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Eye-Catching Shops Customers Can’t Forget

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Despite the conventional wisdom, you can, in fact, get a second chance to make a first impression. You can update your office space. In a nuts-and-bolts field like auto body, it’s easy to focus on the fenders and the paint touch-ups; that’s the real lifeblood of the business, after all. But even the most meticulously craftsmanship-oriented shop can benefit from the occasional image update.

It’s all part of what Rajiv Kapur calls experiential branding. “A brand is much more than logos or advertising; a brand is the promise that you make to your customers of what you’ll do and what you stand for,” says the founder and president of Configurations, a marketing company in Orlando and Hollywood, Fla. “You create brand loyalty and word-of-mouth recommendations by creating an experience based on that promise.”

Brasher’s New Office

Consider the case of Brasher’s Auto & Truck Collision Repair in Wood Village, Ore. Brasher’s had a state-of-the-art 14,000-square-foot body and paint shop, but its front office for four years was a 12- by 50-foot portable trailer. Insurance companies knew that Brasher’s did stellar body work, but they hesitated to send customers to the shop because the trailer just wasn’t putting the shop’s best foot forward. As experiences go, it lacked quite a bit.

So in the spring of 2008, Brasher’s started building a new 20- by 60-foot office space alongside the existing body shop. But this was no ordinary office remodel. Sure, they replaced the floors and painted the walls, and hung photographs of diners and classic cars (some lit up with neon) on those walls. But the real upgrade was in the desks.

When you walk into the office, you see what looks like a long line of very short, beautifully painted classic cars: a blue ’08 Mustang, a red ’67 Charger, and so on. But it’s really just the front ends of those cars, each of which has been cut from the original vehicle and made into a desk. And each has wheels, front tires and working lights. The license plates double as nameplates for each employee.

Not all of the shop’s 53 employees have a desk like this, but shop manager Tony Hill has been working hard to make them for as many employees as possible. For the adjusters, he’s using the back ends of pickups and mounting the tailgates on the wall to make workstations.

“It’s creating a lot of buzz as people forward pictures of the shop by email,” Hill says. “Nobody has an office like this.”

“Every day, people ask us whether this is really a body shop. We wanted a space that would infuse a bad experience with joy, and we got it.” 
—Giovanna Tanzillo, owner, Uptown Body & Fender

Uptown’s New Location

Uptown Body & Fender in Oakland, Calif. took a different tack. Giovanna Tanzillo and her business partner hired an architect whose car their shop had repaired to remodel their new location, a combination of two separate brick buildings. The vision for the new space was that it be the kind of place that would make customers forget they were in a body shop.

The architect created an office space within the 10,600-square-foot warehouse that, on the outside, was painted to look like some sort of mythical car-beast. It was painted in bright primary colors with automotive paint: Porsche yellow, Isuzu green, Honda blue. Inside the beast was an office with playful Italian furnishings, car seats painted in primary colors, art on the walls and classical music playing in the background. The floor, made from recycled tires and with specks of color scattered throughout, is as springy and looks as good as the day it was installed, Tanzillo says.

Oddest of all (for a body shop, anyway), an espresso bar offers any kind of coffee available at a regular coffee shop, and every employee knows how to make it. A library of metaphysical books offers solace to the soul while customers wait for their cars to be ready.

“Every day, people ask us whether this is really a body shop,” Tanzillo says. “We wanted a space that would infuse a bad experience with joy, and we got it.”

Makeover Benefits

Both makeovers have yielded both tangible and intangible rewards. Tanzillo’s shop repairs 150 to 200 cars a month, and business remains good in a dismal economy. But Tanzillo measures the benefits of her shop’s makeover in terms of opportunity. The San Francisco Chronicle’s monthly magazine generated a lot of free publicity when it covered the shop’s remodel, so that what began as an image makeover turned into a way to drum up more business.

The events made possible by the remodel have also helped bring in business. About half of Uptown’s shop space houses the front office along with the body and paint floor, but the other half has been reserved for events like art openings and fundraisers for political causes. That sounds like an unnecessary departure from the real business, but Tanzillo says the events have involved the shop in the local community, which raises the business profile by bringing people in for other reasons. Later, those same people come back with their cars.

“Places where first impressions happen have a lot of nonverbal messages that have an effect on the experience,” Kapur says. “The quality and cleanliness in the front office reflect on the area where the repairs are being done, so it’s not just a front office. How do you want customers to feel about your organization when they see it?”

For Brasher’s, the effect has been even more dramatic. The shop now repairs about 15 cars a day and generates $250,000 to $300,000 in monthly sales. But since the new front office opened, the business they get from insurance companies has gone up by about 40 percent, and it’s still growing. “The community is excited, the word is out, and a lot of energy has been generated by those desks,” says Jay Marquess, marketing manager for Brasher’s.

“If a potential customer comes in for an estimate and then decides to go out for a second one, they’re definitely going to remember where they got the first one.” 
—Tony Hill, manager, Brashers Auto & Truck Collision Repair

The advantage doesn’t just come from the free publicity generated by the region’s newspaper coverage of the remodel. The desks are so unique that it makes Brasher’s memorable. “If a potential customer comes in for an estimate and then decides to go out for a second one, they’re definitely going to remember where they got the first one,” explains Hill. “Plus, having those front ends beautifully restored and made into desks is a way to demonstrate our abilities.”

The environment in the shop is much more fun now, Marquess says. And that’s what happens when image matches expertise. “We’ve always had a great, professional staff, but customers wouldn’t know it because the impression was often spoiled by the way our front office looked.”

It may sound like touchy-feely nonsense, but Kapur says it’s just good business strategy. Service is essential, but experience determines whether customers come back and—most important for the collision repair business—whether they tell their friends about it. “If you only appeal to and engage someone in their mind, what you’re offering is only going to be a commodity,” he says. “If you don’t want to be just a commodity, you need to get to their heart.”

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