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Use Your Network Wisely

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America was first settled by rugged individualists. It was every man for himself, and trust was a rare commodity. Many of the entrepreneurs who own body shops are the same kind of mavericks. Humans have always created ways to keep their primary survival skill, problem solving, strong. And they resent anyone who threatens to take away their problem-solving game. The maverick personality is reluctant to connect to other power sources unless absolutely necessary. Rugged individualists like to solve their own problems.

But today’s business climate is different. It becomes more interdependent every day. So to mix metaphors, we mavericks may need to take a lesson from the appliances in our modern-day homesteads: Our toasters, TVs and computers have to connect to a power source to operate, and our collision repair shops are no different.

In today’s world, information is the new power currency.

“Well, yes,” you may say. “Of course we have to connect to insurance companies, to dealerships and to—our ultimate power connection—our customers.” But these connections alone are not likely to provide your shop with the power you need to not only survive, but also to thrive in a still-difficult economy.

The Power Play

Two shops in my area seem to have coasted through the recession with scarcely a bump. One has contracts with the local police department and the harbor patrol. He keeps fairly busy repairing damaged police vehicles, and many of the cops bring their cars and their family’s vehicles to him as well.

The other successful shop owner keeps a bit of a low profile. He doesn’t advertise his connections, but he does make a point to know many of the local politicians and powerful bureaucrats. A large part of his business is city and county vehicles along with the private vehicles of the movers and shakers.“These guys must be natural politicians,” you may say, but that’s not the case. They’re actually typical mavericks, but they’ve avoided getting toasted by this economy because of their ample power source.

One of them is Caribbean and black in a predominantly affluent, white area. He’s very personable and has a great sense of humor and a willingness to talk to just about anyone. The other shop owner has made it his business to join every club and association where he’s likely to meet the kind of power brokers who supply his shop with business. He learned this technique from his father, who had used it successfully in the old country. To reach out and connect socially to this extreme degree, he had to overcome his own independent nature.

The New Power Currency

While my Caribbean friend is satisfied with just getting business from his connections, the other shop owner looks to his connections to provide him with something much more important: a “heads up” on upcoming changes in the area. His connections are the guys who know what tax changes are coming, which contractors will be getting significant business and what zoning changes may open up new investment opportunities. In today’s world, information is the new power currency.

Your own accountant, your own attorney, your own insurance broker and other professionals on whom you rely may not be connected widely enough to provide you with the insight you need to stay a few steps ahead of your competition and upcoming economic vicissitudes. Belonging to your local auto body association may provide much of the information you need, but you would be well advised to go a bit further. It can be difficult for many shop owners to get away from the shop during business hours, but some clubs and associations meet in the evening, and a Chamber of Commerce breakfast or luncheon should be doable once a month. Even for a solo maverick.

How to Connect

Start by making a list of key power people in your area. Choose just a few that could be valuable connections if you knew them well. Do a little research and find out what clubs, associations and groups each of them belongs to. You may find some belong to the same church or organizations you do. You may find one who shares your interest in golf, boating, skydiving or some other activity. When in doubt, remember your appliances: Connecting to a 110 line is good, but a 220 line is better for high-power purposes. It may be time for you to make a few 220 connections.

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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