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Repeat customers, referrals and insurance recommendations are the main generators of business for many collision repair shops. But, since car accidents don’t happen regularly for most individuals (hopefully), it’s easy for a customer to lose touch with a shop, says Michelle Nelson, president of St. Louis, Mo.–based B2B Automotive Marketing.

One of the most effective and affordable ways to engrain your brand in a customer’s mind is through an email marketing campaign, Nelson says. Customers tend to prefer email messages to direct mail because it’s more convenient and less intrusive.

Nelson says most of the shops that she has helped implement an email marketing campaign are enjoying open rates far above her 10 percent benchmark, and they have very few people unsubscribe.

Those statistics are huge, she says, showing that customers aren’t irritated by the communication, and that they want to read the messages.

Build Organic Growth

David Tritz, owner of Don’s Auto Body in St. Charles, Mo., and owner of small business marketing firm Business Forward, says competition is stiff for shops like his that attempt to grow outside of direct repair programs (DRPs). Non-DRP shops, he says, need to have great focus on branding and name recognition.

“The point is to continue our branding and keep our name in front of them. It’s kept us in a state of awareness with existing customers and agents in our market so we can continue to be in the game.”
—David Tritz, owner of Don’s Auto Body

“The more you touch previous customers, the better chances you have at retaining them and increasing word-of-mouth to land new ones,” he says. “For shops that choose to work outside of DRP relationships, email marketing is an important tool they need to look at.”

Tritz took his own advice when he revamped his marketing strategy in 2009, which included implementation of separate email newsletters for his customer base  and his local insurance representatives. And he says the newsletters have delivered astounding results—open rates of more than 20 percent and annual unsubscribe rates of less than 1 percent.

He’s diligently tracked the business impact, too. Although Tritz won’t share exact numbers, he confidently says the effort has played a significant role to incrementally increase retention and referral rates, and ultimately, work volume and revenue performance.

“The point is to continue our branding and keep our name in front of them. It’s kept us in a state of awareness with existing customers and agents in our market so we can continue to be in the game,” Tritz says. “It’s become a big part of our overall marketing program and sales technique to drive business to the front door.”

The Newsletter

Nelson says there are several types of communication that shops can send via email, but the most successful initiative for collision repairers are email newsletters. She suggests developing separate one-page newsletters for both customers and local insurers that are thoughtful and valuable for each target audience.

Customer Newsletter: Nelson says a newsletter targeted at customers shouldn’t strictly focus on issues about fixing cars or direct shop promotions. Those types of things are boring and turn viewers off. It’s much more effective to focus on things that are “fun and interesting,” sometimes items that have nothing to do with your business.

Image courtesy Don’s Auto Body

“People don’t need collision repair services all the time, so they generally don’t care about specials or deals,” Nelson says. “What keeps them interested and engaged with the newsletter is providing information that’s interesting to them in the area where they live.”

Tritz’s newsletter—which is distributed six times annually (every other month) to his database of more than 2,000 customers—is focused on the community and customer service. The newsletter includes (1) events happening in the neighborhood, local news, (2) driving tips, safety tips, humorous quotes or jokes, employee photos, and even (3) cooking and grilling recipes. Tritz also created a section called (4) “Ask Dave” where subscribers can ask questions that Tritz responds to directly.

“It’s not always just a selling point and telling people how good we are,” Tritz says. “We base it on the community—things that are interesting to our clients.”

Of course, Tritz also includes a few business items, such as community service initiatives, customer testimonials, links to social media accounts, employee photos, and links to the shop website.

SIMPLE IS BETTER: Tritz keeps his insurer newsletters narrowly focused. Image courtesy Don’s Auto Body

Insurance Newsletter: The newsletter targeted at insurance representatives, Nelson says, should have a much different approach. The insurance newsletter should be focused on business elements and valuable services they receive working with your shop.

Tritz distributes his insurance-targeted newsletter six times per year in the months when he doesn’t send a customer newsletter. It’s a brief piece of communication that highly promotes the shop’s brand, customer service initiatives, and other value-added services that differentiate his shop from the competition.

“The goal is to touch base with the agency, reinforce our name and let them know we’re still here,” Tritz says, noting that’s helped solidify several non-DRP insurance relationships and referrals.

Distribution Tips

Here are seven tips to help make your email newsletters as effective as possible:

1 Build an email Database. Email marketing only works if you have an extensive list of email addresses at your disposal—information that your office staff should capture for every customer.

Tritz says there are services available that let businesses purchase email addresses. That’s not recommended, though, because it delivers very low open rates and considerably higher unsubscribe rates.

“It’s best to target messages to your existing client base,” he says. “Those people have already had an experience with you. If you delivered a pleasant experience, they’re much more likely to take a look at your communications.”

2 Assess Your Services. The elements included in the newsletter could vary from shop to shop depending on the type of operation and services offered, Tritz says.

For example, you may be able to promote special deals or coupons if your shop offers things such as mechanical repair, wheel alignments or details. You may also be able to promote customer-pay jobs such as paintless dent repair (PDR), paint touch-ups or headlight restorations.

3 Consider Your Business Partners. Tritz suggests defining your segments of business interaction to identify target audiences that would benefit from regular email interaction. This would also be valuable if your shop derives business from fleet or dealership relationships.

4 Limit the Frequency. Nelson suggests sending a maximum of one email message to each target audience on a monthly basis to avoid overloading their inbox. Messages sent too frequently are perceived as spam, turn people off, and cause viewers to unsubscribe.

5 Keep It Short. The newsletter shouldn’t be more than one page long, Nelson says. Viewers should be able to scan it in five minutes or less.

6 Get an Email Management System. Businesses aren’t able to put thousands of email addresses into standard email accounts and blast them out because spam laws prevent them from going through. Shops must either work with a third-party organization to handle large email blasts, or purchase a software system that allows the sending of mass messages.

7 Get Help. Tritz acknowledges the e-newsletter would require hours of work for shop operators to put together on their own. To free up his time, Tritz has found it more effective to work with an outside marketing agency that writes, produces and distributes every edition. He provides the company with ideas and concepts of what he wants to accomplish and they take care of the rest.

Track Your Results

Nelson says a strong benefit of email marketing is the ability to quantitatively track results. Although it may take time to start seeing a sales return on your investment (a cost that varies depending on the size of your audience, frequency of messages, and email service provider you work with), you’re able to immediately track engagement levels.

After implementing an e-newsletter campaign, Nelson recommends paying close attention to open rates and click rates. Analyze the Web browsers the emails are opened in, who opened it, how many people viewed it, links that viewers clicked on, the amount of time viewers spent looking at it, the number of clicks to your website, and the amount of time spent on your website. She also suggests reviewing names of people who choose to unsubscribe.

That information, Nelson says, helps tweak your messages over time in order to send the most valuable information that will capture attention.

Nelson says shop operators should wait roughly 11 days after sending a newsletter blast before assessing success of the campaign. From her experience, she says it takes up to 11 days for consumers to view the messages, so waiting that amount of time will deliver the most accurate statistics.

Keep At It

Although effective, email marketing is an ongoing initiative, Tritz says. It’s not a silver bullet that will deliver results after just a few months. You never know when wrecks will occur, so this is about constant contact for the long haul to build brand awareness.

“You need to look at this as part of an ongoing process to increase sales on a steady, incremental basis,” Tritz says. “You have to do this proactively to improve your chances of repeat and referral business.” 

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