Running a Shop Operations Working With Vendors

Five Pitfalls to Avoid With Your Vendor

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For the 28 years Lee Rush managed body shops, he heavily depended on one key relationship to ensure success.

“You can’t be a one-man band,” he says. “There’s just so much going on in the industry. I needed help from all of my vendors.”

Now the manager of business consulting services for Sherwin-Williams, Rush observes the shop-vendor relationship from the other side of the table, and he’s finding that the opportunities he often took advantage of—from training to shop assessments to constructive criticism—are being underutilized by the average shop owner.

Bill Payne, owner of Performance Refinishing Supply in Evansville, Ind., often encounters this problem, as well. Both vendor representatives regularly visit shops, performing walkthroughs and offering advice for improving processes, and both witness toxic habits that poison shop-vendor relationships and tend to inhibit business growth.

Both Payne and Rush spoke with FenderBender about common pitfalls shops often succumb to, and how shop owners can improve their vendor relationships by addressing them.

Pitfall #1: Having a Passive Relationship

First and foremost, before you can even begin to best utilize your vendor relationships, you need to make sure you’ve established an active relationship.

“I’m not just selling, and I’m not just an order taker,” Rush says. “Passiveness creates an environment where a lot of reps aren’t comfortable with giving advice, and operators aren’t comfortable receiving it.”

To establish an active relationship, Payne and Rush say to cut these missteps:

Failing to clearly define the relationship. Make it clear what each side of the shop-vendor relationship is looking to achieve through the partnership.

“We’re more of a partner than a vendor,” Payne says. “Owners need to work with us to achieve win-win scenarios.”

Not relaying your goals. The next step should be sharing your plan for growth—something many shops are either hesitant or too busy to do, Payne says.

“What we find a lot of times is the body shop is hectic, they’re falling behind on phone calls, parts are backed up, and it’s hard to pull them out of business and get them to talk about goals,” he says. “If you have a growth plan, talk to us about it. We can help you improve and achieve that.”

Too much chitchat. Much of the passivity stems from being hesitant to talk business, Rush says.

“If all you talk about is sports and fishing, you’ve conditioned that passive relationship,” he says. “Create a relationship where you talk to us about cycle time, damage analysis, parts correctness. Let’s talk business, then sports.”

Failing to seek guidance. Rush says even the most sophisticated owners can use guidance from time to time.

“You have to be a strong, A-type personality to survive in this industry—very few shop operators feel like they are clueless about where to take their business,” he says. “That personality, those attributes and characteristics inhibit them from asking, ‘What do you think about this? What’s your opinion of that?’”

Not following up. Payne has set up regularly scheduled phone calls with Indiana-based Lefler Collision and Glass vice president Eddie Dietz about improving business, and Dietz credits much of the company’s growth (going from one to four facilities in six years) to following up on changes they’ve discussed implementing.

“[Payne] truly invests in our business by monitoring sales and potential savings through the use of an existing product,” Dietz says. “He looks at our business not only like we are his only customer, but he digs in and gets involved as if he were a business owner in our shop.”

Being afraid of constructive criticism. If your relationship is passive, then Rush says vendors will be less inclined to offer constructive feedback.

“As a business owner, you can’t be afraid to be offended,” he says. “Many shops don’t allow or permit the open, honest dialogue between the experts and themselves.”

“You need to be continuously training your people. The industry is changing, and you can’t pretend like someone you hired two years ago is going to become excellent by themselves.”
—Lee Rush, manager of business consulting services, Sherwin-Williams

Pitfall #2: Waiting Until Something is Broken

Rush compares scheduled shop assessments with going to the doctor—you should get regular check-ups to get ahead of any potential health issues.

“It doesn’t make sense for a person to wait until they’re chronically ill to go to the doctor,” he says. “For some reason, in the collision industry, unless it’s broken, owners don’t fix it.”

Sherwin-Williams and Performance Refinishing Supply offer regularly scheduled impact assessments as a value-added service, which consists of examining shop processes and procedures—observing management, estimates, repairs, parts, labor, P&L statements, KPIs, etc.—and critiquing how the staff conducts business every day. By allowing vendors to regularly see your operations, you can cut off any potential issues you could be missing.

“Someone is coming from the outside with a completely different perspective,” Rush says. “An owner who’s in the business every day, all day long, does not see these things, these minor things.”

Pitfall #3: Not Taking Advantage of Training

Rush says one of the biggest mistakes a shop can make is not reaching out to vendors as a facilitator of training and business development.

“You need to be continuously training your people,” he says. “The industry is changing, and you can’t pretend like someone you hired two years ago is going to become excellent by themselves.”

Both Sherwin-Williams and Performance Refinishing offer various sponsored I-CAR training classes available to partner shops, from welding to leadership training to writing better estimates.

Many vendors—especially area vendors that work with local shops, like Performance—have their own training center on-site, partner with local vocational schools for classrooms, or visit shops for some after-hours training. In fact, Payne offers a unique perk—he’ll send one of his own staff, who are all trained technicians, to fill in for missing shop members receiving training.

National vendors, like Sherwin, offer various training benefits, such as conferences and 20 Groups, that help foster growth year-round.

Pitfall #4: Relying on One Vendor

While Rush would love every shop’s business, he says there are many problems he cannot help shops with if they’re not building a diverse vendor portfolio.

“I can only do so much with a walk-through,” he says. “If you have $40,000 worth of frame equipment sitting over there, then you need to ask that equipment vendor to come in and do some training.

“You need to continuously train and use all the vendors in your portfolio to help you continue to develop and improve upon your team.” Payne says his company is constantly asking shops about their goals and struggles to identify possible solutions—whether it involves his business or not.

“If it’s cycle time or bottlenecks in the paint department, we can help. But if it’s something outside our expertise, we can help [shop owners] make connections,” he says. “We network with other solutions providers. We’ll get them the quality people that can solve problems.

“We care about the shops. If they can do business with someone else, it makes them more profitable and ends up benefitting us in the long run. It make them better, stronger, and it creates a more competitive market.”

Pitfall #5: Missing Out on Community Outreach Opportunities

One of the most enticing bonuses Payne offers to his shops are opportunities for marketing and finding quality staff members.

A local philanthropist, Payne partners with several local organizations to help fight various issues, from homelessness to sex trafficking, offering his partnering shops the convenience of improving their community outreach and grassroots marketing.

Also, by working with local vocational schools, Payne has been able to provide quality technicians and help set up apprenticeship programs at shops.

“Networking has become a bigger part of this industry,” he says. “Not everything can go through you alone—everyone needs help.”

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