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  Management Feature

It's All About the Customer

Posted 2/2/2009
By John Dwulet and Tim McDonnell

How are we doing? Perhaps we need to fix our team first.

It's All About the CustomerWhile reading posts on a popular automotive service forum, we observed a user informing fellow forum members that his job is much more about the customer, not the vehicles. His exact quote was, "Fix the customer, not the car."

This really struck a nerve with us. We have on numerous occasions been disappointed with the service received at new car dealerships, as compared with local aftermarket service facilities. Many aftermarket shops we have visited work very hard at establishing a warm relationship with their customers. As one shop told us, "I have to see the customer before I see the car."

The death knell for any independent repair facility is poor customer service. If you expect to outgun your competition, you had better plan on outclassing them on service. Key determining factors of great customer service are knowing details about your customers and what their specific needs are today; the ability to get the work performed with minimal delays, thus becoming the more convenient option; and knowing when subsequent services will be due in the future. Having all of these factors under control provides your customers with compelling reasons to return on a regular basis and not look elsewhere for service.

Consumers fundamentally have several problems with automotive service. First, the owner or service adviser often speaks in diagnostic terms that seem like a foreign language to the average person. Automotive technology has always been a puzzle for most consumers; this has grown exponentially in the 21st century.

As the service adviser describes the complexity of what will have to be done to diagnose the vehicle's misbehavior, the consumer's mind begins drifting back to their old VCR perpetually flashing 12:00 a.m. Appealing service advice is always delivered in a manner that customers can understand and appreciate. If they don't get that feeling from your shop, they will keep shopping until they find a facility that actively creates this comfort level. Ultimately, a consumer must take the word of the repair facility for what must be done to complete repairs to the vehicle. The customer has to have some sense of feeling at home in your facility. Comfort precedes trust.

It's all about the customer. How are we doing?

Shops need to be able to fix the customer first, but let's back up for a moment. Is your organization where it needs to be? Perhaps you need to fix your team first. Service facilities need to better communicate with customers, speaking in their language and making them comfortable, and hopefully, even relieved they have a friend they can trust.

It's all about the customer. How are we doing?Granted, you have experienced, skilled employees in your business; but do they really know how to put people at ease? Is this one of the top priorities in any customer interaction? This empathy is not lost on customers; they may not follow the parts about trouble codes and component failures so much, but they remember how they felt when they got the news.

If you are a customer, it's nice to know that when you enter your favorite repair facility, you are immediately going to be put at ease; they recognize you immediately. You are not just numbers or broken vehicles that need repairs. You are put at ease because the first concern is you, not the vehicle. The shop knows your name, where you live, when you were last in, what was done to each of your vehicles in the past and most importantly, they greet you personally and professionally with a smile.

Your favorite shop never treats you as though you are only there for an estimate. First, they always ask you how you are, and then offer you coffee or some other beverage to relax. Of course, they have wireless Internet in a classy waiting room if you need to catch up while waiting for your vehicle repairs to be completed. Unlike many shops you have been subjected to before, you are just not in that big of a hurry to leave. This is a sure sign of a business doing things right.

Only after the shop has established in your mind that they are dealing with you, the person, first and foremost, do they get down to asking some fundamental vehicle questions. What they ask is relevant to you and your specific experiences with the car. They will continue to ask questions to be sure they get it right and periodically pause to make sure you understand exactly what they are saying.

As a customer, it's nice to know that even for a simple oil change, your favorite shop prides itself on telling you the exact quantity of oil, type of filter, and which points on the chassis will be lubricated and why. A common mistake many shops make is not taking the time to be sure the customer clearly understands what these hundreds or thousands of dollars are going to do for them. By establishing comprehension and trust, this allows the shop to also establish value in the customer's mind. A relationship is created and a customer is more likely to be retained because the outlay was explained properly. Because of that consideration, it will not put in motion a search for a different service provider.

It's far easier for service-savvy facilities to look smart and accomplish these higher customer service goals when they use a full-featured shop management software package. It allows the shop to write quality estimates, as well as keep close track of what vehicles the customer drives and how many miles are put on them by the day, week, month or year.

Software also records when the customer was last in, what work was completed last, and what other work may have been discovered and recommended. If the customer did procrastinate about committing last time, that's noted and can be politely brought up during the next visit for consideration.

No service opportunities are lost when the shop enters the documentation through trained habits of a professional team using shop management software. Customers get postcards or e-mailed service reminders, which reduces the guesswork as consumers. It's handled much like dental appointments. Other shops may have a hard time recalling the favorite radio presets, much less what was discussed previously about fixing the car.

It's all about the customer. Are we doing all we can?Just when we think it can't get any more comprehensive, now customer service-driven shops can present customers with their cars' "scorecard." This data reveals when customers have had services last performed at the facility, what is outstanding and should be done today or what can wait until next time. In addition to what is relatively certain to be performed, you may also be able to learn about the top service concerns that are not being addressed in the eyes of the shop's management system software. These popular vehicle maintenance details cannot be tracked because some services are either not being performed at all or they're possibly being carried out somewhere else.

It's interesting to observe the typical reactions to the service data by gender; women are very safety conscious and a "Due Now" recommendation will immediately grab their attention. They will be most inclined to have this work done without any hesitation and they'll listen carefully to the "Due Next" details to make sure there's nothing there they want done now. Then they relax, knowing this is being handled to their liking.

Men don't like to be sold something they don't need; seeing that it's not all due today is refreshing. They put their shields down and really get behind this process; this is not at all like the game some other shops have played with their wallets. It builds trust that the service provider isn't just trying to grab everything they can today, and shops must be very confident that customers will be very content to keep returning for all of these scheduled service visits.

This approach also encourages customers to think more about getting all of their services done at the same shop - your shop - because it eliminates the mystery service items, making them feel more squared away in the vehicle sense. This translates into increased loyalty from customers, and today, that's the name of the game.

More facilities in the automotive service marketplace need to capitalize on this obvious relationship-building opportunity. Today's customer wants convenience and peace of mind with the least amount of face time; this repair approach can be a logical extension of shop management and the perfect service differentiator to keep customers loyal to the service facility.

It's all about the customer. Are we doing all we can?

With conscientious people on your front line possessing the necessary people skills, strong shop management software, marketing tools and - most likely - that snazzy repair setup, you're far more likely to get more customers (in addition to their vehicles) fixed every time. Maybe you are just starting to see a trouble lamp flashing on your business dashboard; it's time to find out how you can turn this into a customer-driven beacon of unparallel service excellence.

Editor's Note: This article is one of several management articles that will be contributed to AutoInc. this year by Automotive Management Institute (AMI) instructors. A full lineup of AMI instructors will be sharing their knowledge throughout the year on a variety of topics including training and equipping your staff, goal setting, cross promoting, increasing car count during slow times and much more. To learn more about AMI, its courses and instructors, visit www.AMIonline.org.

Tim McDonnell is national training manager for Mitchell1, creating multimedia materials and providing training for existing Mitchell1 reps, new hires and customers. He is also an AMI instructor. McDonnell's e-mail address is tim.mcdonnell@mitchell1.com.
John Dwulet is senior product manager for Mitchell1, directing the continuing evolution of its shop management software system. He is also an AMI instructor. Dwulet's e-mail address is john.dwulet@mitchell1.com.

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