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Creating a More Comfortable Customer Experience

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When Suzy Hopkins joined her husband’s body shop business in June 2010, she immediately set about making changes. Jackson’s Body Shop, in Clarksville, Tenn., was a successful independent shop with seven employees and $1.3 million in revenues, but it had the potential to be more—more customer focused, more ecofriendly, more technologically savvy—and owner Mike Hopkins already had his hands full maintaining the business. “It was hard for him to find time to make some of the changes we wanted to make, so that became my focus,” Suzy explains.

Suzy, who joined the shop after a career as an educator, knew that finding her footing in the shop could be a challenge, so she started by making some small, aesthetic alterations to the no-frills facility: The shop’s lobby got a customer-friendly facelift with the addition of new carpet, curtains and a “customer counter” with a popcorn machine, coffee maker and mini-fridge stocked with water, juice and soda. Outdoors, Suzy made landscaping changes, including planting flowers, to give the shop more curb appeal.

But her contributions grew well beyond those aesthetic improvements, and today, Jackson’s Body Shop has experienced a two-fold transformation: a renewed focus on customer service, and the acquisition of ecofriendly practices. The result: a noticeable increase in word-of-mouth referrals and a boost to the bottom line. Even better, Suzy managed to successfully integrate herself into her spouse’s business without stepping on toes. Here’s how she helped turn Jackson’s Body Shop into a thriving family business.

Adding Sunshine to the Shop

After 19 years as a teacher and guidance counselor, Suzy was burned out. “I love working with the kids, but it just seemed that more and more it was about test scores and accountability and less about helping kids,” she says. Switching to counseling didn’t help—she found herself spending 75 percent of her time on administrative functions. “I felt like my creativity had been stifled,” she says.

“One of the main challenges I’ve had is just getting people to understand that I’m serious about what I’m doing here.”
—Suzy Hopkins, Jackson’s Body Shop

At the same time, Mike Hopkins was busy running the body shop and dealing with his own frustrations of not being able to provide the level of customer service he desired to his customers.

“After much thought, we decided that I would come work with him,” Suzy says. “He would take care of the nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day activities and I would focus on the task of creating a more positive relationship with our customers.”

The couple, married almost 25 years, was confident they could make the arrangement work. “We’ve always been able to talk to each other and work out disagreements in our personal lives,” says Suzy, whose nickname in the shop is Sunshine, “and it’s the same in our work life. They keep work-related talk to a minimum outside the shop, instead dedicating one Saturday a month to spending time in the shop together brainstorming ideas and specific plans about what they want to do next.

Even so, the decision wasn’t without some challenges—and sacrifice. Suzy says the shop’s administrative assistant, Curtis Hart, “had to learn that I was there to help and needed to learn how things were done; and that when I suggested or made changes it wasn’t a personal criticism to what [had been done] up to that point. And the guys in the back had to get used to having a woman around the shop!” Suzy gets paid for her work at Jackson’s, but it’s about half of what she made as a teacher. Still, there’s a benefit to her new position: working toward a common goal with her husband.

“It’s really been a good thing,” Suzy says. “We have a common vision and goal for where we want to go with our business, and that’s what we are both working for.”

A Customer-Friendly Focus

Jackson’s Body Shop has just one DRP agreement, so excellent customer service that leads to word-of-mouth referrals and repeat business is crucial for the shop. To rev up Jackson’s customer service, Suzy has made improvements since coming on board, including creating a website and a Facebook page; leasing a fleet of loaner cars; giving customers goody bags when they pick up their vehicles; and creating estimating packets for prospects.

Yvonne Chamberlain

While the shop doesn’t have any hard statistics or data yet to prove that such customer service strategies have been successful, both Mike and Suzy believe they’ve had a positive impact on the business. “We’ve seen an increase in our word-of-mouth and referrals from past customers,” Suzy says.

In another effort to build business, the husband and wife duo has begun advertising more, spending $1,400 a month instead of the $400 a month they used to. (The extra money needed comes from the increase in business that the shop has generated of late, along with cost savings from other areas.) Recently, they rented billboard space, started a radio ad campaign, and put ads in a local paper called The Peddler. “We’re making an investment,” Mike says. Adds Suzy: “We’ve increased [our ad spending] and have a more defined plan of whom we want to target with our advertising. Before, it was just more of a hit-and-miss situation. Mike and I have really collaborated on what type of customers we serve and how to best utilize our advertising budget to reach them.”

Creating Good Energy

Suzy, who laughingly says that her kids call her a tree-hugger, was also intent on making earth-friendly changes in the shop. “One of the things that bothered me about the body shop business is there’s a lot of waste,” she says. So first up was an energy audit, conducted free of charge by their electric company. “They have a lot of good resources and ideas,” Suzy says. “One of the main things was understanding that there’s a lot of simple things you can do that affect your energy bill.”

Among those simple changes the shop made: switching its lighting fixtures to a fluorescent lighting system that uses smaller tubes and less electricity, setting the thermostat back, and putting outside lights on sensors. Small things, to be sure, but they add up: Suzy estimates that the shop is saving about $100 a month on its electric bill.

The shop has also started recycling all of its thinners and waste materials, and Suzy and Mike are investigating waterborne paint. “We’re committed to making that change this year,” she says.

The Technology Factor

Certainly, that’s plenty of change for one woman to make in less than a year—but Suzy Hopkins wasn’t done. In December, the shop installed computerized management software (CCC Total Repair Platform with integrated estimating) from CCC Information Services Inc., a move that Suzy felt was necessary to save time and improve organization in the shop. “The main reason that we decided to add the management software is just to stay on top of what goes on here,” she says. “It will be nice to be able to look at a job from start to finish and break it down into exactly how long it took, the amount of materials used, the profit margin, [and so on]. It will provide a uniform way of doing things in all areas of the shop, from front office to body shop to paint department.”

Yvonne Chamberlain

It was a timely addition, says Pete Strawn, senior regional business manager for CCC Information Services Inc. “Today more than ever, shops need to streamline their processes and be more efficient,” he says. “[Jackson’s Body Shop] has already been successful, but now they’re moving to the next level. Being able to integrate all their processes into a single platform will give them greater control, and allow them to manage their business more effectively and provide a better customer experience.”

Hart, the shop’s administrative assistant, expected the software to allow him to be more efficient and provide better customer service. “Doing end-of-month taxes for bookkeepers will take me a fraction of the time, and I’ll be able to spend more time with customers,” he says.

Sunny, with a Side of Serious

For Mike Hopkins, bringing his wife on as a partner in the shop has simply been a good business decision. “She’s done a great job,” he says. “People can see the difference, the employees respect her and look up to her—if she’s not here, they ask, ‘Where’s Sunshine?’—and it’s freed me up a lot. Before it seemed like the company was running me instead of me running it.”

Work has been steady, without the lows the shop experienced in past years, and he says on average the shop has picked up between five and 10 jobs a month. “I attribute it to everything we’ve done,” he says.

Yvonne Chamberlain

Adds Hart: “Suzy was never a stranger to the shop—everybody knew her already. When she did start to work here, she started with minor changes and worked her way up to the big stuff, and by then everyone was excited. She didn’t step on any toes and has really made herself worthwhile.”

For Suzy, it was all part of the plan. “One of the main challenges I’ve had is just getting people to understand that I’m serious about what I’m doing here,” she says. “I [wouldn’t have] quit a good-paying job with benefits to come here if I wasn’t serious about what I thought I could offer the business and the help I could give Mike. There were some days early on that I questioned if I was doing the right thing or not, but as time has gone by I think that everyone is seeing that I’m working hard to make things better for the benefit of us all.”

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