Proactive (adj.): Pro: An argument in favor of something, supporting the affirmative side, while "con" supports the negative. Pro: (Informal) Abbreviated form for "professional." Pro: Indicates before, in time or position. Forward.
The typical body shop tends to be a reactive enterprise. Generally it only springs into action when someone brings in a vehicle with body damage. Even then, the actions are primarily reactive. They capture the customer and vehicle information and they contact the customer's or the claimant's insurance company. It isn't until it's time to order parts and to assign work that the shop owner or manager begins to become "proactive."
What is proactive about ordering parts or making work assignments? The fact that the individual has a choice. He or she can now use intelligence and judgment to select the most cost-effective part, or to assign the work load most efficiently and effectively. This is especially true of selecting recycled, reconditioned or aftermarket parts.
The problem with taking a reactive stance to running a business is that something outside of one's control must occur before one can react. If no one brings a vehicle to the shop, there is nothing to do. If only the necessary minimum information is gathered, the process will only be a reactive routine. If all parts selection is determined by an outside source (like an insurance company or an inflexible rule) the process will only be a reactive routine.
Proactivity calls for greater choice with more responsibility, seizing the initiative to create a superior outcome.
Proactivity in marketing
These days very few shop owners sit back and wait for a customer to come in. Most owners and managers seek relationships with insurance companies, fleet management companies, local commercial enterprises and more. But once a few relationships are established, the tendency is to sit back and settle into a reactive routine. Real proactivity calls for continuously creating a more favorable relationship, soliciting more jobs, checking to see if the shop's work is regarded favorably or if some improvement is needed.
One shop owner I know takes someone to lunch nearly every day. It may be a DRP director or fleet manager, but it also may be a paint vendor rep, an insurance adjuster or a parts vendor. He regards every dealership he patronizes for parts as a potential source of jobs. He considers every adjuster a potential ambassador for the quality of his shop. When soliciting a new DRP relationship, he refers back to favorable comments by the various adjusters and customers who carry that line of auto insurance.
Another shop owner regards every customer as not only a potential referral source, but also as a point of connection to that person's employer, company or professional group. He tells his estimators and front desk people that it's essential to not only get the vehicle and contact information, but to also ask for occupation, employer or company, group or community affiliations and e-mail address if they have one. This added information opens the door to a wide variety of proactive marketing actions.
Generating word-of-mouth referrals
Most shop owners to whom I speak tell me their best source of business is prior customers and referrals by prior customers. But if all a shop owner does is sit back and wait for a customer to have another accident or refer someone to the shop, once again he or she is mainly reactive, not proactive.
Is there a proactive way to promote more word-of-mouth referrals? Of course! I provide numerous ways in my book, "Top 40 Marketing Tactics for Body Shops." Here's just one.
Consider giving a gift certificate for a restaurant, department store, movie theater or sporing event to honor holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. That gift certificate has added value for the theater, restaurant or other vendor. Once you went there to collect the value given on the gift certificate, there is a chance you would go back and possibly even become a steady customer. If you have your desk personnel ask customers for their favorite restaurant, movie theater or hair salon, you will also know which gift certificates will be most appreciated.
What is the dollar value of an interior and exterior complete detail at your shop? Would someone enjoy receiving a gift certificate for a complete detail at your shop? Of course you could sell these gift certificates. Or you could offer them as give-aways at a radio station or for a school or chamber of commerce drawing.
Or you could give one to every customer whose repair exceeded $2,000, encouraging the customer to either use it in the future, or to give it to a friend or family member. Now the certificate becomes a tool to encourage a word-of-mouth referral. When that certificate comes back, it's now your proactive job to up-sell the detail job with some paid-for dent and ding repair prior to the detail.
Proactivity in customer relations
Personal, family and business demands seem to increase all the time. Many people are under a lot of pressure, both in financial matters and also in time constraints. No one seems to have enough time to do it all anymore. The loss of the use of a vehicle throws most people's lives into a temporary panic. How will they get the kids to school? How will they keep their many appointments? Those who use their vehicle in business are doubly stressed by the lack of what may be their traveling office. The proactive customer relations rep goes way beyond the usual reactive routines. He or she seeks to assist the customer in coping with this major transportation element on which so much of his or her life depends.
This may be an appropriate time for a gift certificate for a free (or discounted) rental car coupon. In fact if you have a strong relationship with a rental car agency, you may be able to offer a gift certificate for two or three days of $25 car rental value even when the car isn't being brought in for repairs. One condition of collecting on the coupon value can be coming in and "registering" at your shop first. Now you have a proactive opportunity to sell a service.
Proactively become a resource
No one trusts a salesperson to tell the complete truth. Most of us would like to have an unbiased source of information to tell us whether or not we're really getting a good deal when we contract for repairs, buy a car, or purchase auto insurance. Do you have someone at your shop who is knowledgeable about these or similar concerns. If so, you may become known as a major local source of information on these subjects by having an 800 number people can call for an honest opinion. A well-known internet search engine is askjeeves.com. You can capitalize on that familiarity by using something like 800-ASK-TONY or 800-ASK-JOHN. And you can take it a step further and add a website: www-asktony.com or www.askjohn.com.
Now how do you proactively generate callers or internet inquirers? A simple but inexpensive approach can be a classified ad in many of the local throw-away publications. All you need is an inexpensive line or two:
"STOP GETTING CHEATED WHEN YOU SHOP FOR A CAR OR REPAIRS. Call 800-ASK JOHN for the straight story, or go to www.askjohn.com."
Don't just sit there. Do something!
The autobody business can be an up-and-down affair. Few shops escape an occasional downturn in business, but if you've taken the time to set up enough proactive marketing activities in advance, you'll be far more in control when the automatic sources unexpectedly decline. As one shop owner put it, "Owning a body shop is like rowing a boat upstream. The minute you stop rowing forward, the current starts dragging you back downstream."
Be proactive. And keep rowing straight ahead.
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.