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Thursday, 26 August 2010 17:28

'Bird Dogging' -- Guerilla Tactics for Small Body Shops

Written by Tom Franklin

Some say the recession is over, but from my observations, that recovery hasn’t trickled down to most body shops yet. I see the large shops going after the incidental jobs that used to sustain smaller shops. When some of their DRP work slows down or dries up, they begin to look for ways to pick up jobs that normally went to their smaller competitors.

I’ve written before about the owner of a small shop in my area who had a direct guerilla strategy for times when business was slow. He drove over to the local college and walked around the parking lot looking for damage on the Lexuses, BMWs and Mercedes affluent parents had purchased for their college-age kids. He would write a rough estimate on the back of one of his business cards and stick in by the driver-side door handle and lock. He told me he always picked up a few jobs to get through a slow time.

I’ve suggested a similar tactic to one of my clients who has come under attack by large competitors who are trying to capture the authorized collision repair status he has enjoyed for many years. At this point he needs a guerilla strategy to counter the big shop warfare advantage he faces from competitors who employ top professional marketing attack dogs. The approach I’ve suggested is an expanded version of the college parking lot solicitations. I described this briefly in an article in 2008, but the economic climate today calls for a more powerful version of this guerilla tactic.

The key to the success of the strategy is numbers. Sales organizations like Amway would call it “feet on the street.” Multi-level marketing programs depend on large numbers of sales people making thousands of small sales. Ironically the tough economy makes it possible for a small body shop to recruit one or two dozen fairly good “bird dog” sales people to be out hustling jobs. Dealerships and competing body shops have gone out of business in many areas, leaving numerous collision-repair trained people out of work. It’s not likely these people would work for straight commission under normal circumstances but in this economy any additional income would be welcome.

I’ve found the main objection to implementing a program like this is the fear of being represented by individuals whose appearance or demeanor would reflect badly on the image of the shop. During affluent times applicants for this kind of non-salary work might be social dropouts or even homeless types, but the ranks of the unemployed today encompass the full spectrum of skills and abilities. The shop owner can be in a position to pick and choose from higher quality prospects.

Another concern is liability. A well-designed independent contractor agreement is essential to stipulate that the “bird dog” is merely soliciting prospects to come in to the shop for an actual estimate and not empowered to make any firm offer or contract for the shop.

With the shop thus protected from liability, it’s now necessary to protect your “bird dog” from exploitation or unfair conflicts. The best protection is a carefully constructed estimate/business card that specifies the fact that the estimate is not a firm offer. The card must also contain a unique code number for the “bird dog” so he or she will get proper credit for the job if it comes through.

It’s also essential to create another level of commission protection. Not every prospective customer will bring in the estimate card with the code. To be certain the right person gets credit, it’s best to create specific territories. Since the best areas to canvas for damaged vehicles are large parking lots, specific malls, college lots, department store and grocery store lots, these should each be assigned to a definite individual. It then becomes the responsibility of the shop front-desk person or estimator to ask where the customer learned of the shop and to carefully note the answer to prompt proper credit for the referral source.

Once a crew of reliable “bird dogs” has been assembled, it’s necessary to train them on writing the rough estimates they will be placing on damaged vehicles. A cheat sheet with three levels of fender damage, bumper damage, hood and other outer panel damage pricing should provide the “bird dog” with the ability to quickly decide if a damaged fender calls for a low-ball economy model price, a mid-range price, or a high-end vehicle price. Keeping in mind that the card clearly states this is an approximation and not a firm quotation, the real goal is to get the prospective customer to come in for a real estimate.

In addition to the obvious benefit of bringing in jobs, there is the long-term possibility that each new customer will become a customer for life. And there is the added possibility that a “bird dog” will find sufficient satisfaction in the job to continue working for the shop full-time, or just continue working in the industry.

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