Dealership body shop manager Don Laface counts on Sherwin-Williams for more than just automotive paint.

His shop's participation in Sherwin-Williams' “A-PLUS” program gives him access to services and training that benefits the shop.

“It's very informative and helps keep us up-to-date on different changes going on in the industry,” says Mr. Laface of Don Laface Pleasant Hills Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep in Pittsburgh, PA.

Sherwin-Williams is not the only paint company working to form tighter partnerships with its collision repair shop customers. All of the major paint lines now have “value-added” programs designed to offer their shop customers marketing and management tools and training to improve their business performance.

Darren Huggins, manager of the Huffines Chevrolet Collision Center in Lewisville, TX, for example, says he finds the “Round Table” group meetings the most valuable aspect of PPG's “MVP” (Maximum Velocity Performance) partnership program. The meetings bring a group of 20 to 30 shop owners and managers — from both dealership and independent shops — from a number of states together several times a year to share ideas, compare financial performance measures and learn from industry consultants and trainers.

“When I got to the dealership 15 years ago, we were doing about $30,000 a month in sales; last year our shop did a total of $11.2 million in sales,” Mr. Huggins says. “The only way you can do that is to study and figure out bigger and better ways of doing things. The MVP program offers management training modules on sales and marketing, production, compensation plans, etc.

“Then the camaraderie and sharing of ideas in the Round Table groups is even more valuable.”

Virtually all of the paint company programs have some similar elements. Most offer customer and employee satisfaction survey services, shop operations manuals, shop layout and design services, management training sessions, and basic financial performance analysis and bench-marking. Most are structured with an annual fee that includes some of the program's services with additional fees for some services.

The programs offer shops a variety of marketing tools. Participants in Akzo Nobel's “Acoat selected” program, for example, can offer Akzo-prepared training classes for insurance agents in their area that enable agents to get the continuing education credits required by many states.

“Because insurance agents are a regular source of customer referrals, shops are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves in the minds of agents,” says Mike Sillay, North America Services manager for Akzo Nobel. “These classes allow the shop to offer something of value to the agents, and they can even be conducted in the shop.”

A unique element of A-PLUS is “Lasting Impressions,” a program that enables participating shops to give customers a card good for a 20% discount on all purchases at Sherwin-Williams' paint and wallpaper stores. The shops can also provide their employees with a similar discount card.

Most of the programs also offer ready-to-use print and broadcast advertising or customer waiting room videos that help participants benefit from the consumer name familiarity with such major paint companies as BASF, DuPont and Sherwin-Williams.

On the management side, BASF has designed web-based business analysis tools touted as being more useful than just handing partnership program participants a thick book of financial analysis of their shops.

A shop manager can input initial shop data at the site and complete a “self-evaluation” of how he or she views the business performance in a number of areas. The manager can then click on any of the areas needing improvement to see a checklist of items designed to improve the shop's performance in that area, including ready-to-use forms or worksheets.

“Here's information to solve the guy's biggest headache, and he got to it at the second click,” Chuck Kelly, special project manager for BASF, says. “He didn't have to dig through a 36-page report just to find some number that confirms what he thinks his biggest problem is, and still might not offer any solutions.”

The Web site will give BASF customers access to a wide range of information, Mr. Kelly says, from examples of employee pay plans to two dozen shop layout designs with interactive tools that allow the shop to determine what level of production it could generate in each plan.

Entering the shop's financial data each month — a 15-minute process, says Mr. Kelly — gives immediate access to financial analysis, graphs, tools and comparisons.

A new offering this spring for the Acoat program is “Collision Force,” a package aimed at addressing workforce shortages.

It includes a toll-free number (866-FIXACAR) that allows technicians and others seeking employment in the auto body industry to participate in an eight-minute survey of their interests and experience. At the end of the survey, callers can choose to have the information they shared submitted to any or all of the Collision Force participating shops listed. These shops receive an e-mail that contains much the same information as a job application, including the caller's years of experience and contact information.

Not all dealerships have been satisfied with the paint company value-added programs. Scott Barelmann, manager of the Blue Springs Ford body shop in Blue Springs, MO, dropped out of one program after several years, saying he'd expected the paint company to do more marketing for participating shops.

Jim Pease, body shop manager at Montrose Ford in Akron, OH, says MVP's program training is great, but limited.

But most of the programs are seeing more participants. The paint companies say that will give them some advantages as they work to secure new benefits for participating shops.

They point to the average size of participating shops — generally between $1.5 million and $2.5 million in annual sales — as evidence that successful shops value the programs.

“I really would recommend it for anyone who's looking to get ahead in the business,” says Mr. Huggins. “I think a lot of us have found that if you want to be leading edge, it's where you need to be.”

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, OR.