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One thing I have learned in this industry is that you can’t get the right answer if you ask the wrong question or the wrong person. Quite a while back I asked a number of shop owners what they thought was the most important thing they could do to grow their business faster. At the top of their list was, “Get relationships with more referral sources, like insurance companies or dealerships.”

“As useful as a website might be to determine the qualities of a shop, there’s nothing like a direct conversation with a shop owner who is willing to answer questions about achieving his or her success.”

My next question was “How would you go about doing that?” A frequent answer was, “Get better equipment, like a new frame machine, spray booth, etc.” Another had to do with fixing up the appearance of the shop: Nicer furniture, better front desk, a new paint job or siding on the buildings. I said, “Who did you ask that gave you these suggestions?” I wasn’t surprised to hear that the advice came from a frame machine salesman, a spray booth vendor, and an office furniture representative. Other advice came from ad sales people who suggested running expensive ads. To reach insurance executives? Not in a million years! These may not have been the right people to ask!

But who could supply this kind of information? Certainly not the competition! Probably the best source for this kind of info is the person who has successfully developed these relationships, but they’re not going to be in your own backyard. I’ve found shop owners remarkably willing to share how they succeeded—just not with close competitors.

One clue as to how much can be accomplished by checking out successful shops in other areas might best be summed up by a viewpoint Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., shares in his book, Sam Walton: Made in America. Walton says that when he was first starting in business, one way he tried to make up for a lack of experience and sophistication was to spend as much time as possible checking out the competition. Walton’s brother Bud, who was equally responsible for the astonishing growth of the company, was once quoted as saying this of Sam: “There’s not an individual in these whole United States who has been in more retail stores . . . all over the world. He’s been in stores in Australia and South America, Europe and Asia and South Africa. There may not be anything he enjoys more than going into a competitor’s store trying to learn something from it.”

Fortunately, a collision shop owner isn’t competing with shops in other states or countries and that opens the door to asking the best of them how they did it. It’s also fortunate that in our day you don’t have to travel all over the country or the world to check out other shops. The Internet provides easy access to the world of any shop with a website.

While most sites won’t publicize their volume of business, there is often a listing of which insurance companies they have a direct repair relationship with and which dealerships have made them their authorized repair facility. A site may also reveal other sources of business you wouldn’t have thought of. If you can get an answer from the top person at one of these shops, you could be well on your way to learning how to grow your shop faster.

As useful as a website might be to determine the qualities of a shop, there’s nothing like a direct conversation with a shop owner who is willing to answer questions about achieving his or her success. It could be time to make a phone call or even a visit if possible. At this point, however, you’d better have something of value to offer too. If you’re at the point in your business where you are looking to expand, you have obviously found some ways to beat your local competition. It would be wise to approach this conversation with some valuable tips of your own. Your equipment salesperson may have been right about the need for updated equipment, but possibly not what he or she sells. Your office furniture vendor might have been right too, but getting an outside viewpoint from someone with a highly winning track record could make all the difference. 

Some shop owners I’ve talked with weren’t much interested in attending NACE or SEMA or other industry trade shows. But I also know shop owners who have returned from a trade show having talked with some very successful industry leaders, who told me they came away with specific actions they could take that would increase volume and profitability immediately. Very often the most valuable information was an inside view of exactly who to pursue at your chosen referral source company and what approach might give you the best chance for getting your desired relationship. When you ask the right question of the right person, you have a very good chance of getting the right answer.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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