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Customer Relations: Who’s the Customer?

The vehicle owner has taken a backseat in today’s collision industry, and it’s time to put them back in their rightful place.

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Angelo DiTullio started in the collision business in his father's shop at seven years old. He has been both a shop manager and regional manager for the past 20 years. He has worked for the insurance industry, family-owned body shops, regional MSOs and national body shops. He's currently a district manager for Abra. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Isn’t it interesting that in 2015, we don’t know or aren’t sure who our customer is? Is it the vehicle owner? Or is it the insurance company who, in most cases, is paying the bill or may have even sent the job to your shop?

There probably aren’t many industries where this is even a question. This factor is one of many that make us a very unique industry.

I think the vehicle owner has taken a backseat in today’s collision industry, and I feel it’s important to bring them back to the place where they belong. With DRPs, whether you’re a supporter or not, the customer mistakenly becomes an afterthought at times – almost a person we’re annoyed to deal with while we handle the important part, the vehicle.

The DRP Era

One of the negatives of the DRP era is that it has allowed some shops to become “processors” instead of businesspeople. The vehicle just magically appears at our door and assignments show up in our estimating systems. No real work was done to earn that customer, and many times no real work is put into earning them as future customers. Our attitude is almost like, “Who needs to waste time on the people end when there will be more where they came from?”

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For obvious reasons, this is a dangerous risk to take when doing business. Where’s the human factor? Where has the personal touch gone? We concentrate too much on the steel and plastic and not enough on the flesh and blood of the customer. I believe this is especially true in the MSO model, which is usually DRP heavy.

Our industry is slowly and steadily going the way of pharmacies and home improvement centers. It’s the American way today to limit customer choice and customer service as well.

Differentiating Yourself

With the world the way it is today, you can differentiate yourself and your business by actually caring for and servicing the customer.

We all know how it feels to be a number in today’s world, and it doesn’t take much to treat the customer like they deserve. Don’t be a processor; work on the fine art of customer service. The benefits are clear for any business, especially in the DRP environment. Don’t lose sight that in this environment, if you made no impression on the customer and didn’t do anything to earn their future business, they may not come back to you in the future on their own. Your attitude should not be, “There will be more where they came from.” If that’s your company’s way of doing business, then you’re dependent upon an insurer spoonfeeding you work. And if tomorrow they send the customer somewhere else, then that’s where they’re going.

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The Vehicle Owner

What I’m writing about isn’t groundbreaking or new, yet like everything I write, there’s a lot of opportunity to do it. And it’s there now and costs nothing. All you need to do is change your attitude and way of thinking. w The answer to that question should be firmly and totally: the vehicle owner. They should be treated like the valuable commodity they are and should also be involved in the collision repair process. Yes, you should focus on the vehicle and the insurer who is paying, but not at the expense of the customer.

From the first phone call, the customer should feel cared for and feel like they’re in the capable hands of a professional. Care for the person; be sure to ask if everyone is OK. Make it personal and let them know who you are and that you will be personally taking them through this new and sometimes confusing process. Give them your direct phone number. Tell them what to expect from you next and give them a timetable of events. If you’re asked a question you don’t have the answer to, honestly tell them that and when you will have an answer. Don’t give someone an answer you can’t commit to.

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When the customer arrives to drop off their vehicle, they should be treated like an old friend or family member. They should not be treated like they’re disturbing you from doing the important paperwork in front of you. Treating the customer warmly and professionally will earn you instant credibility.

Go out and look at their vehicle with them and explain what you’re seeing, what could be hidden and what you plan to do. A good exercise for managers is to pay attention to what your people are saying and doing when dealing with customers. Does your operation treat people the way they should be treated? Have you confirmed it?

Once the vehicle is disassembled and the estimate written, be sure to involve the customer again. Explain what you found and offer to show them. Explain it in person if they’re willing to come by. Steer away from industry terms like R&I and teardown. Explain everything in plain English and set expectations for what’s to come. Don’t be afraid to ask them if they have any questions. Also, and very importantly, let them know the extra things that you the shop are doing for them.

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For example, the dealerships I work for regularly price match OEM parts to aftermarket or LKQ parts written by the insurer. The customer deserves to know what we as their shop did for them as a courtesy and as a customer service. Their insurer wrote for LKQ and aftermarket, and we as their shop upgraded their repair at no cost to them. They won’t know this unless you explain it to them.

This is also a great time to either explain for the first time or remind the customer what makes your shop different from others in your marketplace.

People don’t automatically know all of the things that make your shop stand out from all of the others in your area. Talk about the investment you have put into your facility. Don’t be shy about sharing information about your facility and your equipment and what it does. Explain your paint system and the warranty you provide. There should be many things that make your business special, but what good are these things if you never bring them up for anyone to know? You should be proud of your facility, the equipment and the special things you do for your customers. If you’re not, then you have a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. All of this helps when a green appraiser says, “I can’t pay for that because the other shops in the area don’t ask for it.” Your educated customer can be your advocate, since you made them aware of all the things that make your shop special.

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Make It Personal

Keep the customer informed as to what is happening with their vehicle. Instead of making promises you’re not sure you can keep, focus on the facts and what has been accomplished.

Open your doors and invite them at any time to come in and see the repairs firsthand. If you’re hesitant to do that, then your shop probably has some underlying issues that need to be addressed. Make the bond with your customer personal. I want the kind of relationship with my customers where they ask for me years later. My goal is to have the customer tell their friends, “Hey, if you ever need anything with your car, you’ve got to call my guy Angelo over there at Nucar, he’ll take care of you.” Focus on the person first and the car second.

Keep the customer informed throughout the process and let them know when the repairs are close to being completed. Don’t call them at 4 o’clock on Friday and tell them they have an hour to come pick up their vehicle. Give them ample time to prepare and make the arrangements they need to.

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Inspect the Vehicle

Before you call them, be sure you have personally checked their vehicle. Don’t just grab the keys and call them before you yourself have had a chance to do an inspection. My standing rule at my shops is that the person who’s going to be delivering the vehicle back to the customer must go out and do their own inspection first before the customer arrives. How many times have you handed the customer the keys only to see them walking back in with a very obvious and easily fixable issue. If you had looked before the customer arrived, you could have addressed it first.

Many times, I’ve asked front office people to inspect a vehicle before a customer picks it up. Non-shop or non-technical people are able to pick out things that we at times as shop people or managers either don’t notice or let fly. Having a non-professional set of eyes inspect the repair is a valuable technique, as that is how your customer will be viewing their vehicle.

Satisfaction

So once you’ve inspected the repairs, you’re able to call the customer and let them know to come to the shop to pick up their vehicle and that you’ve inspected their vehicle and it looks great.

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Take them out to the vehicle and go over everything that was done and anything extra you may have done for them. Ask them if they like what they see so far, and if they have any questions. Once the paperwork is completed, ask them if they’re completely satisfied and explain your company’s and the insurer’s survey process. Don’t be afraid to tell them how important these surveys are and ask if there is any reason why they feel they would not be able to give you and your company all 10s and yesses. Finally, give them your card again and tell them to please call you first if they need anything at all for any reason. Lastly, thank them for their business. So often we don’t thank someone for their business. Without them, there would be no business. We wouldn’t be able to live our lives and do what we do without them.

Summary

Bring back the old-fashioned art of customer service to your job and your business. The rewards will be plain to see. Never forget it’s the owner of the car who is your customer. They’re the most important part in the repair equation!

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