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Hire Front Office Staff with Sales Experience

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Dave Ludwig, owner of Prestige Auto Body in Manchester, N.H., says his shop’s closing ratio was consistently around 80 percent. Needless to say, he was shocked when it dropped by 20 points two years ago.

Ludwig asked for help at a quarterly 20 Group meeting in early 2009. His peers suggested that the problem was in the shop’s front office, proposing that the office staff didn’t have the sales skills needed to win potential customers’ business.

That spring, Ludwig got rid of a front office employee who was struggling to close sales, and hired a replacement who had sales experience. Within a year, the shop’s closing ratio was up 10 percent, sales increased $144,000, and upselling jobs had become so common that Prestige was able to drop two DRP accounts without any effect on total sales.

“You need a good cross of customer service skills and the ability to close repair jobs,” Ludwig says about successful front office employees.
More so than marketing efforts, shops should focus on increasing closing ratios, recommends Norm Angrove, senior manager of PPG value-added programs. Ample opportunities for sales are there, he says, if shops can just capitalize on them. Front desk employees with skills in both sales and customer service can do exactly that.

More Selling, More Profit

Traditionally, the shop estimator is the customer’s first point of contact. That heavy responsibility requires skill and experience at estimating, customer service and sales. Shop owners are discovering that some estimators fall short, whether from lack of ability or from being asked to do too much.

Sean Rollins, owner of RCI Collision in Warner Robins, Ga., says his estimators were struggling with too much work on their plate—supplements, walk-in estimates, DRP drive-ins. “We found it difficult to give every customer a fair shake,” he says.
Forward-thinking operators, like Rollins, are using situations like this as an opportunity to improve their business, says Angrove. They’re hiring sales specialists to focus all their energies on the customer and provide them with a positive experience, freeing up estimators to focus on getting the repair off to a good start.

In Rollins’ case, he hired two women—both with a college education in business—to take over the front office customer service duties. Rollins sent the new hires to two seminars at Central Georgia Technical College for additional sales training, which taught them how to land more jobs for the shop.

“Their main job is to take care of the customer,” Rollins says. When there’s someone in the office making the customer feel special—combined with some savvy sales tactics—the chances of securing the job greatly improve, he says.

Rollins’ move paid off. His closing ratio on customer-pay items improved by 32 percent within one year. By April 2010, Rollins reported closing 225 repair orders—$392,000 in sales—up from 147 repair orders—$262,000 in sales—one year prior.

“Having front office employees whose primary obligation is to form a professional relationship with the customer at the point of contact helps to keep our bays full,” Rollins says.

Rollins’ improvement is remarkable, but not unusual. Steve Trapp, collision services development manager for DuPont Refinishes North America, who has advised more than 100 shops in transforming the roles of the front office staff, says closing ratios routinely increase by 20 percent with sales-oriented people in place. As the office staff is able to spend more time working with the customer, they can upsell more jobs, which Trapp says typically increases gross profits by 5 percent.

An Experience to Remember

Getting jobs isn’t just about being persuasive; it’s about caring for the customer.

The customer’s experience starts the moment they walk through the door, Angrove says, and they make a judgment about the shop’s quality within the first eight seconds. Customer service skills play a strong role in influencing that judgment.

Customer-pay jobs are on the rise in collision repair, Trapp says. And when customers can choose where to have their car fixed, they tend to be rather picky. Trapp says customers pay close attention to three things:

1. Does the shop care about me, or show empathy?

2. Will the shop educate me on the process of the repair?

3. Is the shop confident about its ability to make the repair?

A few key sales tactics can help secure more jobs while establishing solid customer relationships:

• Be empathetic. Collision repair is a “grudge-type” purchase, Angrove says, meaning customers feel they have to get the work done whether they want to or not. Most shops talk about what they can do to the car, Ludwig says. “We talk about what we can do for you.”

• Know that age matters. “The sales techniques used are much different depending on the generation of the customer,” Angrove says. “The front office should be using different dialogues to successfully deal with those different generations.”

• Be open and honest. “Customers have the mindset that body shops are a shady industry,” Rollins says. His front desk people offer a tour of the shop to every customer to assure them of the shop’s quality.

• Ask for the order. Traditionally, shops have provided an estimate to a customer, and hope they will ultimately choose the shop for the repair. Angrove says the sales person in the office must feel comfortable directly asking the customer for the job. “When customers are professionally asked for an order, it’s hard for them to say no,” Angrove says.

• Know your stuff. The sales person at the front desk is the customer’s measure of deciding the shop’s quality of repair, Trapp says. If they sense that person isn’t very intelligent or well-informed on collision repair, they’re going to assume that’s how the technicians in the shop are as well.

• Get to know your customers. Today’s collision repair facility should be in contact with their customer base at least three times per year, Angrove says. He suggests acquiring the online social networks used by the customer for future communication, along with radio station preferences to help plan future advertising. “When people feel better connected to your front desk, they tend to give you information more readily that you can use to market to them in the future,” Ludwig says.

The CSI Factor

Collision repair success requires differentiating your shop from the shop down the street, Ludwig says. Customers don’t know there are many ways to repair vehicles, and repair quality varies from shop to shop. It takes a sales-minded person—with a knack for customer service—to educate and inspire the customer in order to win their business.

“Customers want to feel good about what’s transpiring with the repair process,” Ludwig says. “You need good sales people who can connect emotionally with your customers.”

You’ll see the evidence in your CSI scores. “In the past, the No. 1 customer complaint was that our office staff was not well-informed on the status of repairs,” Rollins says. After hiring new front office staff, the RCI Collision score for “kept-informed” rose nearly 10 points to a perfect 100 percent in about a year.

In shops that modify the roles of their front office staff to focus on sales and customer service, Angrove says it’s not uncommon to see a 10-point bump in CSI results.

“Treat customers like customers,” he says, not like just another estimate. “It’s salesmanship in its truest form."

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