More shops are competing for fewer customers in today’s auto body repair environment. Now more than ever, it’s important to recognize that interaction with your customer is not about writing estimates, it’s about closing sales.
Closing sales is based on developing relationships, and in order to develop relationships, you have to be an expert at dealing with many different personalities. Understanding those personalities is the key to developing strong relationships with buyers. And remember this: not every customer must be sold at the ultimate price of losing your sanity and profit. It’s sometimes okay to fire the customer.
The traditional model of a shop’s front office is to have a customer service representative greet the customer and then hand him or her off to an estimator. But what if we looked at all of our front-office people as salespeople equally trained to “develop a relationship” with the prospective buyer. After all, estimating skills aren’t as important in the front as they are in the back. Newer lean processes suggest that the vehicle be taken in, disassembled and a complete repair plan be written.
Reception-area staff should be trained to be “front-office ambassadors.” They should meet, greet and develop relationships with prospective buyers. These employees should have some natural selling skills, but ongoing sales training is important.
It might be challenging for an estimator to greet customers, write estimates and close sales, especially if he or she is more comfortable with a piece of paper than a human being.
Emphasize sales in the front, and move the repair planning to the back. Make the attempt to sell the job and plan the repair before handing the final details over to the customer. Ask the prospective customer for permission to e-mail him or her a complete repair plan after disassembly. Most customers will agree that’s a good idea, and it starts the relationship off honestly.
Our industry is conditioned to write estimates, add supplements and then hand the vehicle owner a final bill that looks nothing like the original estimate. That’s starting the relationship with your customers on a lie. It’s no wonder that auto repair and maintenance is the fifth least trusted industry, according to the Better Business Bureau. That’s better than some others, but it belies an ugly truth: Our relationships with our customers may be founded on misconception and mistrust.
You’ve Got Personality
Every day, your staff will come in contact with different personalities, and recognizing how to read and respond to those personalities will help you to either make the sale or watch the customer walk away. One of my former production managers, Bill, once said, “You don’t lose money on work you don’t do.” It’s okay to fire the customer if he or she is going to cost your business profit and try the staff’s patience. Good sales are the goal, and not every sale is worth chasing.
So let’s look at some of these customer personalities and talk about some strategies on how to deal with them:
Recently, an over-friendly Angela walked into the shop to request an estimate. Fortunately, I sit close enough to listen to the intake interview and screening of the prospective customer, and I heard the words “old truck” and “someone else is paying for it.” I rose to greet her and said, “Let’s take a look,” which is the normal response here. You should visually inspect the vehicle first to see whether or not it’s repairable and assess the vehicle owner’s intentions.
The truck was a “rolling total.” It was obvious that it could not be repaired, and that Angela was looking to cash out at the highest price. I asked if she had gotten any other estimates, and she replied that she had two, which I then asked
“No, I want you to write an estimate,” Angela said.
I refused, and she exploded, screaming that was the worst customer service she ever had (remember she wasn’t a customer, nor would she ever be). She couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t write an estimate. To her, it meant we didn’t want her business.
“We write estimates on vehicles we repair,” I replied.
Remember, you’re in business to repair vehicles, not to be an estimating service. If you take a look at the cost of writing an estimate by placing a modest value on your expertise and overhead, it costs about $35. Perhaps the most important takeaway here is: Put that expertise to work on improving your business, and don’t waste it on customers who will never repair their vehicles or who you don’t necessarily want to do business with.
“Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy.” We wish all of our customers could be this easy. They enter your business ready to hand over the keys. They’re previous customers who are loyal or individuals who have been referred by other good customers. They want a quality repair in a reasonable amount of time, and they already trust you to provide the service. They’re the customers for whom you couldn’t provide a good estimate because of driveability or hidden damages. They’re in a hurry, and you convince them that you can be trusted to do an honest, high quality repair. You may know these people well, or this may be your first meeting and you need to develop a relationship.
George would never have his vehicle repaired anywhere else. His insurance company wanted him to take his car to its direct repair shop for an estimate (and hopefully a repair), and he did so reluctantly, grumbling about it afterward. He was also very up-front with his insurer, saying he would ultimately have his vehicle repaired at the shop of his choice.
George left with an estimate (remember how much that estimate costs) and then drove to our shop for the repair. We were able to schedule it and put him in a rental vehicle a couple days later.
George is a walking testimonial, and he’s an educated consumer. He knows that he can have his vehicle repaired at the shop of his choice, and he got that education from us.
“Respect My Lifestyle.”
Customers come from different backgrounds, cultures and walks of life. Learn to recognize the traits that make your customers unique and you can build strong relationships.
I interviewed a female customer once and asked her if she had ever had a bad repair experience. By the way, 99 percent of women have a story to tell about a bad repair experience, and they comprise 81 percent of your total customer base. So treat women seriously and with respect, especially since the majority of your clientele is female. They’re the decision-makers.
Mary had been referred to another shop for a previous repair. When she entered the other shop, she said the atmosphere was dark and unwelcoming. There was a black leather couch, black floor and dark walls, and the reception area was quite a distance away from the entryway. She said the estimator was wearing a black silk shirt and lots of gold chains.
“I didn’t know whether he wanted to look at my car or ask me out on a date,” she said.
She was very uncomfortable with the experience, and said the focus was never on the repair of her vehicle, only on her and her female friend. The good news is that now, Mary is our customer for life. The bad news is that she tells everyone she knows about her bad experience with the other shop.
Every shop’s door gets darkened at some point by this customer, and the result is often a painful and costly experience that teaches the shop the right way to handle this person in the future.
“The Cheat” can cost you money, customer satisfaction and your patience. One of the best ways to avoid the pain associated with this kind of customer is to have a good pre-repair inspection process. Put a procedure in place where a vehicle, including a towed-in one, can’t go into production unless there’s a signed and dated pre-repair inspection by the customer and your designated shop inspector.
All prior damage needs to be photographed and clearly noted on the pre-repair inspection. Failure to follow this procedure can be costly, and many shops have learned that lesson the hard way. Due diligence in completing the pre-repair inspection will save your business lost profits and keep a crazed customer out of your sales area!
Olivia had some minor damage to the right side of her rear bumper that was repairable, but also had some prior damage on the left side that wasn’t part of the repair. The third party was a former customer who had paid Olivia for the repair.
When Olivia came to pick up her car, she complained that the bumper should’ve been replaced and became extremely disruptive in the customer waiting area. Her original paperwork called for repair, and her final paperwork exactly matched the original. She became hysterical, calling everyone liars and cheats to the point where we threatened to have the police remove her.
Reluctantly, she wrote the check, took her keys and left the premises. I questioned her behavior and was informed that Olivia wanted the bumper replaced because of the unrelated damage on the other side.
When Olivia phoned back to continue her rant, we had the estimator calmly call her out on her behavior.
“You wanted the other person to pay for damage he didn’t cause, so maybe you’re the one who’s being dishonest,” the estimator told Olivia.
The signed pre-repair inspection saved us, and there was no longer any room for discussion. She hung up, and we never heard from her again.
Educate Your Customers
When you return the repaired vehicle to its owner, prepare him or her for his or her next crash. Hold on, did you hear that right? I hope you did. Tell your customers that, in the unlikely event of another crash, they need to be prepared to contact you as well as their insurers. They also need to be prepared to inform everyone of their choice of repairer. Give them a promotional item with your imprinted phone number that they can keep in their glove boxes, and ask them to call you in the event of another crash. After telling our customers that they have the right to choose the repair facility of their choice, many profess they didn’t know that. And that’s because you failed to educate them the first time.
Resell at Delivery
Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk. Designate one person to be responsible for a final quality control check, and then resell the job to the car owner at delivery. Tell them that you checked the doors, reset the clock, radio and climate control, tested lights and mirrors and made sure the repair and color match were perfect. A beautiful repair can easily be used to sell another. That shows confidence in your team and the quality they produce and that’s a powerful sales closer.
It’s your business, and you can choose your customers. Those customers who are happy with their repairs and repair experiences will become advocates for your business and, in the process, become your complimentary sales force. Those who walk away unhappy can be turned around if you put in the effort, and those who will never be happy should be encouraged to shop elsewhere.
Recognize customer personalities and learn how to handle each one so that the relationships you develop with your good customers become a permanent and reliable resource for building your business.
Jeanne Silver is the owner of an independent collision repair business in Illinois. She’s active in her community and is committed to improving the image of the collision repair industry. She’s a working member of the Women’s Industry Network, the National Auto Body Council and
the Collision Industry Foundation. Contact her at (847) 367-1500 or [email protected].