Running a Shop

Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Yes, the coronavirus pandemic has brought about unprecedented change. 

Not only do the TV news and social media reflect that, but, likely, so does your business’s bottom line. Change is never easy … particularly when it leaves consumers largely “sheltering-in-place.” 

But now is not the time for a woe-is-me attitude, according to collision repair experts. Actually, quite the opposite. 

It’s time to seize the moment. And the following few pages were designed with that in mind ― how to offer you guidance on not just soldiering through the COVID-19 pandemic, but emerging from the other side in a position to thrive.

CURRENT REALITIES

To date, the coronavirus outbreak’s path of impact has been rather inconsistent. Talk to industry authorities, and they’ll note that body shops in locations like Alaska and Montana have actually enjoyed a backlog of work in recent weeks. 

Conversely, some shops in the southern U.S. have gone weeks between scheduled repair appointments. 

According to Focus Advisors Inc., by late April sales at shops across the country were down 30–60 percent on average. 

Dan Risley, CCC Services’ vice president of quality repair and market development, recently noted that U.S. auto sales are dropping, and “the number of miles driven continues to fall,” since the virus’ outbreak in earnest, in March. “And we all know, historically speaking, that when the number of miles (driven) falls, the number of accidents decreases, as well. Which means less work for everybody in the industry.” 

Of course, things aren’t all doom and gloom across the industry. In that same April teleconference featuring Risley, insiders noted that, this spring, parts delays have been minimal throughout much of the country, for instance. 

Nevertheless, what lies ahead is largely uncharted territory. Traversing it will require careful planning. 

ASSEMBLING A GAME PLAN

Risley began his collision repair career nearly three decades ago, at a family-owned shop in the Chicago area. Yet, even with all those years under his belt, he’s dealing with new experiences ceaselessly these days. 

“Today, I needed to get a prescription filled, and my allergist reached out to me, said their office is closed, but they’d be willing to do a Zoom, online doctor’s appointment,” Risley noted during a recent CIECA webinar. “And those are the sorts of things that, in the collision repair space, I think will carry forward once the pandemic is over.” 

The CCC executive has taken note of the altered processes of his customers in recent weeks. In short, the innovation he learned of was encouraging. Risley says body shops are implementing the following procedures with encouraging results. 

  • Providing a contact-free customer experience
  • Increasing user technology, such as applications for photo estimating
  • Collecting electronic authorization signatures from customers 
  • Staggering employee shifts and break times, to reduce potential contact 

Yes, some of those measures include mild inconveniences. Yet, implementing such changes is neither painstaking nor, in most cases, costly. 

Burl Richards, the president of the Auto Body Association of Texas, is a collision repair lifer, who has been around the industry since he was 6 years old, tagging along as his father painted vehicles. He proudly operates four collision repair shops in eastern Texas and northwestern Louisian with an average CSI score around 96 percent. But the COVID-19 pandemic has left him calling on every bit of expertise he has to keep customers rolling in.

“As a business owner it really tries you,” Richards says. “And that’s good, because it makes you come up with contingency plans.” 

At shops like Burl’s Collision Center in Henderson, Texas, Richards has had his staff work split shifts in recent weeks, with the first unit rolling in at 6 a.m. Dedicated employees, loyal customers, and a hail storm or two left Richards’ business very close to its typically monthly car count in April, as he ended the month with 102 jobs in work in process. 

In Bluffton, Ind., Loren’s Body Shop avoided any layoffs or furloughs of employees thanks to longtime owner Greg Lobsiger’s multi-pronged approach to the economic downturn. And his tactics appear to have worked, as his shop remains on target for its yearly goal of bringing in $3 million in revenue. 

Throughout much of March and April, Lobsiger had his staff focus on the following: 

  • Consider taking on unique new jobs, such as restoration (his staff even applied clear to a local business’s fiberglass statues of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe)
  • Utilize new marketing tactics, such as digital advertising like geofencing. 
  • Strive for upsells, as well as maximizing the pay received for every operation
  • Focus on training like I-CAR courses 

    As far as the owner himself, Lobsiger has largely focused on new projects like adopting a mobile estimating app and, more than anything, trying to remain upbeat. 

    “There’s so much to the power of positive thinking,” Lobsiger says. “If you think it’s bad, and that no (customers) are going to come in, then you don’t try to figure out things you never would’ve done before, like new marketing campaigns. Because you’ve just got the attitude that ‘We may not make it.’ 

    “But staring out the window, waiting for somebody to pull in, that’s worthless; You’re not going to accomplish anything doing that.” 

Meanwhile, in southwestern Michigan, Dunshee Body & Frame owner Joe Townsend is trying to roll with the punches.  

    “I never imagined this,” says Townsend, whose shops typically combine to produce $7.5 million in annual revenue. “We were rocking and rolling” in 2020’s first quarter. 

    Townsend’s business has survived the coronavirus crisis by shifting its focus to more technological-based customer service than ever. And he suggests other shop owners follow suit. 

    “We’ve got to shift our focus,” Townsend says. “Customers these days want that. So, have a texting feature on our website. Share posts on social media—we made a 30-second video clip on Facebook, showing how, when a vehicle comes in, we’re spraying it down with disinfectant, and employees are wearing gloves and masks. 

    “You’re going to have to be ready to change on the fly. 

    Townsend lost some business in the early spring. But he didn’t lose his spirit. 

“I’m hoping, by the end of June, to be back up to 100 percent,” Townsend says of his business. “I’m starting to see some encouraging signs. I’ve seen an uptick of phone calls. 

“I think people are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

GLIMMERS OF HOPE: MARKETING OPPORTUNITIES

Where others see uncertainty and despair, Nick Schoolcraft sees opportunity. 

    “My neighbor was telling me the other day, he hasn’t filled up his car in almost 6 weeks,” recalls Schoolcraft, president of Phoenix Solutions Group, a firm that helps body shops market themselves. 

    “People aren’t driving. The car’s just sitting there. … And that would be the perfect time for someone to come in and get a repair.” 

    Schoolcraft suggests that body shop owners ramp up their marketing efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, while that might seem slightly contradictory, given that most shops are seeing less customers these days, industry experts seem to agree with the Phoenix Solutions Group executive.

    “You’re marketing to an established base,” Schoolcraft noted, so “it’s a lot easier, and a lot cheaper” than usual. 

    Now, he adds, is the time to be proactive and interact with customers more than ever. As long as a body shop staff shows empathy for customers who may have hit hard times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no reason a shop has to limp through the rest of 2020. 

    In fact, Schoolcraft feels that, if shop staffs take a handful of key steps, they can actually position their business for a surprising amount of success right now.

Strengthen customer trust. “Think about what’s going on today, and the level of stress that’s happening,” Schoolcraft says. “I think I read that Xanax prescriptions are up like 60 percent year-over-year, just purely because people are stressed out.” 

    And, the marketing expert adds, that air of uncertainty among most consumers lends an opportunity for shops to position themselves as businesses that truly care about their customers. As a result, it’s important for collision repair shops to educate customers on all elements of the repair, for example. 

    “Customer loyalty isn’t just checking boxes,” Schoolcraft says. “It’s driving a deeper, and more meaningful, connection. And, right now, is the greatest opportunity for body shops to do that.”

Use digital tools. “I think what we’re seeing in our world today,” Schoolcraft says, “is that the way we interact with customers on a daily basis is completely different. It’s very little human interaction.” 

    Some experts feel that many of the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will forever alter customer service. Consumers seem to welcome fast, pain-free correspondence with businesses. 

    “What you’re seeing is a digital transformation being sped up as quickly as possible,” Schoolcraft says. “Invest now in your digital presence.” 

    Schoolcraft suggests body shop owners focus on investing time and/or money in improving these digital elements: 

Virtual estimating tools

The shop’s online listings, noting elements like current hours of operation

Make sure keywords are associated with your website’s various pages

Create goodwill. Any interaction with customers in the weeks ahead should include an air of sympathy. After all, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, many Americans have felt the effects of furloughs, layoffs, or the weakened economy at large. As result, body shops’ marketing efforts should be expressed with concern for consumers. 

    “It should be less about driving people to you,” Schoolcraft says, “but more about what goodwill you’re providing, or what type of nuanced service that you’re going to start offering people, just to make sure they’re safe.” 

Reconnect with past customers. Seemingly more Americans than ever are working from home these days. Thus, it’s a great time for shops to take advantage, reach out to old clients via text, emails, or phone calls, and get them to cross items off their to-do list. 

    “This is a great time to reconnect with your past customers,” Schoolcraft says. “You already have a captive audience of people who are aware of the type of repairs you provide. Now it’s critical that you inform them of the difference that you’ve installed into your (customer) experience.”

Plan now for the future. Schoolcraft feels this is an ideal time to truly research your customer base via CSI surveys, to gauge what services they’ll demand in the years ahead. Because he strongly suspects that new customer service staples like the door-to-door delivery of vehicles are here to stay. 

    “If you’re not planning today, you’re going to be flat-footed when we actually come out of this,” Schoolcraft says of the COVID-19 pandemic. “How can you, as a body shop, really drive relevance to the customer? The only real way is by doing research on that customer. … And, if you’re not doing that, my suggestion would be to start.”

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