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Overcoming an Absence of Curb Appeal

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Jarrod Velier has to squint to peer out between the steel bars that stripe the foggy glass windows of the trailer.

He can see a car pulling into the parking lot of Total Auto Body—or something closely resembling the 33-year-old Grafton, Wis., collision shop.

The front of the shop is a wall of construction, adorned with scaffolding and blocked off by tape, piles of dirt and a clutter of loose two-by-fours. The front office is completely inaccessible, and Velier watches the vehicle come to a stop, halfway between the facility and the 20-foot-by-10-foot “steel container of a trailer” that serves as the temporary office in which he and owner Bob Gibson spend much of their day.

This could’ve been just about any day this past winter, as Veiler, the shop’s estimator, and Gibson worked to run the shop through what turned into a nearly year-long construction project to renovate the front third of the 15,000-square-foot facility.

“You see customers pull up, and I mean, the initial sight can’t be great; it’s a little intimidating,” Velier says. “The interior [of the trailer] is fine, but we have the steel bars [on the windows] and it’s just this trailer in the parking lot for an office. It’s definitely not ideal.”

The construction project, Gibson says, will make his family’s shop a modern, cutting-edge facility with all the amenities a customer could expect from the area’s premier independent shop. More plainly put: The shop finally will have the “look” to match its work quality.

Until completion, though, the renovation would make things difficult. Throw in a February fire that tacked on another six weeks to the project, and Gibson and Velier had to devise a strategy to keep the growing shop afloat during a time of transition.

“We weren’t going to win customers with [curb appeal],” Gibson says with a laugh. “But that’s a problem so many shops deal with everywhere. We had to go back to the basics, just barebones ways of winning customers over. You have to figure out a way to earn that customer’s trust beyond what they can see.”

The Backstory

Gibson’s father founded Total Auto Body in 1981, and Gibson has run the shop since his father passed away in 1989, eventually purchasing the business from his mother in 2006. That’s the same year the shop topped $1 million for the first time.

With an influx of work and a new focus on lean operations, Gibson added 5,000 square feet onto the existing 10,000-square-foot shell in 2011. The building was essentially divided into thirds: The office and lobby in the front, the paint and detailing department in the middle, and the body shop in the back.

The expansion helped open the shop up to more efficient workflow, Gibson says. With eight full-time employees, the shop hit $1.5 million that year and $1.7 million the following year.

Still, Gibson felt his business was restricted by its space—not the size, but the orientation. The lobby was cramped and, generally, uninviting to customers in a way typical of shops designed in the 1980s. Gibson also wanted a drive-through estimating bay near the front of the shop that would help with more efficient blueprinting practices. And he wanted a break room large enough to conduct I-CAR training courses.

In mid-2013, he hired a contractor to do a complete remodel of the building’s front third. Ground broke in July.

The Problem

Like any long-term construction project there were bound to be some difficulties—both anticipated and unforeseen.

Gibson and Velier moved into the temporary trailer in late July, as the front of the building was completely gutted to begin work. They both understood the challenges that the temporary office would pose: customer confusion upon arrival, customers doubting the shop’s capabilities during the construction, and the simple, logistical issues of the two being separated from the rest of the staff.

A FRESH START: After a fire delayed Total Auto Body’s renovation, construction was finally completed in May. Owner Bob Gibson says it gives his shop the facility to match its quality of work. Photo by Corey Hengen

Those were the “obvious” problems, Gibson says.

The unexpected came later.

Construction was humming along, on pace for an early spring completion, when Gibson saw smoke billowing up from his facility as he drove to work Feb. 1.

No one was in the shop, and fire doors on both ends of his paint department contained the damage to the middle third of the facility. All in-process vehicles were luckily unharmed, but Total Auto Body lost both downdraft spray booths, its mixing room, its detail department, and its break room. Nothing but the steel shell of the walls remained.

“The insulation melted right off the walls—on both sides—but we were lucky it stayed there,” Gibson says. “It delayed it substantially, though. … All of a sudden our contractor working on the renovation had to restore that whole section of the building.

“Insurance covered the recovery, but it put us behind six weeks. It just extended all the challenges we were facing.”

The Solution

Aside from the six weeks following the fire—in which Gibson’s entire staff had to operate out of just 4,500 total square feet of available floor space—workflow was relatively unhampered by the construction. It was strictly the customer service aspects that had potential to suffer.

Gibson was proactive in notifying customers beforehand about what to expect over the course of the next six to 12 months.

The shop has six large direct repair relationships with insurance carriers—programs that account for roughly 55 percent of the shop’s total sales volume. Gibson notified the insurers before construction started to explain the situation, how his shop wouldn’t lose any functionality, and how the renovations would substantially improve the operation in the future.

Gibson says his direct insurance work never wavered during the construction; it was never much of a concern.

What worried him was the customer perception.

Luckily, Gibson says, he had Velier, whom he recruited and hired away from a dealership in 2009.

“He’s a real go-getter estimator, and someone who really interacts well with customers,” Gibson says.

“Customers are worried about price, but with insurance covering the majority of it, more than anything, it comes down to them being able to connect with the shop,” Velier says. “They want to know they’re getting taken care of and that they’re working with people they can trust.”

Velier focused on very thorough, yet simple tactics to win customers over during the construction:

1. Inform on the Phone. The first line of contact is nearly always via phone, and Velier says he takes the opportunity to explain what the shop can do—its capabilities in workflow and work quality—and that the construction is temporary and will provide better service in the future. It helps to set expectations upon arrival, he says.

2. Window Watching. Think back to Velier gazing out the window; he wants to know the moment a customer pulls into the lot. “Since we moved into the trailer, I’ve made it a point to greet each customer at their car when they pull in,” he says. It helps them know they’re in the right spot, and shows the staff’s dedication to helping them, something not lost on vehicle owners when Velier is outside their window on a below-zero Wisconsin winter day.

3. Shop Tours. Gibson and Velier encourage customers to take tours of the facility, to see the team in action and to see the cleanliness and attention to detail that everything operates under. That’s what the shop is selling them, Gibson says, and you need to make sure the customers see that firsthand.

4. No Hard Sells. Velier and Gibson are confident about how they compare to competitors, and they encourage customers to tour the facility and then compare with others in the area. Velier says it’s crucial to not push repairs on people; inform them and help them understand what the decisions mean. “I’ve had times where I never even show someone an estimate until later on because I can tell the numbers will only hurt or confuse them,” he says.

The Takeaway

The renovation was completed in May, months behind schedule. Yet, the shop maintained its revenue pace throughout, Gibson says. Through the first half of 2014, the shop was on pace to match the $1.7 million annual sales pace it had set the previous year.

And Gibson hopes the improved work areas and front office will lead to a boost in business. He expects the shop to top $2 million for the first time.

The shop now has space for better training practices, and an additional office space set aside for either an in-house insurer or rental car company to rent out.

More than anything, though, it’s a modern, impressive facility that can attract customers all on its own. That doesn’t mean Total Auto Body will adjust any of its heightened customer service tactics, though.

“Those are things you can—and should—do at every shop, in every situation,” Velier says. “You always have to have that focus on the customer and putting them at ease.” 

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