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Monster First Impressions

Customers first impressions of your shop are formed during their first few seconds of contact over the phone or in person. Is your staff trained to welcome potential customers, or is Frankenstein manning your front office?

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The other day I had a plumbing problem at the house. Being the frugal (cheap) person I am, I decided to repair the problem myself. The only problem with me doing the repairs is that it usually takes me two or three tries to get it right.

I took the sink apart and proceeded to The Home Depot. I found the plumbing department and rummaged through the bins for about 15 minutes for the last item I needed, a piece of 3/8-inch copper tubing. Unable to find it, I asked for help. The sales associate – who had the personality of a corpse – said I was in the wrong aisle and directed me to a new one. I went to where he directed me and spent another 10 minutes looking for the tubing – no luck. When I finally found the sales associate for “that” aisle, he said what I needed was in the aisle where I started. Frustrated, I asked him if he’d please show me where.

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“I’m going on my break,” he replied. “The other guy can help you.”

To that, I told him to take my basket and put it where the sun don’t shine and left the store.

I’ve heard slogans like “The customer is No. 1,” “quality service” and a host of others in many ads for The Home Depot. It all sounds good, but the reality is that quality customer service is on the decline – and not just at The Home Depot.

How are customers at your shop treated when they walk through the door? How about when they call in? How does your front office staff answer the phone? Do customers feel welcomed or intimidated by your staff? A customer’s first impression of your facility begins with the first few seconds of contact – either in person or by phone. If my weekend warrior tale reminds you of a similar encounter you’ve had, I sympathize. If it makes you wonder how your customers feel when they call or stop in, listen up and take notes. Your competition is.

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Don’t Let Frankenstein Answer the Phone
I recently took an AMI Class on telephone skills called “Lip Service” presented by Margie Seyfer, a motivational speaker and writer. She began the class by playing a series of recordings she made calling various shops present at the class. You should’ve heard how they answered the phone. Three of them spoke so fast that their opening comments sounded like gibberish. One of the facilities had the mechanic – who didn’t speak English – answer the phone. The two greetings I liked best were “auto repair” and “body shop.”

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What percentage of your first-time customers call before coming into your shop?

More than 80 percent. So eight out of 10 potential customers get an impression of your facility by how you or your staff answers the phone.

How can you be sure the impression you give is a good one? Keep these four points in mind:

  • Be upbeat and smile;
  • Speak clearly and not too quickly;
  • Project yourself; and
  • Leave the customer with a positive feeling.

Did you know people can hear you smile? It’s true. Don’t believe me? Say good morning in two ways: first, without a smile, and second, with a smile. You’ll notice there’s an inflection when you smile and it gives your voice energy and a cheery tone. And that voice inflection conveys friendliness to the person on the other end of the line.

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Recently, I had the opportunity to observe a call center for a major insurance company. Nearly every operator had a smile on his or her face when answering a call. I was told that as part of their training, all operators are videotaped to make sure they smile.

How can you ensure your staff is as friendly as the insurance company representative your potential customer spoke to yesterday? Call your shop and tape the person answering the phone. If you’re not impressed by the phone call, the following hints can help improve your staff’s phone presence:

  1. Place a card next to the phone with the following greeting: “Thank you for calling ZZZ Auto Body! This is Toby! How can I help you?” Draw a happy face on the card as a hint to make sure the person smiles. Reading a set greeting from a card will help with pace and clarity. Most of us read more slowly and more deliberately than when we talk off the top of our heads.
  2. Place a mirror in front of the person answering the phone to remind him to smile.
  3. Make sure your staff has easy access to the phone, so on their way to pick up the receiver, they don’t bang into something.
  4. Don’t eat when answering the phone.
  5. Answer the phone as soon as possible. The phone shouldn’t ring more than three times.
  6. It’s not necessary to answer the phone with “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon.” Most people know what time of day it is.
  7. Avoid a phrase such as “Toby speaking.” “My name is Toby Chess. How may I be of service to you?” is a better choice of words.
  8. Before placing a caller on hold, ask if the person minds holding.
  9. When you place a person on hold, make sure you return to the person within 30 seconds the first time and no more than a minute the second time.
  10. Have some recorded music for people to listen to while on hold.
  11. Always thank the customer for calling.

OK, you’ve greeted the caller correctly, but now what do you do with him? In his book “Telephone Courtesy,” Lloyd Finch – call center expert/author – says there are three types of expressions you’ll hear from customers:

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  • They’ll ask a question.
  • They’ll complain.
  • They’ll make a statement.

But most people fail in responding to these statements because they fail to listen. Unfortunately, selective hearing – or hearing only what you want to hear – is the root of more than just customer-service problems. By listening closely and carefully to what the customer is saying, however, you can come up with an appropriate response.

If you’re not giving the customer your full attention, it’s often difficult for you to distinguish between a question, a complaint or a statement. For example, if a customer calls to complain about a delivery time and you interpret it as a question – because you’re not listening closely enough or because you only hear part of the conversation since you’re filing paperwork – your response may be completely different than what’s expected. Now you have an irate customer. Take the time to listen to what your customers are really saying and let them say everything on their minds before you respond to them point by point.

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I recently had a customer who left her car at our shop for repairs. Before she left, I explained to her that the repairs would take about seven working days. I made the necessary arrangements for a rental vehicle and started on the repairs. On the sixth working day, I called to inform her that a part was back-ordered and the repairs were going to take three to four more days. Then all hell broke lose. She went on and on, but I let her finish before speaking. When she calmed down, I asked why she was so upset. It turned out that she was given a pickup truck as a rental. She was responsible for picking up her three grandchildren after school, but could only take two at a time because of the size of the truck cab. I immediately called the rental company and had them switch her to a full-size car. That was all she wanted and she was happy camper.

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The moral of the story: Listen, listen and then listen some more. Be calm and don’t get caught up in emotions when a customer calls with a complaint.

Roll Out the Red Carpet
If you get the chance to leave a great first impression over the phone, you need to back it up when the customer finally visits your shop. Likewise, your staff needs to present walk-in customers with an equally good first impression. Here’s how:

  1. When a customer comes into the office, greet him with a smile and make eye contact.
  2. If you’re busy, acknowledge a customer’s presence and through the use of gestures, let him know you’ll be with him as soon as you’re finished.
  3. When you greet customers, stand up and shake their hand (both men and women).
  4. Make sure you remember their name.
  5. If a customer is standing around, say “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon,” and ask him if someone is helping him. Make him feel important but not intimidated.

In addition to following the above rules, think of your customers as your guests. In the mornings, I always offer customers a cup of coffee. If they say yes, I ask if they take cream or sugar and then get the coffee for them – just as I would for a guest in my house. In the afternoon, I offer a soft drink. Not every customer appreciates this kind of gesture, but the ones who do will remember it and it usually gives them more confidence in you and your repairs.

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If you have some spare time and a customer or two is sitting in your waiting room, ask them if they’d like a tour of your facility. As you walk them by the paint shop, the frame machine and the detail bay, explain what repairs go on in each area. Point out the high-tech equipment your technicians will use to repair their vehicle. Furthermore, tell them about your training and certification – I-CAR, ASE, etc. – as well as your guarantees and warranties.

One thing to keep in mind if you choose to give customers a shop tour: Be sure the place is cleaned up on a regular basis. I’ve been in repair facilities that have a great reception area but a very messy back shop. It’s very difficult to convince a customer that you perform quality repairs when your shop looks like a pig-pen.

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Customer Savvy
Making a good first impression means you have a better chance of making a lasting impression with your quality repairs. This is why it’s imperative that you make sure your customer is No. 1. And since these ideas on how to improve customer service will cost you little to no money to implement, you can definitely squeeze them into your budget.

If you’re still not convinced of the importance of making the customer No. 1, consider this: After I left The Home Depot – disappointed and disgruntled – I went to my local hardware store. They not only had everything I needed (at a cheaper price), but gave me plenty of helpful advice. Guess where I’ll go the next time I tackle a weekend home improvement project?

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Contributing Editor Toby Chess, AAM, is the Los Angeles I-CAR chairman, an I-CAR instructor and a certified ASE Master Technician.

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