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SHOP STATS: Heppner’s Auto Body  Location: Six locations in metro Minneapolis area Size: 10,000-14,000 square feet  Staff: 75  Average monthly car count: 600  Annual revenue: $13 million

"It happens, we can fix it."

If you live in Cleveland, you’ve probably heard or seen these words on TV, on the radio, on a billboard. Maybe you’re one of the body shop’s 2,100 Facebook likes, one of its 1,260 Instagram fans, or one of its 500 Twitter followers. And, if the marketing is really working, one independent body shop is standing tall with the likes of CARSTAR, Gerber and Service King. It cannot be denied: D&S Automotive’s brand is a force to be reckoned with in northeast Ohio.

Well, at least it has been since Keith Bales showed up.

That’s because, prior to Bales being hired on as marketing manager, the marketing approach at D&S was anything but consistent. It was stretched thin across different platforms with no consistency in the message or branding. And the results were anything but stellar. 

In a climate where consolidators and MSOs are not only increasing their market share but also throwing resources and dollars at branding and marketing their shops, independent collision businesses are forced to make changes and act more than ever. 

In fact, Bales says you can even take a page from some of those larger organizations: He recognized patterns among CARSTAR, Gerber and Service King in which they invested more heavily in a digital presence than family-owned businesses did. He followed suit, developing various social media accounts, investing in digital marketing and creating a presence in the community, all of which now helps D&S’s three shops pull in $16 million per year. 

“It’s funny how that all trickles down,” Bales says. “Big companies like CARSTAR and Gerber are doing the research but here it’s myself and one other person.”

Take it from Bales: Marketing your shop effectively doesn’t involve reinventing the wheel, and it doesn’t even have to involve significant resources or personnel. It does, however, require a precise and thorough understanding of your customers, your brand and the most effective platforms to reach those customers who will help grow your business. 


Step 1: Define your brand

When Amy Anderson jumped into the marketing game at Heppner’s Auto Body, a six-location shop in the metro Minneapolis area, in 2015, she realized the marketing game was changing and evolving fast. The traditional methods of marketing that had worked for decades were no longer satisfactory as competition increased and customers became more savvy. Keeping the shop top of mind to customers involves creating a cohesive brand that resonates with the local community.

Before you can properly market your shop, you need to identify the core values of your brand. For Bales, it’s all about the community. For Anderson, it’s all centered on family and quality.

While Bales says D&S Automotive charges a little more than other repair facilities, the brand is known for its quality, convenience and being a part of the community. He says he likes to see the community thrive and only markets within the community to support people who support the collision center.

Bales hangs banners at the local high school football games and other sports.

“It’s easy because we understand what it builds for boys and girls of our community,” he says. “It’s important they have that outlet and are being active.”

Bales says the opportunity for boys and girls to play sports in the community can often come at high costs of $300 or more and the shop’s goal is to help out with that expense. Marketing at local schools allows Bales to put print ads in the high school newspapers, which promotes the community-driven brand, he says.

At Heppner’s Auto Body, a family-run business, Anderson says the marketing strategy revolves around creating loyalty within customers. 

Anderson attempted to hire an outside branding company that suggested she follow the direction of “prevention and safety,” which she says seemed hollow. While she wants to always keep prevention and safety as a part of their brand, she and Doug Glaus, general manager for all six locations, wanted a more personalized brand that could only apply to Heppner’s. She says incorporating well trained staff and quality customer service remains a top priority.

Heppner’s Auto Body brings the family atmosphere to the customer through personal touches like helping someone who has a broken tire outside the shop at no cost, Anderson says.

Heppner’s has also always been a family business: The Klatt family has owned the business for more than 30 years when Bill Klatt bought the original Midway location from Elmer Heppner in 1966. After Bill passed away, his daughter Laura Jacobson and her husband, Jesse, took over the business. And the family ties don’t stop there; the shop has hired multiple members of various families, including Kayla Douglas, customer service representative at the Midway location and her fiance, who works at the 7th Street location. Hugo E. Velasquez works alongside his father, Hugo A. Velasquez, at the same Midway location.

In her marketing endeavors, Anderson brands the business as “family run” and this past year stressed the shop’s 60th anniversary. She says this strategy works in making the customer feel connected to the owner. She would go so far as to offer the owner’s phone numbers to clients if there are questions or concerns, she says.


Step 2: Track where customers are coming from

You can’t properly market your shop if you don’t know who your customers are. First, find out how your customer heard about the shop, Anderson says. That will help determine your most effective and strongest marketing platforms on which you should capitalize. To do that, employees in the collision centers need to be asking each and every customer how they heard about the business. At Heppner’s, that information gets entered into the shop’s management system, CCC ONE, and Anderson tracks the phone number and name of who is coming into each location. 

“It’s twofold, I also get to listen to customer service and everybody asking questions,” she says. 

Tracking how employees are talking to customers helps streamline quality customer service, she says. While she used to send customers monthly follow-up emails based on this information, Anderson now stretches that email to every six months in the hopes that the customer felt the quality of the repair was good enough to come back in the future.

Bales recommends using any tool at your disposal to track customers, even beyond the more traditional industry tools, like management systems. He uses Google Analytics to track where the customers are coming from and has gleaned numerous patterns from doing so. For example, he says he’s seen that no one is going to drive more than 10 miles to visit a collision center. From there, he can get so in depth into the analytics that he can even find where each customer’s IP address resides. This allows him to more narrowly target his best customers when it comes to pay-per-click campaigns or Google keywords. 

At the end of checking notes in the management system and online reviews every day, Anderson and Bales both find results from continuing to ask customers, “How did you hear about us?” Anderson has customers fill out information sheets when they come in for an estimate including the question about how the customer was referred to the shop. 


Step 3: Create a digital presence

For Anderson, she realized the marketing game was changing rapidly toward the digital platform. Anderson recognized that in order to be successful, the shop needed to diverge from traditional platforms. In today’s world of marketing, there are more effective methods that allow shops to narrowly target desired customers. 

“Basically the phone book 15 years ago is now Google,” Bales says.

And although larger companies have the resources to play TV advertisements and do significant media buying, Bales says that this is actually an advantage for smaller shops, who are able to market locally and speak directly to their target customers, versus worrying about what’s going on nationally.

In order to separate from the past and compete with consolidators, small businesses need to be marketing online through Facebook and Google. One way to complement traditional methods is through targeting key advertisement words on Google, Bales says. The top key collision repair phrases searched on Google include “auto repair,” “collision center” and “body shop,” Bales says. For Anderson, the keywords even involve specific mention of windshield repairs for Heppner’s Auto Body. These advertisement words are worth the investment, Bales says, because they help the shop appear first in organic searches on Google.

If done well, those campaigns can generate a significant return on investment, especially as it becomes more difficult to drive organic website traffic. However, there are keys to getting pay-per-click right: You need to narrow in on the target customer, identify the best time of day and geographic locations for the ads to run, choose keywords that are relevant but that won’t run up the budget, and direct the ads to a specific page on the website that’s applicable and relevant to the keyword search. 

To determine keywords, small businesses can pay Google so they show up when people search phrases naturally, Bales says. The cost could range from $1–$20.

In the four years since Bales started work at D&S Automotive, the shop’s website views have gone up from about 700 views per month to around 4,000 views per month. With long-term goals of increased networking to capitalize on word-of-mouth referrals, Anderson spends a large chunk of her days on Google Analytics, looking at who’s visiting the websites and from where they are coming. In March 2017 new users to the website increased from 1,666 to 1,707 in April.


Step 4: Personalize your marketing

Anderson branches out to radio as another method of advertising. Now, Heppner’s Auto Body ads play on a popular local radio station in Minnesota. Since this is a popular radio station, she says it works as a blanket strategy to reach a broader audience. Yet, Heppner’s Auto Body keeps it personal through writing their own copy and having co-vice president Jacobson voice the advertisement. 

Anderson says even having a female voice on a radio advertisement versus the corporate ones that sound similar helps their business stand out. Stagger radio advertisement placements, Anderson says, in order to make the advertisement stand out compared to advertisements drivers hear every day. 


Step 5: Keep it local

Bales and Anderson both maintain a strong presence with local chambers of commerce. Along with insurance company referrals, the chambers of commerce is another way to reach the local area through word of mouth outside friends and family. Google Analytics also allows him to see if any local chambers of commerce websites or insurance agents are referring his shops.  

Word-of-mouth provides the biggest customer referral rate, they say. For Bales, he changed the business’s marketing strategy to be more community oriented because half the people getting estimates heard of the shop from a friend or insurance company.

Last fall, Bales hosted a party after work hours with the five local chambers of commerce and had roughly 300 people attend. He provided wine and small appetizers so he could network with the people in attendance. In addition to reaching out through the chambers, Bales also networks with the local humane society and local board of medical disabilities. 

 Anderson says networking is an important way to remain visible in the community. 

She hosts continuing education classes to get in front of insurance agents and also attends community events like car shows to hand out fliers to new customers. Classes contribute to what she calls a marketing funnel in which if the marketer provides a good mix of ways people can hear about collision center then the brand will be recognizable in the community. 

Bales says if they invest money into one medium then they often see results. Unlike television and radio, which D&S Automotive does not market on, Bales finds most often customers come in and say their insurance agent referred them to their collision center. 

“We continue to track against what activities we’re doing,” Bales says. “We talk to insurance agents, and talk about what makes us different and what separates us from the competition.”


Step 6: Adapt to your market

In Midway, only roughly 30 percent of car owners are likely to repair a broken vehicle, compared to another Heppner’s location in suburban area Woodbury, where upward of 70 percent of car owners are likely to repair their broken vehicle, Glaus says. In order to overcome this shift in demographics, Anderson says she plans to market about two miles south of the Midway location in an area where residents have more disposable income. 

Anderson also found ways to get involved in the community. In 2016, she participated in the National Auto Body Council’s Recycled Rides program to refurbish a totaled vehicle and give it away to someone in the community. Anderson hosted an event in which the business partnered with the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans to give away the refurbished car to a local veteran.

“All the shops were there and we got our name out there,” she says.

For Bales, a challenge to overcome was narrowing the shop’s marketing strategy to a few key areas like Facebook and Twitter versus having the shop stretched too thin across all platforms, he says. Bales worked to make his brand known for quality of service so he could advertise the convenience.  In order to promote their quality service, the company invested more in top-notch equipment, he says. For example, to fix damage to aluminum, D&S Automotive invested in tools and training their technicians. 

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