How individual glass shops turn their strategies into greater pride and profits
By Drew Vass, Contributing Editor
Over the past couple of decades, the auto glass repair and replacement industries have stolen two words from Websters—“network” and “independents”—making them industry vernacular. Used as opposites, “network” describes businesses that choose to conform to insurance companies’ systems of third-party claims administrators (TPAs) and accept their pricing offers. “Independents,” on the other hand, reject those methods, instead opting to carve out their own customers and prices. Those who’ve made the switch say that “going independent” has its costs (mainly in the difficulties of direct billing and short pays, which we covered in our January-February and March-April editions). But the independent shop owners and managers we spoke to for this article all say it’s totally worth it. Despite those issues, they say there’s endless potential—for more money, more innovation and the ability to be compensated for their level of workmanship.
“We are not members of any network,” says Michael Franklin, co-owner of AmeriPro Auto Glass LLC, headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla. “We set and get paid what we feel is fair and reasonable, not fixed pricing from TPAs or insurance companies.”
Franklin says he started, “with a GlasWeld resin injector and a good pair of shoes,” first approaching used car lots to pitch his services. But eventually, he says, word spread and customers began pouring in. As they did, he had a revelation: Insurance companies were never meant to be customers, nor should they be considered a source of business. Instead, he and other independent shop owners with whom we spoke say that insurance companies should be considered nothing more than a method of payment—just like cash, check or credit. And so, on December 18, 2013, Franklin says his company cut its ties with TPAs—and their network prices—by billing insurance companies direct at a rate that he deemed fair and reasonable for his company.
“The first four to six months were real tough,” he says, when slow pay, short pay and no pay left him struggling to meet bills and payroll. But he just kept chugging. Eventually relief came, most notably when his company was awarded $250,000 in back pay from a dispute with an insurance provider. Then, an unexpected thing happened: they waved the white flag at him.
“They approached us and said, ‘Listen, we don’t want this anymore; y’all don’t want it anymore either. What do we need to do to get this right, move forward and not have these problems in the future?’” Franklin says. “That’s when it first hit us, that, ‘Wait a minute … we just … we really might make some money in this business!’ ”
Today, Franklin says his company has a customer base of more than 27,000. And he can afford to spend around $40,000 per month in marketing and advertising to keep those numbers going. And those dealers he started out with? His company now includes a Dealer Services Division, through which he holds active partnerships with 11 franchised businesses. Through those arrangements, he places customer service reps in dealers’ service lanes, where they greet customers, handle check-ins and install seat covers, all in exchange for auto glass work and referrals. They also assist service writers with drawing up any auto-glass-related work orders.
You’re on Your Own, Kid
Free from insurance companies’ referral networks, independent shops are responsible for generating all of their own customers. And while most owners say they’ve leveraged some of the expected technologies in order to do so—like search engine optimization (SEO), social media and online marketing—above all, they say they’ve gotten to where they are the same way that Franklin did: by finding and pleasing one customer at a time, any way possible. While that may sound low-fi, that’s precisely what marketing expert Hamilton Wallace, of smallbusinessmarketing.com, says they should do as “independents.”
“The good and bad news for the independent shop is—it’s about the old-fashioned method of finding and pleasing one customer at a time,” Wallace explains. “It’s boots on the ground.” The alternative, he says, is just scraping by while “sitting back, waiting for the phone to ring and then doing it for pennies on the dollar.”
Each of the business owners interviewed for this article says he puts his boots on the ground in different ways, but all agree that you’ve got to pick a strategy. And when you’re non-network, everyone agrees that it’s got to include the best possible customer service in order to generate good reviews and referrals.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur type since a very young age—starting with lemonade stands and selling coupons—so this is something I’ve wanted to do since I was very little,” says Josh Dutra, owner of GoToAutoGlass in Wakefield, RI. “I wanted to create a professional service. Instead of worrying about price, I wanted to be able to provide a full, high-quality service and a lifetime warranty on workmanship.”
Meanwhile, unlike network referrals—which everyone agrees are here today and gone tomorrow— if treated right, Dutra says the customers an independent shop drums up for itself can turn into major sources of business.
“You have to view each of your customers as an asset and a resource,” Wallace says. “You’ve got to make every attempt to create a personal connection with each and every one of them, in order to let them know that you’re building your business through referrals.”
But it’s only off of the confinements of network rates or corporate guidelines that independent glass shop owners say they feel they have the time and money to post those achievements.
Once his customers come to expect high-quality work and great service, Ron Watson, owner of Glass Tech in Cedar Falls, Iowa, says, “They pick up the phone, call us, and don’t even ask for a price.” But for those few customers who do attempt to haggle, he’s found a third factor: safety. As the only AGRSS-registered shop in his area, Watson says, “I tell them, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to meet that price.’ And then we explain the difference in our service and what we’re doing for them as it pertains to the Auto Glass Safety Council.”
The single biggest boost to his business, however, he says came from adding a physical location, which generated new business through walk-ins. It also bolstered another source of referrals that he and other independent shop owners say they continue to find lucrative: local insurance agents.
“As it pertains to insurance agents, when they start recommending you, they like to be able to tell their customers, ‘Go down and see Glass Tech. They’re just down the street,’” he says. “And that gives their insured a place to make a connection, versus, ‘Call this number and a guy will show up in your driveway.’”
Matt Bailey, owner of 20/20 Auto Glass in Greenville, SC., says that— as old-fashioned as it may sound— the time he’s spent shaking hands with local insurance agents has paid off, making them around 15 percent of his overall business.
“Honestly, the best thing that I did for my company was, four or five years ago, I personally started going around and visiting insurance agencies,” Bailey says. “There’s only three or four glass companies in my area that actually do that anymore. And I’m not sure why, because that was the number one thing that increased my business more than anything else.”
Bailey did it by dropping in to introduce himself, then leaving behind branded materials (like sticky notes and candies). But he’s also found ways to bolster those referrals and edge out other glass shops by introducing value-added services.
You have to ask yourself, Bailey says, “Okay, what can we do better so they’re going to like [doing business with us] even more? I want to make them think that working with our company is so much easier than working with others.”
He’s added automated systems to inform insurance agents when their customers’ work has been scheduled and completed. The system also sends any updates and changes to keep them informed. Those improvements have also added efficiencies under the hood of his business.
“I’m always trying to make things more efficient and to do more with less people,” Bailey says.
For instance, when he recently implemented a texting-based system that reaches out to customers automatically a day ahead of their appointments when rain is in the forecast, he says it took hours off of is payroll. The system automatically sends text messages, asking them to text back whether or not they have a shelter at their place of appointment, or if they’re able to bring their vehicle into his shop for service. They can also opt to reschedule.
“Before, it would be Monday morning and you’d have 20 jobs on the schedule, so you’re scrambling to call 20 people,” Bailey says. Meanwhile, “They’re not picking up the phone, they’re turning around and calling you back,” and you end up in a massive and costly game of phone tag, he says. He uses the same system to solicit pictures of windshield damages and VIN numbers ahead of appointments to avoid costly mistakes in materials. Each text message includes sample images so customers know exactly what he’s looking for and can text them right back to him.
“Anything you can do to raise the bottom line is important,” Bailey says. “I think most of my employees would attest to the fact that probably every couple of weeks I put something new out there to try.”
Never Say Never
For Watson, a similar attitude has led him to never say “no” to any of his customers. That’s landed him in some interesting positions, but also with some key benefits. He once installed glass into a sand dredge while it was afloat in a quarry. Another time he installed
more than 200 polycarbonate windows into a passenger train. But, “Because we do so many different types of things—agriculture-related, construction-related, trucking and just so many different avenues of auto glass and glass in general— it helps to keep the valleys from being so deep,” he says, referring to his company’s schedule and profits. Ultimately, it’s those services and experiences that help to build a backstory—which is exactly what
marketing experts say is where you should start with your branding as an independent.
That’s certainly been the case for the “independent” shop owners we interviewed for this story.
“Watching every one of my employees buy houses and provide things for their families, while not running around worried about money all the time—that’s the highest high for me as a business owner,” Franklin says. Since going independent, “Because we can pay such good money, we’ve changed a lot of people’s lives here. And that’s what I get out of it. That’s where I get my jollies.”
Drew Vass is a contributing editor for AGRR magazine
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