Saturday, 30 April 2005 17:00

How shop owners distinguish themselves from the competition

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Here's your assignment: Pretend you have 45 seconds to talk about your business in front a group of people you'd love to have as customers. Could you tell them something that's unique about your business, something that no other shop in your area could or is likely to tell them? 

Looking elsewhere for inspiration

"Branding" experts say it can sometimes be easier to think about how a business in another field could build a brand than it is to see how to set your own business apart. Sometimes you're "too close" to your own company or industry to see how it could be viewed by potential customers.

So thinking about how other businesses "brand" themselves may be an easier first step to finding your own shop's unique place in the marketplace. How, for example, would you like to be competing in the fast-food arena? Talk about price pressures, cycle time concerns and employee turnover issues!

One fast-food burger chain in the Pacific Northwest, however, realized it couldn't excel at the same things McDonald's and Burger King are focused on. Yes, it still has to offer consistently-prepared and reasonably-priced food quickly. But it recognized that Northwest consumers would wait a bit longer and pay a bit more if the chain's menu offered Northwest-grown food: Walla Walla (Wash.) onion rings, fish and chips featuring Pacific-caught halibut, and Tillamook cheeseburgers made from grain-fed Oregon cattle raised without the use of hormones, antibiotics, genetically-modified grain or any animal by-products.

Is what they're offering all that different? To a degree, yes, but it's still fast-food and not going to be confused with the quality found at higher-priced sit-down restaurants. But by playing up the menu differences in the chain's marketing, they aren't getting beat out of the market by the larger burger chains who may offer their customers faster drive-through lines or cheaper "value meals."

So if you're stumped about what makes your shop different, think about why you choose the companies - large and small - that you do business with. That may help inspire your own "branding" effort.

If you could, chances are that whether you knew it or not, you've built a "brand." You've built a business that isn't "generic." It stands out from the others in some way. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the largest, the most profitable, the fastest- growing, or even the highest quality shop in the market, although it could be. It just means you've figured out that the only way to set yourself apart in the minds of potential customers and referral sources is to do or say something that your competitors are not.

If you can't quickly recite what you would use that 45 seconds to tell others about your business, you're not alone. Building a "brand" isn't always quick or easy. But here's a look at how some collision repair shop owners have done it.

Most of these owners say their "brand" has evolved over time and wasn't necessarily something they set out to create. But it seems clear that much of their success now comes because everything they do - their advertising, the look of their facility, their hiring decisions, even in some cases their choices of equipment and paint and other products - is now driven by that "brand" they want to protect and cultivate.

Building a niche

From a shop layout perspective, Metro Auto Rebuild faces some unique and substantial challenges. The business has plenty of office and production area - 32,000 square feet in all - but that includes space on two different levels in each of two buildings across the street from one another. And the business, tucked into downtown Seattle neighborhood, does not have as much as a single stall of outside parking or storage space.

But shop owner Doug Woods and general manager William Parkins appear to have overcome such challenges. The company, which also has a second shop in a near-by community, has 70 employees and annual sales of about $12 million.

That success is based in large part on building a niche by marketing itself as specialists in the repair of high-end luxury vehicles. Part of that process is staying in a location, that despite some drawbacks, is close to BMW and Mercedes owners, and the dealers who refer much of the shop's work.

"We've carried on those relationship for decades and through different [dealership] owners," Parkins said. "The reason we've kept those relationships is first and foremost that we are familiar with those cars. We send our techs to school to be trained on those cars. And we understand their client base. When you spend as much on a car as you could a small house, you expect certain things: Service, above and beyond. And quality - there is no 'maybe,' no 'close enough.' And those two things are specifically what we gear this shop toward."

Make the investment

Parkins said earning BMW or Mercedes shop certifications is not easy or inexpensive. In can require paying more to get certain brands of tools or equipment, and in some cases may mean buying a new tool or piece of equipment even though what the shop had was likely adequate.

"Yes, you have to buy their tools," Parkins said. "There is an investment, certainly. But if you're going to invest in downdraft booths, prep stations, water filtration systems, paint mixing banks, computers and management systems, why stop? If you're going to invest in all that, you're spending at least a half million dollars and you're not going to spend $50,000 more? I say, if you're going to do it, do it all the way. Would you wear a beautiful Armani tuxedo with white gym socks? C'mon. It doesn't work that way."

Jim Stevens Auto Body in Portland, Oregon, has built a niche brand is a slightly different way. In order to keep a competitor from moving into his neighborhood, Jim Stevens purchased a shop that was for sale even though it was within just four blocks of his first location. Steven's partner and a former employee who now own and operate the business run the two shops almost autonomously by marketing to different niches: One location tends to focus more on the fleet work the business attracts, while the other handles more of the insurance work that flows from nine direct repair agreements.

Size not an issue

But branding doesn't require becoming a huge, multi-location company. Just ask Mike West, whose seven-employee, 6,500-square-foot shop has been on the same corner in the Seattle suburb of Tukwila, Washington, for more than 30 years.

"You look at these megashops or consolidators, and we have distinct advantages over them," West says of smaller shops. "Some people actually want to know the people who are repairing their car. Some people like that personal attention. When I go somewhere that I've been doing business for 30 years, it's nice that they know my name when I walk in. We have customers like that. We trade on that fact. We created a niche market in our area."

While he sees now that he's built a brand for his business, he didn't set about going after a particular niche.

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"In fact, I never really used to understand what that term niche marketing meant," West says. "I thought it meant focusing on one type of car or a certain part of the market. But for smaller shops, it can mean you're creating a niche market of people who like that personal attention."

With the continued growth of mega- shops, local and regional consolidators and multi-location collision repair businesses, smaller shops are likely to face even tougher competition in the future. But there will always be a place, West believes, for smart operators of all size shops who build a brand focused on quality work, personalized service and continuous improvement and marketing of their business.

"When people come in to get their car fixed, they like to be recognized, they like the attention, they like the fact that they think you're the one who is working on the car and fixing it yourself and checking it out," West said. "You should capitalize on that for all you can, because it's getting to be rarer and rarer."

Offering it all

Ken Stanley didn't want his customers to think of his Flagstaff, Arizona, business only every seven years when, on average, they had their next accident. So he changed the company's name from Competition Collision Center to Competition Auto Supercenter and plays up the fact that the shop can handle a wide range of automotive needs.

The one-stop-shopping approach works well, he said, because over time customers are learning they can call Stanley's business for towing, detailing, glass repair, mechanical repair and even truck bedliners. It gives his collision repair customers a reason to come back long before their next accident, he says, and helps him capture the eventual collision repair work for those who first come in for one of the other services he offers. The more you offer, you more opportunity you also have to upsell a customer, he says.

Now it's your turn

You might not ever get that hypothetical 45 seconds to talk about your business in front a group of potential customers. But every time you meet others in your personal and professional life, you often have about that much time to talk to them about what you do.

The collision repair business operators in this article have determined how they'll use that 45 seconds to talk about their "brand," the things that sets their business apart and helps make it memorable and appealing to prospective customers.

Are you ready for your next 45-second "branding" opportunity?

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.

 

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