Although some shops employ a marketing person, the fact is the estimators are still the real sales personnel in a body shop. In the past, all most estimators had to do was write an estimate when a car comes in and then sell the customer on leaving the keys and the car to be repaired. In these difficult times, few shops can afford that kind of limited job description for their primary selling people.
From what I’ve been able to see, a major failing in ineffective estimator salespeople is inertia and reluctance to reach out for new business. More progressive shops are moving away from the old model where the estimator simply sat around and waited for a vehicle to come in to estimate.
Estimators are selected for their ability to communicate to a specific marketing target. One shop always has one estimator who can speak Spanish and another who can speak an Asian dialect that’s common in the area. Also one estimator is dedicated to write estimates at a local dealership, and each estimator is assigned to specialize in one of the shop’s DRP relationships. But is this enough to bring in new business?
Sadly, many estimators are not really salespeople. In a retail store they would be called “order takers.” One shop owner, who had been in business for more than twenty years, finally got a drive-in arrangement with a top insurance company. He was so happy about it, he wrote the estimates for the drive-in himself for the first couple of months. He convinced 80% of drive-in prospects to leave the keys and get their car repaired. But when the task was turned over to several different estimators, most didn’t even manage to convert 50%. What made the difference? Obviously the owner had real selling skills. The others didn’t.
Some of the consolidator shops and dealership shops I’ve visited seem to have estimators with better selling skills. I’ve asked a few what they do that closes the sale for them. Here is a brief list of some of what I was told:
● Maintaining a professional appearance, often with shirt-and-tie for men, and comparable professional attire for women.
● Sincerely complimenting a prospective customer early on, to try to establish an early emotional bond.
● Building rapport by drawing on comparable stories of accidents that happened to friends and family members. These salespeople took the time to contact many friends and family members so they would have a ready arsenal of stories to tell.
● Building rapport by stimulating a more personal level of communication. A common strategy is have photos of the estimator’s children on the desk (even if the photos are many years old, showing the children as tiny tots).
● Keeping novelty items and items of interest on the estimating desk to stimulate personal conversation or having a special toy available to occupy a child who accompanies a prospective customer.
● Posting I-CAR and other certificates of achievement near the desk to show competence and professionalism.
● Keeping an album at hand with a selection of worse wrecks than the one at hand, that were successfully restored to perfect pre-accident condition.
● Having ready explanations of technical problems in language most people can understand without becoming confused or feeling put down.
● Taking on the problems of the prospective customer, in dealing with the insurance company, providing a ride, getting a rental car if needed and helping to arrange a convenient schedule for the customer.
● Involving the prospective customer in the writing of the estimate, explaining each line, showing illustrations on the computer (if available) and generally demystifying the estimating process.
● Being well informed of what give-aways will be acceptable in a tight negotiating situation. The usual elements are car-wash, free detail, color sand and buff, or repair of minor unrelated damage.
There was one more tactic that interested me: Showing prospective customers comparable cars in the shop in the process of being repaired or beautifully completed to reassure them that the shop is capable of restoring their car to perfect, pre-accident condition.
It reminded me of an article about Marie Callender who had just died. Yes, there really was a Marie Callender. She worked in a little deli in Long Beach, California, right around the turn of the century. She started baking pies for the deli and, with her husband, soon opened a little coffee and pie shop to sell some of her pies directly. Her pie shop was very successful because she did something no one else ever did: She put her ovens right in the front window of the pie shop so people could see her baking those pies. Today this is common practice, from pizza to sushi, but Marie was one of the first to see it had great potential marketing power!
This is just one of the many strategies and tactics effect estimator-sales people have used. But given the emotional upset most people experience after an accident, perhaps this one provides very visible and tangible evidence that this is the best place to have their vehicle repaired. Even an estimator with few selling skills can use a tactic like this to advantage.