To Ledoux, the ultimate goal of getting 1,200 shops in the program within the next 18 months seems very reachable.
"When we first launched this program in April of 2015, we heard from roughly 100 shops right away, asking 'How can we join, and what do we need to do?' We got a lot of the top shops in the country onboard quickly because they were already doing all of the things required by the program."
A lot of collision repairers were skeptical about the value of OE certifications in general, but pretty soon they changed their minds, Ledoux said. "Initially, not everyone thought that certifications were going to be around very long, but we kept telling them this is the future. This is not a fad like the hula hoop, it's going to be the way of doing things from now on. Every car manufacturer in this country has some form of a certification program, so this is obviously the direction where the wind is blowing right now."
Seven hundred shops saw the light eventually, but it took a little stiff competition to get a few latecomers into the fold, Ledoux explained. "Some shops looked down the street and saw their competitors with their ProFirst plaques and they decided that they needed to do the same. They didn't want to be left out, so they did what they had to do in order to be in the program."
To qualify for the Honda ProFirst program, shops have to meet certain knowledge and skill requirements and maintain an I-CAR Gold status. They have to use the proper equipment and their people have to be highly trained. Technicians must complete Honda/Acura specific I-CAR classes and shops also have to meet a list of requirements and pass an independent party inspection to get in, according to the American Honda ProFirst website.
With a plethora of shops that are currently working toward meeting the program's requirements, what can Ledoux tell them? "If you really want to be in the program, we are willing to help you in any way we can. The one part of the process seems to slow down when it comes to the training component. They need to be I-CAR Gold or a VeriFacts VQ or Medallion shop, and that is something that can't happen overnight. They can get the welder and are willing to do everything else, but completing the right training or becoming a VQ or Medallion shop seems to be an obstacle for some shops. So if you ever have any questions, just contact us and we will work with you, because we want good shops in the program if they qualify."
To support their ProFirst shops all over the country, American Honda has 10 reps visiting shops on a regular basis. "We have some of the best people in the industry out there in the field, and many of them are former parts directors or long-term American Honda employees. They are always out there looking for top shops in each region to be in the program, but we always want to do a careful inspection of the facility before we start the conversation. We are looking for the best of the best. "
Although American Honda is shooting for 1,200 members (which is roughly 4% of all the body shops in the U.S.) there are also geographic limitations and some regions that are already full. "At the beginning of this program, we devised a system to make sure that there aren't a bunch of ProFirst shops in one region, and now some of the smaller markets are full. We don't want to be like Starbucks, with a location on every corner. Unfortunately, some shops came to the party a little late, so they're now on a waiting list."
Once a shop successfully does the work to become a ProFirst shop, the next step is leveraging the strength of the certification through internal marketing and other efforts, Ledoux said. "We recently had Michael Anderson from Collision Advice talking to some of our ProFirst shops and he told them basically that acquiring the certification is just the beginning. Putting that plaque in a prominent spot in your shop, mentioning the certification in your ads, etc.--these are all things you should do to get real value out of your role in the program."
Ultimately, any certification program, including American Honda's ProFirst, does not bring you cars to repair unless you do your part, too. "Some members will call us and ask, 'How many cars did you bring us last year?' and we tell them, 'This is not a DRP.' We do get referrals for our shops, and consumers find them on our website, but I tell people that certifications set the table and then you need to do the rest. The insurance companies may drive cars to these shops, but it is up to the shop to retain these customers and get referrals from these customers by leveraging their status as a ProFirst shop.”