A single challenge looms largest when it comes to marketing a collision repair business.
That’s according to Tom Bemiller, the owner of three shops in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area that have a total annual revenue of $7 million.
“The biggest challenge with marketing in this business is people don’t need us until they need us,” he says, explaining auto body repair isn’t like marketing a cool new gadget–need doesn’t occur just because the product exists.
“Nobody says, ‘I need to get my car fixed,’ when it doesn’t need to be fixed.”
Bemiller, with some two decades of experience in the collision repair industry, says he’s searched high and low for a marketing tactic that meets that challenge.
“I’ve been experimenting with marketing for my entire career,” he says, noting that not a single tactic has allowed him to reach customers when they need his shops–except for one.
The backstory starts in a familiar way.
Bemiller says he started sweeping floors in a body shop when he was 14, in need of a job close enough to his house so that he could ride his bike.
He did that for a couple years, moving from grunt work on the shop floor to helping his boss in the office. He went off to college to study pre-med while still helping the shop owner with presentations, spreadsheets, and letters, working via email.
Upon graduation, Bemiller says, he realized medicine wasn’t what he wanted to do, so he moved back in with his parents, and found his way back to the body shop, working on various projects.
“That’s ultimately when I decided to make my career in this industry,” he says.
Bemiller admits he’s never been into cars, but, at 22 years old and with his decision made, he says he saw opportunity. And something else, too.
“I saw an industry that kind of sucked,” he says. “I thought I could change the industry, figure out new ways to do things. I thought I could do it better, and that still drives me today.”
Moving on from his job at that first shop, he acquired Dave’s Autobody in Zieglerville, Pennsyvania, changing its name to Aureus Auto Body. His three-shop operation is rounded out by two other later acquisitions: Mercier Auto Body in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and Ed’s Auto Body in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania. He kept the two latter shops’ existing names (see box for more details), and the three operate together under The Aureus Group umbrella.
“I’ve tried lots of different marketing tactics over the years,” he says. “Most marketers create what I call the ‘marketing cloud of confusion.’”
That cloud, Bemiller says, is made up of factors that don’t matter. He remembers when he first got started, he worked with a website builder who always talked about how many page views his shop received. The problem, however, is there wasn’t any proof that eyes on his site were helping his business.
“That didn’t translate into revenue for me,” he says.
In his experience, Bemiller says, marketers seek to get paid for activity–digital ads, for instance–but they won’t seek to get paid for results, i.e. jumps in revenue.
With that biggest marketing challenge in the industry in mind–reaching people when they need collision repair–Bemiller says he’s come to this line of thinking.
“An accident is traumatic,” he says. “People call the cops, then the insurance company, and that insurance company is grabbing them and saying, ‘This is what we want you to do.’ If I’m not grabbing them right then, too, I might as well light my [marketing] money on fire.”
So how does Bemiller reach customers in their time of need for his shops?
“Geofencing,” Bemiller says, “is the very first tactic that anybody has shown me that I can use to hit the customer when they need us.”
The way geofencing works is by tracking cell phone IP addresses as they come and go from digitally “fenced” properties, which, in Bemiller’s case, are his competitors’ sites. Those phones and IP addresses equate to people likely in need of collision repair, and having indexed that digital information, Bemiller says he can then direct those individuals to his shops.
“If they get in an accident and need a body shop, then I can show them ads,” he says. “They click, they land on my website. Now I have an opportunity that I can convert into a repair order.”
How has geofencing worked in practice for Bemiller’s shops?
He says he’s been running a particular campaign for five months, seeing on average 21 potential customers visiting one of his shops after visiting a competitor. That works out to 105 total people over the five-month span.
Those potential customers were turned into 83 captured jobs, which equates to a capture rate of 79 percent.
The average repair order for those jobs, he says, has been $3,000, which comes out to a total revenue generated by the campaign of $249,000.
Should those numbers hold, Bemiller says, he’s looking at an annual geofencing-related revenue of $597,600, at an annual cost of $24,000 for the marketing service.
With the success of his geofencing efforts, Bemiller says, his other marketing efforts have all but stopped.
He says he still uses some hyper-targeted Facebook advertising, and that he continues to support local teams and community organizations.
“That does have an effect that’s more difficult to measure,” Bemiller says. “Over a long period of time it is effective. Outside of that I really don’t do anything. I do the geofencing and I continue to optimize my website.”
That optimization can come down to design tweaks, Bemiller says, such as if a red button or a blue button gets more potential customers to submit their information. He says he knows that if individuals fill out a form for his business, they’re likely to show up at his door.
“My biggest opportunity for growth right now is increasing the conversion rate on my website,” Bemiller says.
The collision repair industry differs from many others, Bemiller says, so be wary of how you spend your money on marketing if you want it to be effective.
“I’ve wasted a lot of money over the years and a lot of time and frustration dealing with marketers,” he says. “If they really don’t understand our business I would be shocked to see a digital marketer have success in our industry. It’s very different from many businesses.”
Keep in mind when your customers will actually need your body shop, Bemiller says, and understand what happens to the cash you spend to get the word out about your business.
“You have to understand the entire journey your marketing dollar is going to take,” he says, “from the time you spend it to the time you’re going to get it back as revenue.”
Sidebar: The Name Game
If Tom Bemiller had a do-over from early on in his career, he says he’d never have changed his first shop’s name.
The owner of three Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-area shops, Bemiller says he struck out on his own with the acquisition of Dave’s Autobody in Zieglerville, which he renamed Aureus Auto Body, a name he now admits he’s no longer so fond of.
Bemiller says he learned two things from the experience: Don’t name a business something people can’t spell and can’t remember. The second thing is that when you acquire a shop you’re buying a customer base, which is why he opted not to change the names of his next two acquisitions, Mercer Auto Body, and Ed’s Autobody, in Kennett Square, and Brookhaven, respectively.
Shops: The Aureus Group
Owner: Tom Bemiller
Locations: Zieglerville, Pa., Kennett Square, Pa., and Brookhaven, Pa.
Staff Size: 25 total
Shop Size: 21,000 square feet total
Average Monthly Car Count: 160 total
Number of DRPs: 8
Annual Revenue: $7 million total