If Customers Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy - BodyShop Business

If Customers Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

While progressive collision repairers are relying more and more on computerized equipment, paperless processing and electronic transactions, old fashioned customer care - friendly, timely, convenient and cost-effective service - is still the key to repeat and referral business.

When it comes to operating a successful business, one subject surpasses all others in terms of prevalence. It influences daily actions, monthly budgets and annual strategic plans. Handle it wisely and you’ll enjoy profitability and prominence. Ignore it or misjudge its importance and you can be certain of one thing: failure.

What is this omnipotent force with the ferocity to crush an otherwise savvy business?

It’s not the Internet, though e-commerce plays an increasingly pivotal role in how many companies manage this critical issue. It’s not Wall Street, although the investment community – like most major industries – spends millions of dollars each year to address this issue. And, despite the fact that some people claim advertising is the answer to marketplace dominance, advertising is still overshadowed by this driving force.

What is it? Customer service.

That’s right. Good, old-fashioned customer service. While the collision repair industry relies more and more on computerized equipment, paperless processing and electronic transactions, the traditional factors of great customer care – friendly, timely, convenient and cost-effective service – are the keys to repeat and referral business.

Think about it. When you buy anything, large or small – a cup of coffee, a meal in a restaurant or even a new home – your experience is shaped by the service you receive, along with the product you purchase. If your encounter meets or exceeds your expectations, you’ll generally describe the exchange as positive. And chances are good you’ll recommend the coffee shop, restaurant or realtor to people you know.

On the other hand, if your visit to the local Java Joint involves a hostile, sluggish server who charges you a small fortune for tasteless Colombian, you’ll probably tell an even greater number of people about the disappointing service and the bad brew. And you’ll most likely find another coffee shop to patronize.

The bottom line is, bad customer service – especially when coupled with inferior or unsatisfactory goods and services – can have a fatal impact on your shop’s profitability.

When the Customer Wants You to Cheat
The importance of customer service is nothing new, but in our industry, it presents a truly challenging dynamic. The triangular connection between consumers, insurance carriers and collision repair professionals demands delicate handling and diplomacy. In many cases, it’s a matter of perception vs. reality – how consumers and insurance carriers view the collision repair industry – combined with the emotional impact of the accident or damage that led to the need for vehicle repair.

“The entire dynamic of the consumer, collision repairer and insurer is fairly unique to any type of business/consumer relationship, except maybe the health care business,” says Roger Wright, vice president of insurance for CARSTAR. “[Some] consumers believe it’s ‘pay day’ if they have an accident; they believe the accident means they can collect for years of paying high premiums.

“Consumers may ask the repairer to fix additional damage on the vehicle and to charge the insurer. Of course, the repairer wants to maintain the relationship with

the insurer, so he refuses. In the end, consumers think this is ‘bad’ customer service and may take their vehicle to another facility until they get the response they want.”

There are no simple answers to this complicated scenario, though Wright says that clear communication is the best approach to take with customers who make inappropriate requests.

“We explain to the vehicle owner that we have two customers,” says Wright. “They’re the primary customer, but we also have a business relationship with the insurance company. We have to be conscious of their interest in managing premium costs and ensuring safe and accurate vehicle repairs for their customers. If a repair shop agrees to repair something that’s unrelated to the accident or damage, they’re actually cheating the insurance company. In turn, they’re also cheating the consumer because it will contribute to increased premiums or related costs.”

Wright also recommends that shops maintain standard procedures and practices throughout every step of the vehicle repair process. “This may sound elementary,” he says, “but you’d be surprised at the number of shops that ignore the essential wisdom of best practices and standardized systems. By employing a standardized approach, your shop has a greater opportunity to deliver consistent quality. In turn, reliable performance helps solidify your relationships with insurers and, consequently, consumers, who respond favorably to the quality work your shop produces by following standard procedures and practices.”

Managing Customer Expectations
When it comes to customer service, there’s always room for improvement. Perhaps the greatest mistake made by shops is failing to completely shape the consumer’s expectations at the beginning of the repair process. While we handle thousands of cars each year, most customers only have an accident once every seven years. Yet we take for granted that they’ll understand everything about the process, from the initial appraisal and documentation to delivery.

Shop owners need to infuse customer education into the process. Our training program at CARSTAR features specific instruction on some of the most important aspects of customer service. This includes even such basic things as identifying the customer, communicating vehicle status and explaining details of the repair process to the customer at the beginning of his experience with the shop.

We’re also exploring e-commerce solutions that will augment telephone calls and face-to-face conversations. Our online vehicle status reports will allow customers and insurance carriers to track repair status at their convenience. But this new technology won’t replace traditional customer service procedures. It’ll simply add another dimension to make it even more convenient for our customers to stay informed about their vehicle during the repair process.

The bottom line is honesty and integrity. If we accurately forecast delivery dates, we’ll deliver the optimum package of timely service with quality repairs. The trouble begins when shops make unrealistic promises or fail to meet customer expectations with vehicle status reports or delivery dates.

Ed Gapsch at Gapsch’s CARSTAR Collision Center in St. Louis says missing promised delivery dates can be a red flag with consumers. “Once customers are upset, they’ll usually scrutinize the entire experience, including repair quality and service,” says Gapsch. “They’ll ask more questions and repeatedly examine the repair to look for errors. In many instances, they’ll also complain to their insurance company and be less likely to recommend the repair shop to friends, family members and neighbors. It can really have a tremendous ripple effect.”

Although most shops would try to accommodate customers with apologies, reimbursement for rental cars or other actions, the customer’s trust in the shop is damaged and can rarely be totally restored.

Guy Maniscalo at Avondale/Orsahl CARSTAR in Chicago agrees that missed delivery dates are problematic. “Regardless of the reason for the delay, the customer is angry because he expects to pick up his vehicle and it’s not ready,” says Maniscalo. “When this happens, we talk with the customer to find out his main concern. Does he need his car for work purposes? Is he only available to pick up his car on a certain day or at a certain time? There can be many reasons the delay is a problem, and we try to find a solution to help lessen the disappointment. We may offer to get him a rental car or drop off the vehicle at his home when the repair is complete, or offer to pick him up and bring him to the repair shop to pick up his car. In addition, we also give him a gift certificate to a local restaurant to apologize for the inconvenience.”

How Do You Know If Customers Are Happy?
There are several ways to measure your customer service capabilities. The most basic: Stop, look and listen. Do your customers appear to be pleased? Are they smiling? Do they sound satisfied? You can discover a great amount of information through observation.

Of course, measurable data is a more reliable way to track performance, quality and customer service. At CARSTAR, customers receive a brief questionnaire after their repaired vehicle is delivered. The form asks them to rate our operation on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. We wanted the process to be easy and fast to encourage more customers to share their feedback on five basic areas of influence related to performance, quality and customer care. The questionnaire includes the following statements:

  • The office/waiting area was clean and comfortable.
  • I was dealt with in a highly professional manner.
  • The repair of my vehicle met my expectations.
  • The insurance company worked well with this store on my behalf.
  • I would recommend others to have their vehicle repaired here.

These are only the most basic aspects of the customer experience. But they allow our individual stores to keep an eye on how consumers rate their professionalism and performance. The cards also help our Franchise Service & Support Department to see how individual locations are serving their customers.

Many of the evaluation cards arrive in our offices with personal notes from satisfied customers. In addition to providing detailed commentary, the notes are also a testament to the dedicated teams at our collision repair facilities.

“The service was professional, prompt and courteous,” read one note. “My experience was A+!”

Another customer wrote: “Our car looks great! We’re very pleased, and everything went smoothly with the insurer. It was a very good experience.”

Besides the customer service reply card, we often receive letters from satisfied customers, such as this example: “Recently, I returned to your headquarters office a customer service form that rates the store’s performance. The form didn’t have enough space for me to finish my written comments. Therefore, I want to add the following comments. The manager of the store personally delivered my repaired vehicle to my home. I really appreciated that he provided this extra service at a time when our family was ’emotionally drained’ due to my father’s recent death. For this extra service, we are truly grateful. In addition, I appreciated the team’s effort in terms of the outcome of the service. Our 2001 Ford Taurus vehicle looks brand new and that’s the way it should look after repair.”

Training & Teamwork
Praise from satisfied customers is rewarding, but that doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels. You need to keep a constant eye on every aspect of your operation to ensure quality work and outstanding customer service remain the hallmarks of your shop.

Besides standard procedures, two other factors should receive your unwavering attention: training and teamwork. Customer service courses should be included in all new employee training programs, as well as continuing development for long-term team members. Your front desk, customer service reps and estimators should be particularly well versed in customer care techniques. While some of these issues may seem mundane – proper telephone etiquette, genuine concern during discussions related to the customer’s vehicle and timely follow-up to calls about delivery dates – they’re actually the foundation for a solid relationship with every consumer and insurance company.

Since the first contact most customers have with our shops is during a phone call, encourage everyone to be prompt, courteous, informative and compassionate during each call. If a vehicle needs to be repaired, the customer has endured either an accident, an act of vandalism or a similar situation. While we truly earn their trust with the quality and timeliness of our repair work, it’s equally important to let them know we genuinely care about their overall welfare.

CARSTAR has developed Critical Operating Standards to help each store maintain impeccable customer service levels and avoid some of the common mistakes regarding telephone courtesy. For example, the evaluation standard is that phones must be answered no later than the third ring. We want customers to know they’re important to our business, and we believe timely, courteous treatment is the best way to begin each contact.

In addition to answering the phone promptly, it’s important to make sure the front desk is properly equipped with pens, pencils, paper, appraisal information forms, towing service numbers, major claim center numbers and directions to the shop so customer information can be quickly captured and shop information can be accurately given. There’s nothing worse than calling a repair shop for information and having to wait a long time or being told by the customer service rep that he doesn’t have the answer to your question.

Once again, think about your experience in the coffee shop or restaurant. If you’re greeted in a friendly, prompt fashion and your request is handled with courtesy and care, you’ll remember that the next time you’re in the market for a cup of coffee or a dining destination.

Teamwork is also critical for exceeding customer expectations. From the front desk staff to the paint techs, if everyone on your staff performs his role in a timely, attentive and professional manner, you’ll deliver the repaired vehicle when promised and in great shape.

In any profitable business, return on investment (ROI) is critical to success. With some things, ROI is easy to see. When you upgrade your equipment, hire new employees, and develop new advertising and marketing materials, you can generally measure the return in improved productivity, a stronger team or new customers who respond to your ad campaign or marketing efforts.

Outstanding customer service will also deliver an ROI because it leads to repeat and referral business in the future. But if you fail to meet or exceed customer expectations, today’s customers won’t return tomorrow.

Writer Beryl Carlew is executive vice president of CARSTAR, with overall responsibilities for insurance relations, marketing and franchise operations.

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