We’ve all heard these two words from time to time. Usually it’s when the boss is trying to justify asking us to do something for free.
But what is a “good customer”? As techs, we know this is a job we’re going to do some extras on. It might only be touching up some chips, which is no big deal, but oftentimes it means painting an extra panel, fixing an extra dent or even buffing an entire car.
The specifics may vary from shop to shop, but it always means doing extra work for free or being asked how much “actual time” it will take us to perform the freebie. We’ve all experienced it, and it’s always for a “good customer.”
So what makes a customer a “good” one? To management, it might be as easy as being a longtime customer who always brings us his work and perhaps his family’s vehicles as well. Oftentimes, it may turn out that he’s just an old friend, a fishing pal or a family member.
There are a lot of reasons used to justify doing the extras for “good customers.” Some might be, “They’ve been coming to us for years,” “They won’t let anyone but us work on their cars,” “It keeps people coming back to us” or “It’s as good as advertising because it brings referrals.”
And while these may all be legitimate reasons for doing the extras, I ask myself, at what cost and to whom?
I know we all like to think that most shops out there do quality work, but this simply isn’t the case. There are more shops out there doing work that’s considered “commercially acceptable” than shops that are committed to doing repairs at the highest level of quality possible. I, on the other hand, am lucky enough to be employed at a shop that’s dedicated to an extremely high standard of quality.
One of the benefits of working in a shop that’s dedicated to doing quality work is that I can sleep with a clear conscience. I can also hold my head up high wearing my uniform shirt to my son’s football practice or in the local grocery store, without having to fear that I’ll run into an unhappy customer.
However, a quality repair requires more time to be spent on procedures such as cutting and buffing, not to mention featheredging, priming and blocking – all of which aren’t paid for by insurance companies in most areas. By my own calculations, I figure that a quality-oriented paint shop spends approximately 25% more “actual time” on each job than is on the ticket by performing the above procedures. And, for a “good customer,” we’re expected to do even more for free or for “actual time.”
Even if we do get paid “actual time,” most of our efficiency rates are over 200%, which won’t be considered in an “actual time” calculation. In addition to a commission tech’s pay, there’s also the issue of the material profit, or lack thereof, which somehow always seems to be the fault of the paint department or the jobber’s prices.
As a commission tech, I’m always thinking of ways to be more efficient and profitable, not only to increase my own earnings but those of the shop as well. However, I do have to admit that, as a family man, I think of my future, too. While most owners and managers will say that doing extra work for “good customers” will keep work coming in the door, it offers no long-term advantage to the average commission tech. After all, most of us techs employed at independent body shops have no retirement, no profit sharing or anything else to look forward to at the age of 65, if we even live that long.
So all this pro bono work does nothing but build the reputation of the shop and the retirement capabilities of the owner. And let’s face it, we’ve all heard it before – everyone is replaceable. So when push comes to shove, we can all be replaced at any time, for any number of reasons. (Hopefully writing an article for BSB isn’t one of them!) And if that happens, how will all the extra work done for “good customers” have benefited the recently unemployed tech?
I also have to wonder if doing freebies and pro bono work in place of advertising or marketing could have a negative impact on the shop. After all, once you give something away, is it possible that you’ve set a precedent for that customer? The next time he comes back, will he have something else that he expects us to “take care of” for free?
Once we give something away, how can we ever justify charging full price again? In addition, when we give something away, are we possibly sending a message to customers that we can afford to do this because we overcharged them in the first place? Let’s face it, we all compare prices in this world. When something is free or cheaper, doesn’t it raise suspicions as to why?
Take a car dealership advertisement, for example: “We’ll give you $2,000 for any trade! Push, pull or drag it in.”
Thing is, everyone then assumes that the dealership will just mark up the price of the car to coincide with the actual value of the trade-in.
Is this what we want our customers to think we do?
All that said, I now have to ask, what kind of work do we do for a “bad customer”?
Do we do less work than is on the estimate? Of course not!
Do we perform a lesser-quality repair? No! We still cut and buff the painted panels and send the car to the detail department with the same quality-minded attitude for the repair.
Oh, and we don’t do any pro bono work.
So, from a commission tech standpoint, a “bad customer” is more profitable. It sounds like an insane statement, but it’s true. A “bad customer” is more profitable for the commission tech and the shop.
The word “bad customer” isn’t the right term though.
How about “satisfied customer” or “happy customer”? Yep, that’s the customer I want to work for. A customer who appreciates a good quality job at a competitive price.
As long as our work is better than the “commercially acceptable” work of our competitors, isn’t that enough to keep them coming back? Won’t that be enough to get them to refer their friends, neighbors and family to us? I would think so.
And it will be because of the quality of our work, not because of what we give away.
Writer Frank Hauf began his career in the auto body industry in a combo shop more than 20 years ago in the northern suburbs of Chicago. For the last eight years, he’s been living on the Alabama Gulf Coast and working as a painter.