Customer retention. So here’s what you need to know to keep them coming back to your shop instead of switching to a dealer.

I recently overheard some people talking about having the dealer service their vehicle. To better understand their perspective about the automotive repair industry, I asked why?

What I found was a similarity in each experience and actions taken to deal with it. My goal is to identify three key issues that are driving customers into the arms of dealers, what dealers are doing to keep them and actions an independent shop owner can take to attract and keep customers.

The key issues

Ability: When a customer has an ongoing business relationship with an auto repair shop, they must believe that the employees can properly diagnose and repair their vehicle. This includes having qualified, competent technicians with the tools to support them. One lady told me that she brought her seven-year-old minivan in for service and was told that she must go to the dealer to reset her maintenance reminder light because they didn’t know how. Another person told me she went to the shop she’d been frequenting to have some suspension work done and was told they didn’t have the tools.

Trust: Another customer’s “must” was being able to trust that a shop’s recommendation is in their best interest. One person said that when she brought her vehicle in for routine service, the shop recommended replacing the brake pads because they were 75 percent worn. Uncomfortable with the encounter, she took the car elsewhere and was told that her brakes were fine. She drove the vehicle 30,000 more miles over two years before trading it in on those same brake pads. This was a win for the second shop, until they didn’t have the tools to do her suspension work.

Relationship: Customers don’t want to be considered a transaction. Ever! Yet that was the third most-common complaint I discovered. They were routinely spoken to condescendingly with no eye contact. They were quoted several hundred dollars for work they didn’t request. They felt like they were viewed as a wallet with legs. They felt this wasn’t a partnership between the shop and themselves; it was all about the shop and what it could get.

Additionally, I noticed two recurring points that surprised me. I’ve always assumed that unhappy customers kept looking for a repair shop until they found one that served their needs. My first discovery was that, generally, car owners go to no more than two independent shops before they decide to do business with a dealership. When asked why, the two reasons stated were that they had lost confidence in independent shops and didn’t have time to find a shop they were comfortable using. Dealerships have instant credibility, in consumers’ eyes, because the nameplate of the vehicle is on the wall of the building.

My second discovery happened when speaking to two different people, both bringing up the cost. They chose independent repair shops, many years ago, because of the cost savings – independent repair shops were considerably cheaper than the dealer. Both spoke of how the price gap has narrowed significantly. Independent shop owners have had to update their pricing to stay in business, whereas dealers have gotten aggressive on pricing common services. Sadly, price is still considered the biggest differentiator from the customer’s perspective.

What are dealers doing to keep customers?

Service Packages: Once the dealer has sold a vehicle, the service department is doing all it can to keep that vehicle coming back by either giving away a service or selling service packages in the Finance and Insurance (F&I) office when closing the deal. One shop owner who wanted to remain anonymous informed me that dealerships in their area are still telling car buyers that they must use the dealer for service to maintain their warranty.

Convenience: Gone are the days of showrooms smelling like tires, grease or burnt coffee. Today’s dealer waiting rooms have more comforts than home. With plush seating, flat-screen TVs, on-demand movies, Keurig coffee machines, computer work areas, free Wi-Fi, dedicated children’s areas and more, it’s easy to see where the dealer is investing money. The No. 1 dealer goal is to become the customer’s provider of choice.

How can you stem the tide?

Demonstrate Ability: Your ability to deliver the quality repairs your customer expects requires an ongoing investment in training and tooling. Your customers are expecting you to keep them safe and their vehicles dependable. Some ideas to convey the superior abilities of your staff include:

  • Issue press releases for equipment purchases or new services offered.
  • Issue press releases for employee training or certifications.
  • Hang major certifications on the wall, with the employee’s family photo.
  • Include minor certifications in a book or online.
  • Post pictures or videos that note the training or equipment capabilities to social media.
  • Share social media posts or videos of difficult repairs on later-model vehicles.
  • Provide shop tours for new customers, highlighting clean work areas and equipment.
  • Share reviews that mention the year, make, model and system of vehicle work.
  • Print or email pertinent technical service bulletins (TSB) or recalls for customers.

Build Trust: There’s an old saying that “People do business with people they know, like and trust.” I agree with this statement. But people don’t start trusting immediately. Trust is earned over time. Going for trust with a potential customer is a waste of time. Instead, seek to be credible. Credibility is the beginning of trust. To be clear, ability is what you can do; credibility is what others believe you can do, based on what they’ve seen or heard. Deliver what you say you’re going to do over time, and trust will follow.

Building credibility is a recipe with many ingredients, per Bill Moss, AMAM, owner of EuroService Automotive in Warrenton, Va. Bill says that reviews, initial phone calls and words used on the calls are critical to building quick credibility. Words like ongoing training, relationship, convenience and location can make a difference to a customer. You must get your customers to believe that you’re capable of taking care of them. Coupled with the above action items, some other ideas for building credibility include:

  • Discover the needs, wants and goals of your customers and make exceeding them your priority.
  • Share character-based reviews as social proof. Sales expert and author Jeffrey Gitomer says, “When you say you do something, you’re bragging. When others say you do something, it’s proof.”
  • Share testimonials highlighting your business exceeding its customers’ expectations.

Develop a Relationship: This third most-common complaint is the heart of everything. People do business with people, not companies. The simplest way to achieve a great relationship is to make every visit about your customer. Sherri Stock, owner of inMOTION Auto Care in Lincoln, Neb., notes the need to connect and engage with a customer throughout their visit. “You can’t just push a price at a customer and expect them to jump at it,” she says. “You need to build value and confidence in what you’re going to do.” Moss’ thoughts mirror Stock’s.

Ideas for building that relationship include:

  • Realize that you aren’t in the auto repair business; you’re in the relationship business.
  • Know your customer’s current vehicle needs and future plans.
  • Show them how your recommendation exactly matches their needs and plans.
  • Connect with your customer; find out about their family, work, hobbies, etc.
  • Interact with your customer after work, building a connection.
  • Set a process to personally contact customers who haven’t been in recently.
  • Remember that relationships come before revenue.

Offer Service Packages: I believe that one reason that manufacturers offer service packages is to reduce warranty costs. Another reason is to get customers used to going to them for all work. But independent shop owners can reasonably offer a service package that customers believe has great value, keeping them away from dealers. The package should include services such as offering a free loaner or taking care of warranty issues by making arrangements with the dealer. The goal is to keep customers coming to you.

Convey Convenience: Before you look at your business with huge dollar signs, take a step back and look at your shop as if you’ve never seen it before. Is it clean and neat? Do you have a hook on the bathroom door for people to hang things? What does your office look and smell like? You don’t have to spend a lot of money to show you care about your business and your customers’ experience.

With car counts dropping, every customer is critical to the success of your business. Take the time to be intentional in your actions and focus on the relationship with your customers. You’ll find that you keep them longer, and your business will not just survive. It’ll thrive!

Do You Follow This Customer Loyalty Checklist?

To prove ability
o I write three social media posts a week highlighting our abilities.
o I earn customer reviews, testimonials and referrals daily, building social proof.
o I provide shop tours and review all benefits of doing business with us with first-time customers.
o I print out technical service bulletins of customer interest and search for any open recalls on every visit.
To build trust
o I ask thought-provoking questions that uncover my customer’s wants, needs and goals.
o I give the customer options when appropriate.
o I guide the customer to solutions that best help them achieve their needs, wants and goals by making recommendations.
o I follow up with my customer to make sure they’re blown away by the level of quality and attention they received.
To build relationship
o My attitude is positive and helpful.
o My focus is on helping the customer.
o My greeting is sincere and friendly.
o I always put relationship before revenue.