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Lessons from an Australian Shop

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In November, the Australian Associated Motor Insurers and Australasian Paint and Panel magazine announced the winners of the 2009 Autobody Repairer of the Year Awards, giving shops across Australia props for their repair work and customer service. Westside BMW Bodyshop of Queensland won the national honor in the small shop category (fewer than 12 employees). The shop has been in business for only a year, and the pros at Westside know the real reward is seeing business grow at a faster clip than expected.

In a typical week, the shop repairs 20 to 25 cars. Thanks to steady growth, managing director Scott Wiseman expects that figure will soon hit 35 to 40 cars a week. The repair facility is about 7,500 square feet, and its car park (the lot where vehicles wait to be repaired) is about 8,600 square feet. On staff, there’s a general manager, an office manager, two repair technicians, two refinish (paint) technicians and a quality control person.

So how’d this small shop get so good, so fast? Wiseman offers up eight explanations:

No. 1 A Little Help from Its Friends

Westside BMW Bodyshop can thank the Westside BMW dealership for some of its success. The Westside body shop is about a five-minute drive from the dealership, and it’s one of the dealership’s two preferred repairers. The dealership itself is 5,000 square feet, and it’s located in Darra, which is a southwestern surburb of Brisbane—a city of about 2 million people near the southern coast of Australia in the Queensland province. So this is no small market.

The connection between dealership and autobody shop has been strong from day one. That’s because the body shop was actually the dealership’s idea. Two years ago, a similar BMW dealership-bodyshop relationship was successful in Brisbane. When the owners of the dealership there developed their plans to open Westside BMW in Darra, about a half-hour drive away, they approached Brisbane BMW Bodyshop with a proposal. “They wanted a shop in the [Westside] area so that they could accommodate those new customers similarly,” Wiseman explains.

No. 2 Insuring Excellence

The symbiosis between Westside BMW and Westside BMW Bodyshop has meant good customer service offerings for the dealership, and frequent referrals for the body shop. In fact, record sales in some vehicle models in the past year—despite the economic turmoil—have meant even more referrals than expected for Westside.

That’s less than 40 percent of the success story, however, because the dealership opened just months before the body shop started taking clients in August 2008. But the dealership hasn’t been around that much longer than the body shop. About 60 percent of Westside’s business comes from insurance company referrals. (Westside is a “selected repairer”—similar to DRPs in the United States—for one insurance company, and a “referred repairer” for three others.)

No.3 Discerning Customers

Between 65 and 70 percent of vehicles that come through Westside’s doors are BMWs or BMW brands like MINI Coopers. The rest of Westside’s business tends to come from prestige manufacturers, like Cadillac. “We get the high end even on the nonprestige cars,” Wiseman says. “But it’s the person’s perception of their car that matters; it may not be a luxury car, but to them, it’s their pride and joy and it needs to be repaired accordingly.”

The stakes are high in the prestige market. Any shop that primarily repairs cars that have been billed as “the ultimate driving machine” has to be prepared to offer a level of quality that other shops might not have to match. And for Westside, customers’ expectations are already high before they ever reach the shop.

“If a client damages their pride and joy, whether it’s a $150,000 or a $30,000 car, their first point of contact is often the dealership,” Wiseman explains. “The people who buy a BMW or another prestige car are fairly discerning and have high expectations already, so when they are referred to Westside Bodyshop through the dealership, they expect the same level of service and quality that they’re used to from the dealership.”

No. 4 Comforting Familiarity

Westside was built from the ground up to match the dealership’s offerings, from service to craftsmanship and even physical appearance. The reception counters, furniture, color schemes and floor tiles give the shop a look that is every bit as professional and state-of-the-art as the dealership. “We got the list of specifications from the dealership as it was being built so we were able to match the paint colors they used—not just gray and white,” Wiseman says, “but the right shade of gray and white.”

More important than the look and feel of the shop, of course, is the quality of the repairs it delivers. In planning the shop’s day-to-day operations, Wiseman started with the standard operating procedures used by the Brisbane BMW Bodyshop, which is the Westside BMW Dealership’s other selected repairer.

No. 5 Ample Education

To earn the BMW Approved designation, Westside’s techs attend BMW training. BMW conducts model-specific training each time a new model comes out, and the training covers every inch of the new vehicle: its structure, how it’s manufactured, the various components, the types of metals used in each area of the car. The techs also go to I-CAR training; for example, they just completed I-CAR’s welding qualification testing.

They also have access to BMW’s technical information system and can punch in the VIN for any car that needs to be repaired to find out that car’s equipment levels and proper repair techniques.

No. 6 Equipment to Vie For

Westside’s techs aren’t alone in seeking BMW Approved status. The shop itself has credentials to keep up. To earn that designation, the repair center is equipped to meet the specifications required by BMW. On the list: alignment jigs, welding equipment and paint ovens. Westside has two Car-O-Liner SPEED benches, a jigging system, an inverter welder, an infrared overhead rail system, a water-recycling system, one paint booth, two prep bays and various tools specific to BMW.

No. 7 No-Compromise Conversations

No different than U.S.-based collision repair centers, Westside sometimes has to educate insurance company representatives about the difference between standard repairs and repairs for the luxury market. “We have to repair the car the way BMW tells us to or it could create a warranty issue for the car,” Wiseman says. “Insurance companies sometimes want us to use a different method than is recommended, and we [have to] explain that if they want to do it that way, they’ll have to sign off on it and take responsibility for that decision.”
Wiseman says the Australian motor vehicle insurance market—again, like that of the U.S.—is under tremendous pricing pressure. “It’s a competitive industry, which can sometimes drive insurers to compromise on quality repairs in order to offer lower costs,” Wiseman explains. “So they might engage repairers outside their Preferred Repairer networks, or they might source aftermarket and non-genuine parts, and use non-manufacturer-approved repairers.”

In a nod to insurers, Westside works to stay conscious of price, but there’s no compromising on making repairs that satisfy owners and keep them safe. “Our core principle is to provide exceptional quality in reinstating damaged vehicles to pre-accident condition and providing unsurpassed service to our customers,” Wiseman says.

No. 8 Managing Expectations

The increasing volume of cars coming in for repair presents something of a challenge to Westside. The added business is a blessing, but to get it done in a way that satisfies that commitment to quality is a challenge. So Wiseman carefully monitors workflow. “That last detailing and quality control are really important; they’re the end result that the customer actually sees,” he says. “If we fail in those areas, we might have done great repairs and a great paint job, but the customer will remember that we were late or that we missed something.”

That’s why Westside works to manage customer expectations, especially for how long the repairs might take. “We won’t compromise quality in order to get that one extra repair out the door for the day, and that is something we always stress with our customers,” Wiseman says. “Our customers are willing to wait a bit longer to get their vehicle back in pristine condition and as the manufacturer intended. More often than not, the quality of the repair outlasts any inconvenience caused by the wait.”

Holly Dolezalek is a frequent contributor to FenderBender.

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