Tuesday, 25 March 2014 23:57

A Missing Hat In Most Shops

Written by Thomas Franklin

By now, most shop owners know the collision repair world is changing rapidly. Last month I wrote about the Sci-Fi Shop of the Future. New materials and new smart cars require new skills and new technology. But what is changing even faster is the way people communicate with one another. Facebook’s recent purchase of WhatsApp for 19 billion dollars to enhance the mobile segment of its 1.2 billion users says that mobile communication between users may become the predominant way people communicate in the future. But how many shops employ someone solely for the purpose of connecting with this segment of the population? And is there any good reason to do so at this time?

My answer would be that it all depends on how much a shop’s business depends on connecting with relatively young vehicle owners and drivers. Older customers are usually more affluent and drive higher-end vehicles. If a shop maintains a database of at least ten years of past customers, the odds are good that more than half of those customers is older and possibly less tech-savvy. More importantly, these prior customers and their friends, families, and contacts may make up the biggest part of your future customer base outside of insurance and dealership referrals. As the new market becomes more and more tied to websites, Facebook, Twitter, and other media, the general game depends on who can come up with the most captivating message and images on the new media. But you have an advantage most new media people lack: Your ten years or more of accumulated customer contacts are a solid, experienced crowd. Now the time has come to maximize that resource.

It’s time to take a new look at your professional image. Unlike service stations and mechanical shops, your customers don’t come in for regular maintenance or simple battery and tire purchases. In a sense, they’re somewhat like the family doctor whose patients come in for annual checkups and exams. But the collision shop owner is more like a surgeon who only sees a patient when a major operation is needed. And so much of your marketing must be similar to that of the surgeon or other professionals who only see clients in extreme times of need. How do they build a reliable client base?

Many professionals must rely heavily on client referrals and contacts. To build on these, most seek to join clubs, associations, and charitable organizations that their clients frequent or belong to. If they belong to a particular religion or philosophical group, they will participate in that group to have an opportunity to meet with various members and become known as a specialist in their specific field. High-priced professionals like CPAs, lawyers, and surgeons can afford to invest serious time in developing a deeply personal relationship with a potential client. A typical body shop owner can’t afford to dedicate substantial time to any one potential collision repair customer. So how can a shop owner do the kind of depth marketing that will gain the loyalty of this kind of reliable referral source?

One shop owner in the California San Fernando Valley had a wall full of contacts. He belonged to the Knights of Columbus, the Sheriff’s Supporters League, and the American Legion. He sponsored a Boy Scout Troop, a Ladies Auxiliary, and several school sports teams. It sounded like this guy was everywhere and his volume of business attested to the effectiveness of his efforts. How did he do it? Obviously not alone. Later I learned that his sister had started a woman’s business referral service. His son was active in the business at a young age. In general, I don’t think he had paid public relations people doing any of this work, but it’s not much of a stretch to consider that possibility. Family is great if you have it, but, if not, can it be cost-effective to employ a real public relations person to handle this in-depth membership and schmoozing activity?

Many businesses calculate the lifetime value of a customer. Figuring one collision repair every three to five years generates an approximate number. But this ignores the people in that customer’s surrounding universe. The opportunity to specifically refer a repair facility just when an accident happens is quite rare. That’s why the public relations person is needed to amplify the praise of a satisfied customer in a group. This marketing person must have the ability to speak for the shop at groups, community events, company meetings, and more. He or she should be of a comparable age to the prospective customers, with a background in sales and public speaking, but with enough familiarity of the collision repair shop to present a credible story and reason to patronize the shop. As the crowd turns to social media, personal contact still has the advantage.

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