It Pays to Network
When Debbie Moore and her husband, Allen, opened their Indianapolis-area shop, Diamond Collision Services Inc., 15 years ago, she was completely new to the industry. Through extensive networking efforts and community involvement, Moore has not only driven business to the shop, she’s cemented her status as a business leader in the community.
I always say I went from four-hoof drive to four-wheel drive. My background is not in the collision industry; I have a degree in animal science and was living in the middle of a horse farm when I met my husband, Allen, who was a technician at the time. We opened up our own shop in September of 1998 in a 5,000-square-foot building with five employees altogether. Our first year, we did $395,000 in sales and it was a big learning curve for me. I was doing parts ordering, payroll, everything in the front office, and I was in contact with every single customer.
We’ve since been able to purchase the property, and in 2003, we added on and doubled the shop size to 14,300 square feet. Last year, we did $2.2 million, and we’re now up to about 15 employees. I’ve refined my role so now I oversee the office and do all the marketing.
Typically, I’m the first one here in the morning. I pull files on jobs that are coming up first thing in the morning, work with the bookkeeper, and look over my accounts payable and accounts receivable. Since I spend a good chunk of my day talking with customers and helping people in the office, most of my meetings are over lunchtime.
Avon, Ind., is a farming community and it can be hard to see us because our shop is not on a main road, and there are other body shops that have been around here longer than we have. So, the biggest struggle has been getting the word out that we’re here. Our reputation is really important to us because about 85–90 percent of our business is either repeat customers or referrals. To get that kind of business, it’s been about getting out there and letting the agents and the community know who we are. Most people don’t want to drive more than 15 minutes away from home if they don’t have a good reason. Now we have people drive 45 minutes to an hour just to come to our shop—and we did it through networking.
Shortly after we opened, one of the insurance agents we work with invited me to join BNI (Business Networking International). BNI is a referral network group, so it connects you with business contacts in town. I’m from Indiana but I’m not from this town. So for me, it was a good way to get my foot in the door and meet other business owners and decision makers in Avon.
The foundation of the group is always an insurance agent, realtor, and mortgage broker. In our group, there was also a printer, a Mary Kay consultant, and a window blinds company, among others. What’s great is that, for example, the realtor knows that if someone’s buying a house, the homeowner is going to need new drapes, the carpets cleaned, a painter, an insurance agent. The realtor already has a whole handful of people to recommend at their disposal. The referrals don’t always happen from me to the next person, but it just goes through the circle. I might not be able to refer someone to the insurance agent, but maybe I can refer someone to the chiropractor. And everyone then reciprocates business to us.
About 10 years ago, I joined the Avon Chamber of Commerce. Where else can you spend $25 and get in front of 100 businessmen and women in your town? The chamber meets once a month over lunch. I get there, find my nametag and then there’s about 20 minutes of mingling time. After mingling, we go through some announcements and then welcome the speaker, which could be a local congressman, leaders from the YMCA, or a representative from Duke Energy.
—Debbie Moore, co-owner, Diamond Collision Services Inc.
I’m a chamber ambassador, so I work with a lot of the new members. I introduce myself and ask what they do, and we talk about our respective businesses and how we can help one another. If they work with a lot of cars, I’ll ask, “Who manages your fleet? Who do I talk to at the fleet company?” I take them around and try to connect them with someone who might be helpful. I like to match-make; even in the grocery store I can’t help turning around and helping someone find the ketchup. Because in the long run, those people are going to remember, “Debbie put me in contact with someone who really helped me. What can I do to reciprocate?”
The other part of being a chamber ambassador is going out in the community and being a point of contact. The chamber director will give me a list of new businesses in town, and if I happen to visit one of them, I’ll introduce myself and mention the chamber.
Several chamber members were also part of the Avon Kiwanis club, and they encouraged me to join. Kiwanis is a more service-oriented organization, and as a group, you choose the activities. During the hour-long meetings, we set aside time to network, plan our events and then invite speakers.
The nice thing about doing these activities is that it gives you a strong networking base. You’re working shoulder-to-shoulder, selling elephant ears or strawberry shortcakes. You inevitably get to know people.
Rather than just being Debbie from Diamond Collision, you become Debbie, who loves kids and cares about the community.
Besides the connections I’ve made, we’ve also done work for several members of the group and they’ve continued to refer friends to us. That’s pretty remarkable for a club of 20 members with two other body shops in the group.
When I’m up front at the shop talking with customers, I always have business cards handy for referrals. Especially if they’re coming to us from an accident, it’s really easy to refer them to the chiropractors, for example. You’d be amazed at how naturally referrals can happen just from talking with customers.
We’re always trying to figure out new ways to bring people into the shop. We’re on the west side of Indianapolis, which is a growing bedroom community, so we’ve recently joined a local monthly BMW club. We’re seeing more and more BMWs out here.
From joining the club, we’ve spoken to the members at club meetings and had them out to the shop for two tech days. They lent us a wrecked car, and we set up the shop so we could straighten out the fender and do welding and painting demonstrations. We want to show them that we roll our money back into our equipment and improvements, so we can work on vehicles like the BMWs.
I try to take one day a week and go visit insurance agents, often in the afternoons.
I usually put together some type of goody bag to bring, too. It’s a good opportunity to drop in and get any updates or see how we’re doing. If something’s going on in the community or if we have an event coming up, I may pass out information about that, too.
On the way home, I also try to swing by local businesses and drop off cookies, along with some business cards. It’s a small gesture, but it goes a long way in making sure people don’t forget you.
Networking is all about consistency. In organizations like the chamber and other service organizations, it’s important to be someone that people can depend on. And it’s not going to happen overnight; you have to put some time and effort into it.
If you say you’re going to do something, you have to do it. If you just go and mingle and leave, people aren’t going to remember you. My biggest piece of advice is get out of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to someone you don’t know.