personalize his or her message of appreciation.
In fact one shop I know is beginning to offer a repeat business rebate card that says "Thank You" but goes beyond "thank you." The customer can use the card to get a rebate discount if he or she has to have repairs again in the future. Or the card can be passed on to a friend or relative to get the benefit of the discount. Actually, it's not much different than a coupon but this is the day of ATM card and office supply companies have begun to issue repeat business discount cards. It can be a good way to encourage follow-up business and add real value to the "thank you." (Contact me for details if this interests you).
Thank you gifts
How effective are "Thank You" gifts? In some areas in this big city, you'd think you were in the Middle East. Bargaining and payola are common everywhere. Pay-offs go far beyond "gifts," and I've heard some shop owners complain that by the time they've paid the tow-truck driver (illegal in many areas) or "rebated" money to a dealership, there was very little profit left. In these areas it would seem a mere "Thank You" doesn't count for much. Fortunately there are still legitimate operations where cash gifts are not acceptable but an occasional expression of appreciation is welcome.
I recently went with a shop owner on a round of calls on his local insurance agents. He took along some pastry to sweeten the visits but he was surprised at how many said they were on a diet or had doctor's orders to stay away from that kind of food. Next time he thought he'd bring flowers!
One marketing person I spoke with told me the gift he brought was always accepted gladly and never rejected. I asked what that might be. He said a sincere compliment is always welcome. That may sound simple, but it can be challenging to find something to compliment certain people about. A direct compliment on appearance may sound sexist. Complimenting the appearance of the office is generally safe, or acknowledging a photo of a child on a person's desk. Many times there are plaques or certificates of acknowledgment on the wall that can be mentioned favorably. One agent had a photo of himself with a huge catch of fish on a pier, opening the way for a ready-made compliment.
A good script, the marketing guy suggested, might begin by asking how well business is going this month. If the reply is positive, he says he can compliment them by saying, "I can see why. You're always very pleasant to deal with." If business is down this month, a complimentary comment might be, "I'm sure your business will pick up. I can tell that you're a very sincere, conscientious person that clients are certain to prefer to do business with."
He said even grumpy people often brighten up when given a heart-felt compliment. He figures it's the safest and most welcome gift you can give.
Using "thank you" strategically
It seems the bottom line these days is getting business from anywhere you can. One shop with four direct repair relationships tells me his business is down. It's time to look in other directions. Local business people like to be complimented on the quality of their service vehicles, and this can be a good opening to solicit their vehicle repair work.
When you sublet upholstery, glass, alignments, air-conditioning, stereos, or other specialties, you know your vendors are dealing with many other body shops as well. When they get an opportunity to refer collision repair work, where do they refer the business? Do you get referrals from most of your sublet vendors? If not, why not? It could be that you're not offering enough in the way of appreciation, and I don't necessarily mean money.
Most of us think we've given the ultimate in appreciation when we pay the bill (especially when bills are as high as they are these days!). Unfortunately just paying the bill doesn't give you any advantage over the next guy. Find a way to add a little additional praise. Offer a heart-felt compliment. The next time that person has a referral opportunity you may be surprised to find you're the one he or she refers.
Finding every thank-you opportunity
I've mentioned this many times, but it bears repeating. Everyone who comes to your shop was sent there by someone at some time. Even your repeat customers were probably referred to you originally. There is no more valuable information you can collect than the referral source for every customer who comes to your shop. If your customer information form doesn't have a place for contact information for the referral source, it's time to add it today. Get phone numbers, addresses or e-mail addresses if at all possible. Follow-up with a "Thank You" letter at the very least and add a little reward if appropriate.
Never forget, you'll always get more of what you reinforce. Why not use "Thank You" to dramatically increase your business?
Tom Franklin has been a sales and marketing representative and consultant for forty years and is the author of the books, "Business Battlefield Marketing for Body Shops," "Tom Franklin's Top 40 Marketing Tactics for Body Shops," and "Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth." His marketing company now provides marketing solutions and services for body shops and other businesses. He can be reached for questions or comments at (323) 871-6862, by fax at (323) 465-2228, or by E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.