Wednesday, 25 September 2013 22:25

Development-Appropriate Marketing

Written by Tom Franklin

A while back several new shops opened in my area. When I asked what they were doing about marketing, almost everyone said Yellow Pages and 800 number first. Some had bought into advertising mailer packages and others local magazine ads. Naturally some were focused on putting together a presentation package to send to DRP coordinators in the hope of getting insurance work. Some were also going around taking business cards to agents. Almost no one was doing any direct solicitation to get immediate jobs in the door.

It occurred to me that many shop owners believe there is a general marketing setup that everyone should include right away. It seems no one takes into consideration how marketing should differ depending on the stage of growth and development of the shop. I’ve always viewed the development of a business much like the developing stages of a trade professional: Beginner, Apprentice, Journeyman, Professional, and Leader. At each stage, both professional procedures and marketing procedures must change too.

I know of one leading body shop that runs no ads, does no phone solicitation, has no program for contacting prior customers, and has no DRPs. It is allied with multiple dealerships and has an estimating office at many of them. It employs a full-time marketing professional to maintain optimum relationships with all of the dealership principals. A shop at a lesser level of development couldn’t survive this way.

A beginning—and even what I would call an “apprentice” shop—is also unlikely to do phone solicitation. If it is just starting out and has no customer base, it won’t have a program for contacting prior customers. And it is unlikely to have DRPs at this point. The beginning shop owner needs to focus on one target public at a time. Dealerships and DRPs may be great sources of volume business, but competition is keen for these sources of business and pursuing them can be a waste of time unless the owner has friends in high places who can help get a deal. A better use of time would be direct selling: Going to mechanical shops, commercial firms, government agencies, charitable agencies, and other organizations that use vehicles that will require body damage repair from time to time is much better idea. The key principle at this point is to concentrate financial and personnel resources on specific contacts that can bring in immediate, actual work.

I would consider a “journeyman” shop one that has survived the initial critical phase — that eliminates many beginners — and is now getting organized for the long haul. Building a base of repeat customers should be primary. Gathering in-depth information from each new customer opens the door to follow-up calls, mailings, special offers, and probing for referrals. Some limited ads may be appropriate but should not take financial resources away from commission or bonus plans that encourage estimator/salespeople to tap the customer database and referral sources for immediate new business. A shop at this point is not yet completely secure. Marketing resources can’t be wasted. Broad, long-term projects like a website and social media sites are necessary but should not take away from directly focused job-mining efforts.

The well-established professional shop is in a position to employ a wider range of marketing efforts. A steady flow of repeat customers and probable referral sources like DRPs and dealerships ensure sufficient cash flow to afford name-recognition marketing. A lesser shop would be foolish to waste money on ads that do little more than keep the shop’s name in the public eye, but at the professional level, it’s possible the owner is considering opening other locations. At that point name-recognition is essential. This might include radio and TV ads, sponsoring sports and other activities, and participating in professional groups like the Chamber of Commerce.

The leadership shop markets itself like any outstanding professional shop, but takes it a step further. The owner is likely to hold an officer position in an autobody trade association and be involved in making industry advances through CIC meetings and other venues. This is not to say that shop owners at earlier development stages shouldn’t participate in industry forums and activities. But the collision repair industry is highly competititve these days and marketing is a very costly activity. Ad salespeople with expensive promotional schemes are beating at the door all the time. Until a shop is very well established, every marketing move must produce a real job coming in the door. When enough of those jobs are sure to come, there will be plenty of time to play with those expensive ads and promotional schemes. But until that happens, it would be wise to recognize what stage of development a shop has really reached and employ marketing resources appropriately.

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