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Call Me! Turning Callers into Customers

When potential customers call in, are you impressing them or annoying them? If you’re not sure, consider these nine tips for turning callers into customers.

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In any small business, the telephone is a lifeline to success. Yet, for many body shops, the telephone is seen as a nuisance. It seems to ring at all the wrong times, and the incoming calls just interrupt important work that needs to be done.

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Or do they …

What you need to realize is that many of your sales originate from telephone calls. Yes, telephone calls can be distracting, but without them, you’d be out of business.

"I think the telephone is a crucial part of making our body shop successful," says Ken Batts, owner of Batts Body & Paint in Greensboro, N.C. "The telephone forms a first impression for many of our customers, and that first impression is critical."

Because the impression you give over the phone is so important, the following nine suggestions will help you use the telephone to your advantage.

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1. Get your number out to the public — Since you’re in a service business, good telephone accessibility for your customers and prospects is a key component in your marketing plan. In fact, most shops can’t afford to spend a lot of money on marketing and, frankly, don’t need to. But it’s imperative that you take every opportunity to let your customers know how to reach you.

The phone book is the first place to start. You should get an automatic listing in the business section of your local phone book. As for the Yellow Pages, consider a modest display ad in addition to the normal listing. The Yellow Pages will be your best source of "cold calling," and a good display ad will draw several calls a year from prospective customers who don’t know any local body shops. Landing a few of these per year will more than pay for an ad. In addition, people more familiar with the shops in your market also may use the Yellow Pages to select a body shop. Your display ad should include the name of your business, your location, your hours, your areas of specialty (if you have any), your telephone and fax numbers, and your e-mail address.

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Batts, who’s owned his shop for 17 years, cautions not to go overboard with a Yellow Pages ad. "We do run a small Yellow Pages ad and that helps," he says. "We did try a much larger ad several years ago to see what would happen but didn’t really notice a lot more business because of it. You need a Yellow Pages ad, but I don’t think the size of it matters that much."

Batts points to another way he gets the word out about Batts Body & Paint. He keeps an ample supply of business cards on hand to be distributed at service club meetings and anywhere else in the community he might run into prospective customers.

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If you’re going to do this, make sure your card includes all methods by which you can be reached — telephone number, voice-mail number, pager number, cell-phone number, fax number and e-mail address. And keep your business card up to date if any of your numbers change.

2. Keep your in-office telephone system up to date — Have you ever called a business and gotten a busy signal? Or maybe the phone rang 15 times before someone answered it. Pretty annoying, huh? Is this happening in your shop? If it is, it’s time for a new phone system.

Batts has had the same phone system for six years. And while the three incoming lines have been sufficient for his telephone traffic, the shop recently experienced problems with the telephones themselves. "We just replaced all of the phones in our shop," he says. "We were having problems with the receivers, and our customers couldn’t always hear us very well. It’s important to keep the phone system in good working order."

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In keeping with the "Your Telephone Is Your Lifeline" theory, it’s vitally important to keep that lifeline completely open — and it won’t be if your phone system gets out of date and can no longer handle the volume of calls coming in.

Consider the following pointers regarding what your telephone system should and shouldn’t include:

• It works best if everybody in your shop’s office (administrative staff, estimators, management) has his or her own phone line.

• Make sure you buy a system that ensures no busy signals.

• Don’t buy call waiting. You won’t score any points with customers if you interrupt their calls to take others.

• Don’t share telephone, fax or computer modem lines, even if you operate out of your home. You might save a few dollars by having only one telephone line, but the loss in productivity you’ll suffer from being able to perform only one function at a time will cost you dearly.

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• Consider other options such as caller ID (allows you to identify the number of the incoming caller before answering), voice mail, pager, conference calling, etc., based on the needs of your shop.

• Don’t let the cost deter you. Most phone systems can be leased with little or no money down. The monthly payment may seem daunting, but a good telephone system will more than pay for itself.

3. First impressions are critical — As Batts stated previously, first impressions of body shops are often formed on the telephone because many incoming calls are from people you don’t know at all or with whom you have infrequent contact. Because first impressions are critical, it’s recommended to have a central line that’s answered by a salesperson or clerk. Most people like to at least have the option of talking to a human.

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If the designated person who answers the phone is already on the phone or out, it’s best to have the call automatically roll to another line. If this isn’t possible because everyone is busy, have a cordial message programmed into the system to automatically answer the call and explain that no one is available to take the call — but that it will be returned promptly if they leave a message. As mentioned, a busy signal or no answer at this point in the telephone call might just mean a lost sale. At the least, it’ll be annoying.

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Speaking of annoying, is the person who usually answers your phone pleasant — or unpleasant? Try this. The next few times you call into your shop, pay close attention to the tone of voice and the actual greeting used by the person answering. You might also want to check with some clients you know well and ask them what they think of your telephone response system. They’re likely to provide frank input as to whether the first impression left with your clients is positive or negative.

Batts agrees, saying he keeps tabs on the telephone courtesy level of his shop personnel. "I listen to our people when they’re on the phone to make sure they’re being courteous," he says. "If a customer goes to the trouble to call in, the least we can do is treat him with courtesy and respect."

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4. Be direct and honest —When your assistant routes a call to you or you return a voice-mail message, take heed: If you aren’t careful here, you really can blow it.

No matter how busy you might be, don’t ever give the client the impression that he’s interrupted you or that you’re in a hurry to get off the phone.

Be polite. Find out from the customer exactly what’s needed. Ask any questions that are pertinent, and then give the customer the opportunity to ask you any questions.

When it comes time to discuss the fee and time frame for completion, try to under promise and over deliver. Following the opposite credo has tarnished the reputation of many body shops.

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"I think it’s important not to mislead a customer about the period of time it will take to fix his car," Batts says. "I’d rather deal with someone being mad up front because it’ll take a while for his car to be fixed and then get it done sooner."

Batts also insists that his employees immediately call customers when it’s discovered that parts will be back ordered.

5. Follow the Sundown Rule — This one is simple, but it may be the most important one on the list: No matter what system you use to gather phone messages, you should be committed (a little bit obsessive if need be) to returning all telephone calls promptly. In fact, the Sundown Rule should be followed whenever possible. The Sundown Rule simply means that all telephone calls are returned the same day in which they’re received. While you might not get to the ones that come in after 5 p.m., you should be able to return most others that day.

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6. Train your employees — It’s important to let your employees know that good telephone manners are essential and exactly what you expect them to say on the phone. If you have a scripted greeting that you’d like them to use, share it with the appropriate employees. Likewise, make sure you have a plan for handling call transfers, message taking (if you’ve ever been given a message with a wrong return number, you know how important this is), voice-mail messages, etc.

"When we hire a new employee, we have him sit with one of our existing employees for a while to see how we approach customer service and other aspects of the job," says Batts. "And part of this on-the-job training is seeing how telephone calls are handled."

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It’s also important to let employees know what they’re not to say on the phone. Because you may not want some employees quoting estimates or job completion dates, make sure they’re aware of what they can and cannot discuss.

"We have two guys up front who handle all of our insurance company calls," says Batts. "We also have those same two guys doing all of our estimates and talking to customers on the phone or in person about the estimate. We all pitch in for general calls, but they’re the only ones in the shop allowed to quote estimates."

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Batts also uses the telephone for proactive follow-up after a customer has gotten his vehicle back. "We do follow-up calls to see how people were treated at our shop," he says. "We try to do this as often as possible to make sure everything is being handled right."

7. Voice mail can be your friend — Voice mail seems to be one of those technological innovations that people either love or hate. Regardless of how you feel about it, there does appear to be a growing trend in business toward the use of it.

In a body shop, voice mail can be a useful tool, but it’s best to keep it simple. Some voice-mail systems offer a half dozen or more options when the phone is answered, but this will likely annoy a prospective customer who’s simply called in to see when his car will be ready.

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A few other key points regarding voice mail include:

• Keep voice-mail answering messages brief: identify yourself, say whether or not you’re in the office and what time you anticipate returning voice-mail messages.

• If you have an answering machine, throw it out right now and replace it with a voice-mail system.

• Update your message regularly, particularly if you’re away from your shop a lot.

• Check your voice-mail messages often and follow the Sundown Rule.

• If possible, also allow a "human" option — most systems will allow the caller to opt out to a live person.

Batts says he’s resisted putting a voice-mail system in because he thinks it’s "impersonal." "We have to put customers on hold a lot, which is bad enough," he says, inadvertently pointing out another advantage of voice mail: Many customers would rather leave a message than be put on hold for more than 20 seconds. Of course, they’ll expect a prompt reply to the message they leave, so if you install a voice-mail system, be sure to check messages regularly and respond promptly.

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8. Cellular phones are here to stay — If you don’t already have a cellular telephone, you might want to consider purchasing one, which will make you more accessible when you’re out of the shop or out of town.

Most cellular companies now give away the phone to customers who sign up for a one-year contract for phone service. Many options are now offered with cellular service, too. Even if you already have a cellular phone, check with your provider to see which new services are available. Some of these services include fraud protection, multiple phones on the same line, paging, voice mail, call forwarding, call waiting that can be deactivated, no-answer transfer and conference calling.

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Improved hardware options also make cell phones easier and safer to use. You can purchase a cell phone that’s mobile and that can be carried anywhere (within range of a cell tower). Also, headsets and speaker cell phones that make talking in a car much safer are now sold. Other suggestions regarding cell-phone usage: price shopping different providers in your area, providing your cell-phone number in your voice-mail message when you’re out, always keeping the cell phone on when you’re in the car and making sure the cell-phone service you choose covers your whole geographical service area. (Instead of a cellular phone, you might want to consider the new digital phones. Current packages are very attractive — some give you 600 free minutes for $89 per month with no long-distance or roaming charges.)

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Some shop owners don’t use cell phones due to the safety aspect. However, with enhanced safety features such as those referenced above, a cell phone probably makes sense for any shop owner who’s out of the office a lot. But if you find that you simply aren’t able to drive and talk on the phone at the same time, make sure you have good coverage back at the shop while you’re gone.

9. Consider long-distance service carefully — The only product in the United States more confusing than consumer long-distance service is business long-distance service! There seem to be as many options out there as there are small businesses.

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To help un-confuse yourself, consider the following:

• If you receive a lot of long-distance calls, get an 800 number.

• Price your long-distance service regularly.

• Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples when looking at different long-distance service options.

• Make sure your long-distance service is compatible with your other telephone services.

Call Me!
Are you confident that your telephone system and etiquette are as client friendly and as efficient as they should be? If not, try implementing some of this article’s recommendations. If you do, you’re likely to see an increase in sales and a better bottom line.

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"You don’t realize how much you need your phone until the service goes out," says Batts. "We’ve had some construction going on near our shop and the lines have been knocked out a few times. It gets real quiet around here when that happens — and it’s not a good kind of quiet."

Writer J. Tol Broome Jr. is a financial expert who’s been in the lending business for 15 years. He’s also a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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