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Back to Basics: Customer Service

Is there anyone more important in a collision repair facility than a customer? No – which is why you have to do a better job of focusing on managing the customer’s experience, not just the repair.

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Hank Nunn is a 35-year collision industry veteran. He is now retired.

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Part 6 of a 6-part series. See Part 1 (Marketing), Part 2 (Selling), Part 3 (Damage Analysis), Part 4 (Track KPIs) and Part 5 (Financials)

In the Back to Basics series which began in the November 2010 issue of BodyShop Business, we’ve discussed marketing, sales, damage analysis, production KPIs and financials. We’ve brought the customer to the door, sold the job, completed a damage analysis, produced a repaired vehicle and counted the money. In this final Back to Basics article, we’ll look at improving customer service in the collision repair facility.

No. 1 Priority

Is there anyone more important in a collision repair facility than a customer? Arguments could be made for the importance of everyone, from the owner/manager to the detailer. But if there’s no customer, there’s no need for any of the other positions. Everyone in the collision repair center must understand that everything revolves around the customer.

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We’re all somebody’s customer. Think for a moment about a recent memorable customer service experience you had. Was it good or bad? In management seminars for the past 20 years, I’ve asked people about their last customer service experience. Usually, the stories are bad – especially if the experience has to do with the phone/cable company or an airline! Auto repair tales of woe are
also commonplace.

It’s important to understand that a customer’s experience actually defines the customer’s perception of quality. Consultant Allan Acton said in “The Carrot Principle” by Gostic and Elton: “In any service industry, the perceived quality of a product is set by the behavior of the associate. Take car repair. I don’t know the first thing about repairing an engine – my perception of quality comes from how I was treated, if the associates were kind and polite, if the shop calls me to check up on the repair. These are the behaviors that will drive satisfaction and build a strong reputation for quality.”

My non-statistically valid personal experience backs that up. I fly a lot. When asked by the person sitting next to me what I do, I usually respond, “I’m a consultant in the collision repair industry. You know, auto body shops.” Then, my fellow flyer generally recounts their last experience with a collision repair center. Note, I said “experience.” Twenty years ago, they talked about the car. Today, they talk about the experience.

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Successful collision repairers are now focused on managing the customer’s experience, not just the repair.

CSI

To manage anything, we must be able to measure it. Customer service is evaluated by measuring a customer satisfaction index, or CSI. We need to place a number or value on customers’ perception of how well the collision repair facility satisfied their needs.

This may be done several ways. You can do it yourself with postcards or letters surveying past customers. Do-it-yourself packages are available from industry suppliers. Or you can have a third party do it for you, either by mail or phone. Most DRPs require some sort of CSI measurement.

The best method is the use of an independent third party CSI service, surveying a sufficient number of customers to provide statistically valid results. The results are then tabulated and a CSI score is generated.

No matter which method you choose, measure CSI. And do it for the right reason. I see many trying to “manage the score,” or trying to maintain a high number without regard to the value of the information. Some cherry-pick ROs submitted, deleting people from the score who are known to be unhappy. That defeats the purpose of measuring CSI.

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Unhappy people tell 16 people that they’re unhappy, yet only 4 percent of the people who are unhappy tell the service vendor that they’re not happy. CSI systems are designed to catch the unhappy person – before they have a chance to tell everyone they know about the bad experience. CSI systems give us the chance to correct the situation and convert an unhappy customer into a raving fan of the company.

In the “lean” world, CSI provides the “voice of the customer,” which drives all systems.

Just as with any other aspect of the business, begin measuring CSI to determine your current level of customer-perceived satisfaction as a baseline so you can see the positive or negative effect of changes in your systems. When you reach high CSI scores, they can be used to document verifiable trust to insurers and customers.

Customer service, and high CSI scores, happen inside the mind of the customer, not on or to the vehicle!

Interesting fact: As I was writing this, I was sitting in first class on a United flight from Portland to Chicago. That should have been a good thing, but unfortunately I experienced bad customer service. Statistically, unhappy customers tell 16 people – unless the unhappy customer is a consultant and writer. In that case, they tell thousands.

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Moments of Truth

Moments of truth were first defined by Jan Calzon in his book, “Moments of Truth.” Moments of truth are defined as any chance we have to create an impression in the mind of a customer or potential customer.

These moments of truth happen all the time. Once the customer begins looking for a collision repair center, they encounter many moments of truth. The Yellow Pages ad or Internet search, the phone call, directions to the shop, the appearance of the building, the front door, and the speed and kindness of the initial greeting are all moments of truth. Any customer contact is a moment of truth for the business!

Take a look at your shop from the customer’s point of view. How easy are you to find? How does the building look, and are customer parking places clearly marked? Has staff been trained on proper phone skills, and how well are customers greeted?

High CSI scores may be achieved my managing moments of truth and making them all positive.

The First Ring

Many feel customer service begins with the writing of the estimate or with the first customer visit to the collision repair center. Some feel that it begins with the first call.

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In reality, customer service begins with the first ring of the phone. In the customer’s mind, you have three rings to properly answer the phone. If the phone isn’t answered until the fourth ring, or the phone isn’t properly answered, that important moment of truth is negative and may even cost a sale!

Remember, CSI is a score that’s created by the customer’s perception of their experience with the collision repair center. So focus attention and communication on the customer, not the damaged vehicle. Think of it this way: The vehicle cannot sign an RO and has no money. The customer can sign the RO and has money. Focus on the customer.

Qualification

This begins with the initial customer contact. Spend time with the customer with a complete qualification process. Many do this with the completion of a customer information form. While some may ask the customer to complete the form themselves, completing the form for the customer and using that time to demonstrate empathy and establish trust is critical to laying the foundation for the sale and ensuring customer satisfaction.

In the DRP environment, many of us skip the qualification stage of the sales process since we’ve got everything we need in the insurance assignment. Remember, the benefit of the DRP is the customer coming through the door – and the chance to convert that insurance referral to a raving fan customer of our shop. The DRP customer wants empathy. They want to feel important just like any other customer. Don’t rush the process. Don’t skip completing a customer information form. Go through the entire process and demonstrate empathy.

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Don’t Lie

Don’t lie, manage customer expectations. Tell the truth. Don’t lie to get a job. Don’t over promise and under deliver.

We see it in estimators’ offices all the time: “It’s a three- or four-day job, and we can get started right away.” But the reality is that “It will be three days before we see an adjuster, and we’re running a two-week backlog, so you’ll be lucky to see your car again before the end of the month. But I get paid on commission so I’m going to grab this while I can because once you sign the RO and I pull a wheel off this baby, it’s money in the bank!”

Manage expectations by being honest with the customer and fully explaining the process in clear, non-technical language. Guide the customer toward realistic expectations.

Avoid promise dates whenever possible. If you’re blueprinting, setting target dates should be avoided until the vehicle is blueprinted and the status of parts and insurance approvals is known. At a minimum, if you see a “three- or four-day repair,” say four. If you say “three or four days,” the customer hears three. If you get it done in four, you think you’re on time. But the customer perception is that you promised three and delivered four, and therefore you’re a day late.

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Status Updates

There are many factors that contribute to good CSI scores, including professionalism, quality and on-time evaluations. In the customer’s mind, a quality repair delivered on time by a professional is a given. They expect that.

Studies have demonstrated that the most important factor in customer satisfaction is simply keeping the customer informed about the status of their vehicle’s repairs. In fact, a customer who receives their repaired vehicle a day late but was kept informed will provide a higher CSI score than the customer who received their vehicle on time but was not kept informed! (Source: Mitchell AutocheX White Paper)

This factor is so important that, during initial qualification, the customer should be asked how frequently they want to be updated and which method of update they prefer.

“Mrs. Jones, how frequently would you like me to provide status updates during the repair? Would you prefer I call your home, your office, your cell? Or would you like an e-mail or text?”

Once the customer has defined the method and frequency of updates, it’s up to you to satisfy that request. In some management systems, e-mails or texts are automatically sent to customers by pre-set timing. Whether you use an automated system or a simple calendar, update the customer!

Keep it Simple

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Keep all customer communication simple. Avoid technical jargon, and answer questions honestly and briefly. There’s no point in speaking ill of competitors or insurers. Keep answers short and to the point and in clear, non-collision language.

Customers have no idea what many of our common terms mean, including “DRP.” Simply saying “We’re a DRP for your insurer” may sound like a foreign language to them. Explain what a DRP is and what the advantages are – unless you’re not a DRP for their insurer, in which case you should explain what a DRP is and why the customer should choose your shop instead of the DRP.

Make sure you’ve answered all of the customer’s questions. Most of us don’t eagerly share due to insecurity or lack of knowledge. That goes for customers, too. They don’t want to say, “I’m still unsure about…” They’ll just politely nod their head and leave, with questions still in their mind. We need to continue communication, making sure they understand everything.

For example, I watched an estimator do a great job of qualifying a customer, handling objections and trying to make the sale. But the customer was a “customer pay.” The customer left, supposedly to make a decision, and the estimator told me that he “wastes” lots of time on customer-pay estimates. Had he listened to the customer, he would have understood that the customer was still unsure about the process and needed help making the decision about whether it’s best to pay out of pocket or file an insurance claim. The customer left with unanswered questions. Had the estimator provided assistance and information to help the customer answer his questions, he would have gotten the job.

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Summary

Improving customer satisfaction boils down to treating customers just as we would all like to be treated. Answer the phone, professionally, by the third ring. Focus on the customer, not the vehicle. Listen, truly listen, to the customer. Be honest and keep the communications clear and non-technical.  And, most importantly, keep the customer informed throughout the process by the method and frequency the customer suggests.

Then, when the repairs are completed, confirm that you’ve fulfilled your promise to keep the customer informed. Find ways to continually remind the customer that your collision repair center fulfilled its promises and convert that customer from just another customer into a raving fan salesperson for your facility.


Learn to Listen

In his book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey tells us that we only hear 25 percent of what’s said to us.

No one wants to come to a collision repair facility. Our customer is uneasy and fearful of the experience. They want empathy, understanding and assistance.

To improve customer satisfaction, be the person who truly listens to the customer. Let them share the details of the accident and express their feelings. No matter how many times you’ve heard the story, act like it’s the first time!

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Hank Nunn worked in the collision repair industry in a variety of roles for more than 35 years. He is now retired. If you would like more information on the subject you just read about, email BodyShop Business Editor Jason Stahl at [email protected].

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