Sometimes you have to fire a customer.
If you’ve tried absolutely everything and your customer is still upset, all you can do is apologize one last time by saying something like: “There’s nothing we value more than a satisfied customer. We’ve tried everything we can to please you, but apparently we’re not able to do that. Again, we’re very sorry. Perhaps next time, you’ll have better success doing business with another collision repair facility.”
No kidding. There are times when you must fire a customer (and we’ll discuss those times later) – but first, let’s discuss the procedure to use when a customer has a problem. It’s worked for many of my clients to resolve problems, and I hope it works for you.
Always remember that the customer’s problem is important, but the way you deal with it can be just as important. And if you follow the process and scripts I’ve provided, you’ll have greater success in dealing with customer complaints.
1. Show regret and empathy.
Any time there’s a problem or complaint, regardless of the circumstances, the first words you should say are: “I’m sorry.” And say it like you mean it – not like it’s something you were told to say.
You should mean it. You should be sorry if your customer was inconvenienced in any way. And you don’t have to know any of the circumstances of the problem in order to say you’re sorry that your customer is upset.
Of course, saying you’re sorry isn’t enough. As soon as the customer tells you the problem, repeat it back. “I’m sorry we [insert problem: wasted your time, took too long, did a poor job, screwed up the paperwork]. I know you did business with us because you expected [restate what you didn’t do: fast courteous service, quality work, your car delivered when we promised it, to have it fixed right the first time, the billing and paperwork to be accurate]. Let’s find out what happened so we can take care of you. Your future business is very important to us, and I want to resolve this to your complete satisfaction so you come back.”
It takes a real professional to talk about future business when you’re in the middle of a customer’s complaint. But the reason you do this is to send the message that this is probably an isolated incident and you don’t expect it to happen again. You’re sorry it happened, and you’ll take care of it. By talking about future business, you’re setting a positive expectation.
2. Ask questions and listen.
After expressing your sincere regret, you need to find out as quickly as possible what happened. Ask questions that will allow the customer to explain, in his own terms, what’s causing the frustration.
You need to stick to the problem itself and not personalize it. Stay in a problem-solving mode and don’t discuss fault or blame or other emotionally charged words. When you personalize a problem, people get defensive and even more upset. Stick to the issues, and try to determine exactly what happened, when it happened and why (from the customer’s point of view) it happened. I suggest you say the following:
“In order to help us find a satisfactory solution to this problem, I’d like to know as much as possible about what happened. I’d like to hear it in your words and then maybe ask a few questions to clarify things. Please tell me the best you can what went wrong.”
If you don’t follow the above script, please choose your words carefully. You want to avoid the appearance of playing “20 questions” or acting as if you’re interrogating the customer. That will only make the situation worse. Also, this isn’t the time to make excuses or blame someone else. Don’t blame the paint company, the equipment manufacturer or the new software. That only makes things worse because it looks like you’re making excuses instead of taking responsibility. And this just adds fuel to the fire.
Also, keep in mind that customers who are upset won’t be convinced with logic. They’re emotionally frustrated, so if you try to calm them down with logic, you probably won’t be successful. Don’t try to justify, rationalize or prove your point by explaining a company policy or procedure. Obviously, what you did caused the problem in the customer’s mind, so trying to explain it again won’t work. (After you get the customer calmed down, you’ll have a much better chance to explain your side of the story, but not at this point.)
One more thing: Price is seldom the real problem. Think of your own experiences when you were upset with a vendor. Weren’t you upset because you felt the vendor didn’t do what he said he’d do – he didn’t keep his promise? That’s exactly what your customers feel.
The real problem is that you broke your service promise, and your customer feels he didn’t get the service he deserves for the price you’re asking. To add insult to injury, he may feel he got ripped-off in the way he was treated. Perhaps he feels disrespected or taken for granted. That’s why it’s critical to show that you do respect him, value him and want to solve the problem.
3. Be an advocate.
When customers are upset, what they’re really looking for is an advocate – someone to listen to their side of the story, represent them and do everything possible to resolve the issue. Upset customers want someone to listen and then “own” the problem.
By asking good questions, sticking to the problem and not making excuses, you can demonstrate that you’re their advocate. Teach your employees to accept responsibility for resolving the problem. Owners don’t have to get involved in every customer complaint.
One thing that can be very exasperating is when the employee acts as if he isn’t part of the problem. In the customer’s mind, that employee is part of the problem by default. He’s getting a paycheck to work there so he should accept responsibility and be prepared to do something about it.
What follow are the worst things an employee can tell a customer:
— “I just work here.”
— “That’s not my department.”
— “That’s company policy.”
— “There’s nothing I can do.”
— “Oh well.”
“Another word to avoid is “can’t.” When you say “can’t,” the customer hears “won’t.”
There’s an unwritten business axiom that states that anything can be done if there’s enough money on the table. Don’t insult your customer by saying you can’t do something. What you’re really saying is, “We’d lose too much money with that solution, and we aren’t prepared to (won’t) do it.”
4. Discuss alternatives.
This is the step in the problem-solving process to discuss answers. Up to this point, you’ve expressed regret, shown empathy, listened to the customer’s side of the story and demonstrated a very professional attitude and a sincere willingness to own the problem and to be his advocate.
After you’re satisfied that you have sufficient information from the customer, you have two choices:
1. If you feel your shop is at fault (or even if it isn’t, but you want to take care of it right now), tell the customer what you can do to resolve it. My clients have used several options including:
— Reschedule the work on the vehicle right away with your shop absorbing all costs. This is when the shop owner determines that, “We obviously screwed up so we’ll absorb the cost for doing it over immediately.” Head-of-the line privileges means you’ll interrupt work on other vehicles in order to work on this customer’s vehicle. This should be reserved for either a very good customer or perhaps to correct a flagrant mistake and avoid a potential law suit. When you interrupt the work flow to add another vehicle to the front of the line, you’re potentially jeopardizing the production schedule (and promises you made to other customers), so you don’t want to create more customer complaints for missed delivery times without a very good reason.
— Do the re-work at your cost (time and materials), so the customer pays only your direct expenses – not overhead costs. This choice may be used when you think, “We did a very acceptable job and the customer’s complaint isn’t reasonable, but we want to take care of it and take care of the customer.”
— Give the customer the choice of having the shop the work done immediately and charging to cover its direct costs, or having the shop do the work at the shop’s convenience at no cost to the customer. You’d be surprised how many customers choose the first option. This, again, proves that it’s often not the price, but rather how they’re treated. When the customer is made to feel special and important, he’ll pay for reasonable costs incurred to the vendor.
There are two schools of thought on this. Many shop owners say they never charge the customer again (even for materials) because that isn’t true customer service. Other shop owners say there are times when the customer understands the complaint is really unreasonable and is willing to pay for a portion (parts and material) to do the rework. It’s a judgment call.
If, for some reason, you can’t do what the customer wants, don’t tell him what he wants is unreasonable. Tell him what you can do to take care of the immediate problem and that you need more time to resolve the bigger problem. For example, you can say: “We’ll provide you with a loaner car or rent one at our expense. That will take care of your immediate transportation needs and give me more time to work on your other problem. Let’s make sure you have reliable transportation while we make good on our original promise.”
I have a word of caution to employees who are reading this article. Before you suggest an alternative say: “I’ll do everything in my power to resolve this to your satisfaction.” But if you can’t sign a check or tell other employees what to do, then don’t trap yourself by saying, “I’ll take care of it,” or “This is what I can do for you.” You can still be the customer’s advocate even if you have to ask for permission first.
Sometimes service advisors will make a commitment that the owner won’t support, so the problem shifts to a disagreement between the employee and the boss – and away from the company and the customer. Now there are two emotional issues that need to be resolved. When this happens – and I’ve seen it too many times – the customer’s problem takes a back seat to the employee’s problem. And the employee quickly loses the desire to help the customer. Don’t go there.
5. Get your employees involved.
This is your second option. If you feel there’s more to the customer’s story and you aren’t comfortable offering a solution, you can ask the customer to wait while you find the employee who was involved. If you think it’d be more effective, ask the employee (estimator, painter, technician) to join you and the customer and participate in the meeting.
One autobody client of mine had a customer complain about dirt in the paint. When the paint technician talked to the customer, he explained how it’s almost impossible to avoid getting minuscule particles of dust in some of the paint. Believe it or not, the customer was satisfied with that explanation.
There are several positive reasons for getting your employees involved and talking to the customer. Here are a few:
— Sometimes customers feel like the estimator or service advisor is more of a “salesman” who’s been trained to make excuses or “jam up” the customer. Customers feel the technician will be more “straight” and “honest.”
— When customers talk to the person who actually did the work, they tend to listen to the tech’s side of the story. The tech is the expert and has firsthand knowledge of the situation.
— They usually see the tech as a “good guy” and someone who really tried his best. The customer is less likely to get upset at the employee who sincerely says, “I really tried my very best to do a good job for you.”
—The customer can also ask questions and hear the answer from the horse’s mouth.
— It’s a great way for the technician to educate the customer and introduce realistic expectations (like getting dust in the paint). The tech can walk the customer through the process and give the customer an appreciation of how complex the procedure can be. Many times, I’ve watched a technician resolve customers’ complaints. I wonder why more shops don’t do it.
If, however, you think it’s better not to get your employee involved right away or you think the problem deserves more research, then tell the customer you’ll get back to him by a specific date and time.
6. Reach an agreement and follow up.
After you’ve offered your solution, say: “Would that be satisfactory?” or “Does that seem fair to you?” You want the customer to accept your solution and agree it’s appropriate.
When he agrees to your solution say: “I’m glad we were able to resolve this to your satisfaction. As I said earlier, your continued business is very important to us. We appreciate that you gave us this opportunity to fix the problem. The most important services we offer our customers are the quality work we do and our integrity for taking care of our customers if something goes wrong.”
After a short period of time – perhaps the next day but no longer than one week – contact your customer to make sure the problem was resolved. Say something like: “I wanted to make sure the problem you had yesterday was resolved to your satisfaction.”
If the customer says yes, then say: “I’m glad we could take care of it for you, and we look forward to doing business with you again.”
If the answer is no, then say: “I’m very sorry and I’m glad I contacted you so we can start immediately to resolve your problem.”
After your second attempt at fixing the problem – you and your shop have done everything humanly possible to put out the highest quality repair (putting your best technician on the job, asking the insurance representative to inspect the finished product and being told it’s acceptable) – if the customer still isn’t satisfied, then it’s fair for you to suggest that he look for another vendor.
What are some other situations when it’s appropriate to fire a customer?
1. When a customer uses abusive language. No shop owner should allow a customer to swear or be verbally abusive to an employee. If a customer loses his temper and threatens an employee or gets mean and nasty, the shop owner should fire the customer.
If a customer begins to get emotional at the counter, invite him into a private office. Always isolate the angry customer from the other customers. If the customer continues to be belligerent or totally unreasonable and abusive, it’s time to terminate the meeting and escort the customer out of the building.
2. If a customer tries to “wrap old damage” into the new damage. Some shops make notes on the estimate and give their opinion to the customer. They show their results to the customer and say, “In our opinion, the following damage wasn’t related to your recent accident.” If the customer insists that it was, many shops simply refuse to do the work. In essence, they fire the customer before the customer was ever hired.
If you determine that a potential customer is trying to rip you off, simply refuse to do the work. If you do take on the job, know that you run the risk of the customer becoming a huge problem when the work is finished.
3. When the insurance company rightly wants to total a vehicle, but the customer insists on it being repaired. Let’s say the customer wants the shop to salvage the vehicle, even though it’s really not salvageable. Many shops, at this point, determine that taking on the repair will just lead to future problems and a dissatisfied customer so they attempt to dissuade the customer from having it repaired. If the customer insists, then they suggest the customer go to another shop.
4. When the client comes in to pick up the car and he points out damage that wasn’t there when he brought the car in. This problem can be solved by taking pictures during the original estimate process. Then, when the customer complains, you can point out the damage on the picture. It’s up to you whether you agree to do work for this person again.
Customers Say the Darndest Things
Need a chuckle? Check out this roundup sent in by BSB readers of funny things shop customers have complained about:
Becoming a Problem Solver
If you’re not using the process I’ve laid out here, then perhaps you haven’t done everything you could have.
Don’t be too quick to fire a customer. If you’re having lots of customer problems, take some advice from Lou Holtz (former Notre Dame football coach and now at South Carolina): “When we lost a game, the first thing I’d do is look in the mirror and ask myself, “What could I have done differently?’ “
Never forget how important customer satisfaction is to your shop’s success:
1. Repeat business is profitable.
2. Referral business doesn’t cost you anything.
3. Customer turnover is expensive.
It takes a long time to build enough trust and confidence for a customer to drop off his vehicle, toss you the keys and say: “Take care of it.”
Writer Beau Hamilton is president of Hamilton Consulting, Kirkland, Wash. Hamilton has trained and provided consulting services to the collision repair industry for almost 15 years. He conducts training workshops in leadership and customer satisfaction throughout the United States, speaks at state regional and national conventions and trade shows (NACE, SEMA) and has been retained by major automotive paint companies to provide training seminars for their customers. Hamilton can be reached at (800) 965-1115 or at [email protected]