The art of upselling: Don't sell your business short by not selling enough

Jan. 1, 2020
Too often, estimators don't receive adequate training to sell effectively. If they are not focused on selling first, they're not going to be able to upsell.

Consider this business scenario:


A customer brings a damaged vehicle to your door. One of your estimators spots the customer, greets him, then walks him to a comfortable waiting area while the vehicle is taken to a clean, protected estimating station. The estimator examines the damage and prepares an estimate, which he reviews with the customer, noting the damage, cost and time required to do the work.

The customer absorbs the information and asks a quick question or two. The estimator answers, then, with a smile and a handshake, tells the customer, "Let us know if we can help you." The customer drives off while the shop waits, hoping to receive a call with the good news it's been hired to do the work.

This scene is repeated daily at many shops throughout the country. While the estimator and shop have done a professional job attempting to capture the customer's business, they haven't done enough to close the deal. That's a problem because if a shop is to survive, it needs to generate revenue anywhere it can, whenever it can. When a shop can't close a deal after a customer has come onto its lot, it's losing money twice – in the initial sale and with its opportunity sell the customer. Problems with upfront sales signify bigger issues with upselling. And sales can be murky. Too often, estimators and other employees don't receive the training and experience needed to succeed. But with a few operational changes and a renewed focus on selling, more shops can boost customer traffic and upselling.

Rethink the business

Selling and upselling are two parts of sales.

"When you talk about upselling, you first have to deal with the misconception that it's secondary to what you're business should be doing," says industry consultant Chuck Murcadoa. "What's lost here is selling itself. You're not going to upsell effectively if you're not focused on selling first. Most shops aren't anymore."

Murcadoa has spent two decades in the automotive services industry, first working in a relative's collision repair shop in Tucson, Ariz., while working his way through college pursuing a marketing degree. He spent 15 years working on the mechanical side of the industry in marketing and branding for mechanical shops. Now he's back in collision teaching shop owners the art of selling, a lost skill.

During the past two decades, shop owners ceded much of the sales part of their operations to insurers when they joined DRPs, Murcadoa says. Instead of pursuing customers, shops left the task to insurers who directed the majority of work to their doors. Instead, repairers focused the bulk of their attention on building and maintaining insurer relationships instead of the ones Murcadoa says they should've been making – those with customers.

Complicating matters, the focus on building systems and going lean has taken more attention away from selling as the industry has become system centric, he says.

"Your processes are a key part of your business, but when that's where you place the majority of your interest, you lose sight of customers and what it takes to please them," he says. "The big problem we have is that we're building efficient minifactories and losing sight of what it takes to get our customers – who don't know a lot about our industry and really don't need to – into them."

Going back to the opening sales scenario, the sales problem is the lack of a true sales effort. The customer is being introduced to a shop and told about its service but isn't being sold anything.

"In this situation, the shop really isn't working for the customer's business," Murcadoa says. "There's no effort. Many estimators wait to take business like a teenager at a fast food place waiting to take orders. There's a big difference between handling $1.99 for a hamburger and netting a $2,500 order for car repairs."

The power of persuasion

Ed Dietz, vice president of production at Evansville, Ind.-based Lefler Collision & Glass Centers (an ABRN Top Shop for three years running), offers similar criticism for estimators. Several carefully chosen words would've made a big difference.

"Our estimators always ask the customer, 'Can we begin work today?'" Dietz says. "Many shops make the mistake of never asking the customer for his business."

Dietz's strategy has paid off well for Lefler, which places a premium on the ability of its estimators to sell the initial repair then upsell other products and services.

In 2010, ABRN named Lefler the Top Shop in the country based on its estimating operations. Lefler divides up estimating duties. All administrative and paper work are handled by its claims processing unit (CPU), a four-member team tasked with processing claims. The CPU keys in all the work and insurer information, freeing up estimators to sell.

"With our estimators, the focus is getting the keys," says Dietz, who explains that after customers consent to the shop doing the repair, estimators arrange for a convenient rental vehicle as quickly as possible. The shop also searches for other services that complement the sale.

Team effort, but no hard sell

Every Lefler employee helps with sales, and employees are compensated for referrals.

"When we bring a vehicle in, our detailing department cleans the vehicle off and looks it over, Dietz says. "We'll note things like dash warning lights and other problems we can take to the customer."

As the vehicle works its way through the Lefler repair process, other employees look for additional sales opportunities. For example, the techs performing a frame alignment might notice the vehicle could use tires.

This process helps the shop and customer. If any of the damage the shop spots is collision related, costs fall under insurance coverage. If the problems or service issues aren't covered by insurance, Lefler has a prime opportunity to capture customer business for work that needs to be done regardless. Customers are given convincing reasons to have Lefler do the work.

"We point out now is the time for other services," Dietz says. "We point out that they need the work anyway. This way it's done at their convenience."

But Lefler doesn't simply hand customers a laundry list of repairs and services. When upselling, shops need to perform a delicate balance of offering additional services and making sure the customer is comfortable making the decisions. This shouldn't deter shops from upselling, says Sarah Wright, an estimator with Art's Capital Repair in Alexandria, Va.

"Make sure you keep your customer's best interest at the forefront," she says. "It can seem intimidating at first trying to sell extra services to someone who's been in an accident until you accept that you're helping that person."

Wright, who says her shop upsells each ticket almost $300 on average, says shops can help ease customers into buying decisions by offering upsell work throughout the repair process instead of at the beginning. Oftentimes customers can be reluctant to invest extra money in a repair when they're paying a $500 to $1,000 deductible. After that reluctance subsides, many customers become more willing to spend for other work, especially if they're provided with additional reasons about potential benefits.

"After you explain they can use new brakes or their car's appearance would benefit by having some dents pulled, they realize the investment they have in their car already," she says. "It doesn't make sense to be cheap."

Sales tools

For this point of the upsell opportunity, shops should use a few extra sales tools, namely discounts.

"Most customers are looking to save some money," Wright says. "They want time to shop around and hunt for bargains, and they're used to doing that. So it can be a big deal if you offer 10 percent off their tires or an oil change. If they still seem a bit on the fence, ask them what their time is worth. I'll point out it makes a lot of sense to have us do the work now instead of giving up a Saturday and waiting on their vehicle at another shop."

One sales tool Lefler uses at each location is a menu board with a list of services and costs. The shops also use displays of popular services, such as headlight restoration.

"I can't tell you how many people will ask for extra services on their own after seeing what we offer," Dietz says. "Many of them take one look at the headlight restoration display and ask for it."

Knowing what sells and being able to offer it is a vital sales tool. Tires, wiper blades and spray-on bed liners are popular, Dietz says. Wright's shop regularly upsells tires and alignment work. She also sells plenty of smaller items such as floor mats and interior accessories.

"We keep items like those in the area where we have the customer look over the car when we return it," she says. "I'll make a point of laying down a floor mat in the car just to show the customer how good it looks. Because we price competitively, the customer usually will make the purchase."

Dietz and Wright agree their businesses are well poised for upselling because each does mechanical work.

"We make a point of doing everything, with the exception of rebuilding transmissions and doing custom exhaust bending," Dietz says.

Commitment to change

Both shops upselling tools could be categorized under the metaphoric tools Murcadoa says every business must use if it wishes to sell – preparedness and commitment.

"You can't sell if you don't have the experience, don't know what to expect from a customer and don't have a Plan B, C and D if you can't convince them to buy," Murcadoa says. "You have to make it a priority."

Shops should test their estimators and managers – and anyone who performs customer service – for sales aptitude because it's possible no one on a shop's estimating staff has the right personality traits, Murcadoa says. Shops can compensate for this by finding someone else on staff who has those traits and have that person handle customer relations. That person also should be educated and trained about sales.

Murcadoa warns shops not to expect to see big results at first because that comes with time. But it's time well spent if a shop can raise its average repair tickets significantly and please customers at the same time.

About the Author

Tim Sramcik

Tim Sramcik began writing for ABRN over 20 years ago. He has produced numerous news, technical and feature articles covering virtually every aspect of the collision repair market. In 2004, the American Society of Business Publication Editors recognized his work with two awards. Srmcik also has written extensively for Motor Ageand Aftermarket Business. Connect with Sramcik on LinkedIn and see more of his work on Muck Rack. 

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