By Steve Wunker
This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker’s piece for Forbes
You might not think of an auto body shop as a hotbed of business innovation – but you’d be quite mistaken. Consider the story of one small chain that shows how businesses can go on offense during the coronavirus pandemic, seizing the initiative to remake customer experience, business relationships, and competitive position. This is how one company made its Great Reboot happen.
Today’s Collision, a 64-employee chain of three auto body shops based in the Boston suburb of Malden, saw the pandemic happen at an unfortunate time. Boston had a relatively mild winter with little snow, and – sorry to tell you – auto body shops expect people to have more accidents when the weather is nasty. However, owner Bobby Cobb had a realization: if the winter was tough for his relatively well-capitalized company, it must have much harder for the mom-and-pop firms that were already just eking by. As the coronavirus hit and the plummeting level of road traffic foretold still fewer collisions, Cobb knew that shops across the industry faced dire circumstances. For him, this was the time to seize the initiative.
First, he had to make the environment safe for his employees, or nothing else could happen. Operational improvements occurred quickly. For instance, technicians put computers on mobile carts in their service bays, so that they could order parts directly and avoid a trip into the office area. Also, he planned for the inevitable slowdown in new business, asking his employees to take on tasks like building improvement, painting, and cleaning that he’d previously considered outsourcing. In this way he was able to retain almost all of the business’ staff.
Cobb also implemented safety changes that his customers could immediately see. Steering wheels, for instance, were wrapped in plastic. He says, “People don’t always expect a good experience in a body shop. But we do things like the plastic wheel covers which pleasantly surprise them. It shows them that we’re taking care and we’re conscious of contamination risks.”
While he was changing his operations, Cobb also altered how he sourced business. He approached insurance companies to build new relationships as competitors were shutting down, and he reached out to dealerships such as BMW to become certified to service their vehicles. Even more aggressively, he expanded his geographic footprint by doing pickup-and-delivery of vehicles as far away as Vermont, specializing in brands such as Tesla where he could sustain distinct relationships and expertise. The pickup-and-delivery offering also extended to local customers who had concerns about interacting with employees at the chain’s locations.
Finally, Cobb broadcast the changes even while competitors were cutting back on advertising. His firm created new radio spots about what it was doing, replacing its former sports-themed ads. With ads also costing less these days, Today’s Collision was able to grab more share-of-mind while rivals hunkered down.
The playbook for this auto body shop applies to many firms wanting to get on the front foot during the pandemic:
This is how to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
Click for a series of working papers on managing an organization through the coronavirus crisis.