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Create a Successful Marketing Plan

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Warwick Auto Body is a small shop in Warwick, R.I.: It has just four employees and $380,000 in annual revenue. But its owners had bigger plans.

“We weren’t getting the amount of business we wanted,” says Stanis Gill, who co-owns the shop with her husband, Mike. It’s hard to spend time looking for ways to do that when you’re so focused on getting jobs out the door, she explains.

Other than a website, the Gills didn’t have any communications plan in place to attract new customers to the shop, which opened in 2006. In fact, they really had no idea how to market the business, Gill says. So they hired an industry consultant in January 2010 to help devise a plan.

The consultant advised the Gills to plan and schedule communications initiatives at least a year in advance. Budgeting the money and the time helps ensure that the plan comes to life.

So the Gills implemented a yearlong, five-pronged communications strategy that includes social media, online videos, print advertising, email interactions with customers and financial donations to the local Boys and Girls clubs.

Written Strategy Grows the Biz

Warwick Auto Body is new to the marketing world, and its small budget doesn’t allow for a six-figure communications plan like some shops can afford. It’s OK to start small; Warwick proves that even taking baby steps can lead to improvement.

“Shop owners have to understand that the benefits of
the marketing efforts they are performing today will produce
the results they desire six months down the road. It’s
important to plan ahead so your business is top-of-mind when people need your services.”
— Norm Angrove, senior manager of value added programs,
PPG Industries

The Gills acknowledge their strategies are fairly basic, but so is their overall goal: Increase market share within a two-mile radius of the shop.

So far, it’s working: the shop is on pace to earn $425,000 in 2010—a 10 percent increase from 2009. Having written a marketing plan has made all the difference, Gill says. They’re holding themselves accountable for following through. “I can see everything on paper; I know how we’re doing, and I can track the results from our strategies throughout the year,” she says.

Necessity of a Plan

The collision repair industry is notorious for hills and valleys in business, says Norm Angrove, senior manager of value-added programs for PPG Industries. Owners tend to invest in marketing only when business starts to soften. At that point, however, you’re playing catch up, and at a disadvantage.

“Shop owners have to understand that the benefits of the marketing efforts they are performing today will produce the results they desire six months down the road,” Angrove says. “It’s important to plan ahead so your business is top-of-mind when people need your services.” Angrove notes that a comprehensive communications plan softens the natural ups and downs of the business, and makes them easier to manage.

Planning ahead not only allows time to search for new opportunities, but also lets you choose specific times of the year to implement certain strategies. Chris Sheehy, president of Autobody Consulting Group, and the consultant who advised Warwick, suggests analyzing your shop’s financial forecast before setting your communications plan in stone.

“If you know you have months during the year that are historically slow for business, ramp up your communications strategies before that downturn,” Sheehy says.

Not only do you need to identify the right time for your marketing plans, you need time to bring them to life. If your timing is off, Sheehy says, your great ideas for getting noticed by customers, business partners and the community won’t be as successful as it could have been.
“To be successful, you have to prepare; marketing and communications is no different,” says Craig Camacho, marketing director for Clifton Heights, Penn.-based Keenan Auto Body. “Being better prepared allows you to create a better overall plan.” Camacho spends three months preparing before he writes the company’s final plan.

Phil Tripp, owner of Tripp’s Auto Shop in Jackson, Mich., knows how crucial it is to plan ahead. He sponsors a variety of outdoor events throughout the summer—like community barbecues and chili cook-offs. He’ll spend the entire winter organizing, planning and advertising those events to ensure they’re as successful as possible, so he’s not just throwing money down the drain.

“It’s important to go all-out and sponsor events the right way,” Sheehy says. “The events you host or endorse will develop people’s perceptions of your business.” So don’t just put something on your calendar as a date to do something. Work up to it, and market your efforts along the way.

Essential Components

Unfortunately, there isn’t any cookie-cutter approach to creating a marketing plan, Angrove says. Shop owners have to tailor their plan to the needs of their business and community.

Consider these basic components that can help get your business message into the community in more ways than one:

• Maximize insurer relationships. Have constant and open communication with insurers, and offer insurer services at your shop, such as continuing education courses.

• Market to dealer organizations that don’t have a collision center.

• Improve your shop’s image in the community. Host local events like a summer barbecue, or sponsor organizations that are important to your community members.

• Utilize social media. Use Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare to get your message out electronically, especially to the younger generations of customers.

• Support charitable organizations. Be sure to identify local charities that community members have a connection with.

• Get involved with industry organizations. Find a group within the industry that is doing something positive to get involved with, Sheehy says.

• Get involved with business networking groups or chambers of commerce. Doing this can give businesses an incredible amount of local exposure, Sheehy says.

Angrove says touching on all of those aspects will make your business’s brand name more prominent in the marketplace. “But there’s no silver bullet,” Angrove cautions, which is exactly why it’s important to address each of these areas. Reserve 2 to 5 percent of your total revenue to carry out the plan.

A thorough plan has many aspects to it, Camacho says. That’s why it’s critical to put a plan in place—so you don’t get overwhelmed and start doing things randomly, without thinking strategically.

Keenan Auto Body was doing exactly that, and didn’t have any clear communications plan in place until Camacho came on board in 2002. “They were just blindly throwing money around” to fulfill their marketing efforts, Camacho says. The company was spending a lot of money on things that weren’t earning much benefit in return, like ads in the Yellow Pages and support for charities that weren’t locally based.

“The company was just jumping on opportunities that conveniently came its way,” Camacho says, noting that’s what a lot of shop owners end up doing when they don’t create a plan. They were spending money on things that potential customers either weren’t seeing or just didn’t care too much about.

Camacho implemented a yearlong communications plan in 2003. Camacho’s plan touches on all the essential components of a communications plan: online, radio, print, community, charity and industry involvement campaigns.

A big change Camacho spearheaded involved local charities. He identified the ones that created an emotional connection with the local customer base. “When you do things more locally, as opposed to a state or regional level, folks in your area will be affected by your efforts and will be more likely to come to your shop as a result,” he says.

The differences between not having a written communications plan and having one is “night and day,” Camacho adds. Keenan’s revenue increased nearly 40 percent since implementing the plan.

Consistency is Key

Executing a communications plan isn’t something you should do just once and then call it quits. It can take time to experience a return on the energy and money you invest in it. So keep at it; consistency is part of the plan, and the key to long-term success.

Shop owner Tripp is an expert at consistency. His communications plan—and follow-through—has ultimately led to a $1.2 million increase in annual revenue since 2007. He has an extensive plan in place, but his overall goal is simple: Maintain a presence in the community with consistent messages and appearances throughout the year.

To do that, Tripp has gone above and beyond traditional radio and TV ads, although those are still important to him. He’s gone so far as to spend $6,000 a year since 2006 to have commercials air during the Super Bowl. Sponsorship of Little League sports teams, summer concerts in the park and even occasional appearances on a local cooking T.V. show have also helped Tripp gain market share in the local area.

“People recognize me and the business as a result of these things,” Tripp says. “I think my pork tenderloin or my pineapple upside-down cake sometimes get more recognition than any of my commercials do,” Tripp jokes about his cooking show appearances.

Although a lot of Tripp’s activities have nothing to do with collision repair, his tactics get the shop recognized. He knows he won’t see any financial benefits right off the bat, but he’s confident that his carefully selected efforts will pay off.

Indeed, Tripp says he recently landed an $8,000 job from a customer who attended one of the summer concerts he sponsored two years prior. “The customer told me he appreciated our efforts in the community, and he came to our business as a way of paying us back,” Tripp says.

That’s exactly why Tripp puts out $250,000 a year to keep a consistent presence in the community; he knows his strategies take time to bring in a return on the investment. Tripp says he now has 40 percent of the market share in his local area.

“It’s important to establish a presence in your community,” Tripp says, “so when people need your services, they already know who you are and trust what you can do for them.”

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