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Pick Me! Pick Me!

If you want to close the sale, you need more than a well-written estimate and a “Give us a call if you decide to schedule it.” You need to develop a system tailored to customer needs and train your estimators and front desk personnel to sell.

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Imagine it’s late Thursday afternoon. That 1999 Oldsmobile medium front-end hit you estimated last week for Mrs. Tanner just scheduled, and it’ll put you over the top for your monthly incentive plan bonus – and with six days still left in the month. Life is good! (Now all you have to do is make sure it gets done by the end of the month to count.)

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Today’s most progressive shops look at ways to motivate the sales department to “close the sale” and to get work in the door. Some may even place safeguards that need to be obtained – such as gross profit target levels, CSI benchmarks and/or closing the sale (i.e., getting done and billed).

Most, however, still don’t realize how important the entire estimating process is to closing the sale, production, your company’s public image and, yes, even cycle time.

To customers, collision repair isn’t an enjoyable experience. It commonly takes too long, and the lingo we use is so unfamiliar that they generally have no idea what’s being said and if it’s accurate. It’s no wonder so many consumers like direct-repair programs (DRPs) – they don’t have to make all these determinations. After all, they just want their vehicles repaired promptly and without hassle. And deciding whether the shop is honest and can provide a quality product in a timely manner makes many consumers uncomfortable.

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Now don’t get me wrong. Having a customer from a DRP assignment come to your facility isn’t a “slam dunk” either. In fact, according to a major insurer’s statistics, only 49 percent of assignments end up in a DRP facility. This is partly due to totals, another insurer taking the liability or the customer deciding not to get the vehicle repaired. It’s also partly due to a customer having a preferred facility besides the DRP facility or the DRP shop making such a bad impression that the customer elects to go elsewhere.

So what sets one shop apart from the other in the customer’s mind? Is it your new $15,000 spot welder? The new frame rack, paint booth or paint system you use? While all this may be part of the “assurance” they get from your facility, it normally boils down to trust.

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Have you ever heard a shop owner say, “We don’t always fix cars correctly, and the shop down the street is better than we are”? Of course not. In fact, I’ve never not heard a shop owner say, “We do quality work, better than our competition.”

So how does a customer decide where to go?

The scope of this article isn’t to look at your facility layout and such but, rather, at the processes used during the customer’s “estimate experience.” Customers love good service and customer care. Don’t you? And whether the customer is representing a DRP assignment or not, having everyone focused on that customer is what sets apart a facility from the rest. But keep in mind that for any process you use, the customer should be the final judge of that process’ effectiveness.

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Qualify First: What Does the Customer Really Want?
Scenario: A potential customer who’s not from a DRP assignment walks into your front office for an estimate:

Does your shop have a way to pre-qualify customers when they walk in? Do they want an estimate, or do they want their vehicle fixed? This is an important difference, so it’s vital your front desk staff be trained to determine it. It’s easier, however, to simply call the estimator up for an estimate – in fact, it’s a common way to hand off responsibilities.

Most successful shops have some sort of qualifying process. Some shops may still believe they accomplish this by saying, “Here, please fill out this form,” but this is also a way to hand off responsibilities and definitely isn’t the way to handle the customer. Every time I witness this during our on-site visits, it brings back memories of going to a doctor’s office or hospital. No matter what the situation, we always have pages of questions to answer (sometimes in triplicate with no carbon paper) and an impersonal exchange with a front desk person. I’m sure this isn’t the image you want your customers to have of your operation, is it? Is it focusing on the customer, or is it an easy way to deal with the customer?

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Even if you use a standardized form, your front desk person should ask questions verbally and complete the form for the customer. She can also observe the “body language” of the customer when he answers the questions. This may be a better indication of what he’s truly saying than his verbal answers.

On the other hand, if you just have the customer fill out the form, how often does he skip the key questions for qualification, such as, “Do you want us to repair your vehicle?” or “How soon do you want to get your vehicle repaired?” From years of experience, often.

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So what’s stopping us from qualifying customers? From interviews with our client’s front desk personnel over the years, the No. 1 reason has been: “We’re not sales people. Our job is to handle the telephones, greet the customer and do some administrative tasks.” This is an unfortunate misrepresentation of their critical position. All staff members in our businesses today are sales people first, followed by their other duties. Without the sale, there’s no need for their position (or the rest of ours either).

The second most common reason has been: “I feel uncomfortable asking these sales questions.”

Then front desk personnel need to be properly trained to perform this critical job function. Generally, the front desk person creates a customer’s first impression of your business, so it’s important this impression be the one your company wishes customers to receive. In some of the most successful businesses we’ve worked with, the front desk person makes the sale even before the estimator or customer care person is introduced into the process.

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Taking advantage of this opportunity is of utmost importance to your business. We’ve developed a complete process for handling the customer experience called the Customer Plus Program. Whether you use a system such as this or develop your own, it must include an interaction with customers that provides a clear understanding of their needs and identifies key qualification elements.

What Your Front Desk People Need to Ask
Questions your front desk personnel need to ask customers can be divided into three key categories:

  1. Customer and vehicle information;
  2. Sales and marketing;
  3. Relationship and qualification questions.

An idea we developed a few years ago was signage that asked customers to bring in their vehicle registration, insurance card, driver’s license, and any insurance or appraisal estimates if they’re getting an estimate. Even during telephone conversations scheduling the estimate, we mention these items. Why? Because these items will supply 80 percent of what you’ll be asking. This way, the customer can have a seat in the waiting area while you complete the customer profile. Once you get this information, you can then ask for additional information, such as:

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  • What type of claim it is (first party, third party or customer pay);
  • Telephone numbers and best times to reach them;
  • E-mail addresses;
  • Other insurance information needed.

I mentioned “scheduling” an estimate. We suggest this to make sure you have the proper time to provide your customers the attention they require and, of course, to give the sales opportunity the highest chance of success. There’s no doubt when three people are waiting for an estimate, two are there to pick up their vehicles and another is waiting to drop off his vehicle that the time spent to “sell the job” gets cut short. Avoid this by simply scheduling customers appropriately.

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How do you do this without calling them appointments? When the telephone rings, I’ve heard countless front desk personnel say the biggest “no no” response to the question, “What are your hours?” When front desk personnel are properly trained, their response will not be, “We open at 8 a.m. and close at 5 p.m.” This is, again, an easy way to pass off responsibility.

I don’t know any reason customers would ask for your hours except to determine when they’re going to come in to get an estimate, drop off their vehicle or pick it up.

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The proper response is to find out the true needs of the customer. Something like, “Sir, for an estimate?” Then, when you come to a mutually beneficial time, you can be sure six people aren’t going to be there at once to see the same estimator.

Here are some examples of key “sales and marketing” questions to ask:

  • Have we repaired your vehicles in the past?
  • Have you gotten other estimates? Where?
  • Have you been referred to us? By whom?
  • Will your insurance company be handling this claim? What is your company and agent?

At this point, if the insurer responsible for the damages is one you’re a direct provider for, then your process should change to “That’s great! We’re a preferred provider for your company. Have you notified your agent or claims office?” Then get the assignment and schedule it! The estimator will just have to look at the vehicle, and take some notes and digital images – and then the customer can go on his way – no wait, no hassle.

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Too often, I see estimators (already overburdened with a huge file load) spend 30 minutes to write an estimate and sell the customer – only to then have the assignment come over the fax or computer!

Time management is extremely important today for an estimator who’s responsible for file closing, supplements and other duties. And the customer doesn’t want to go through a 30-minute process either if it’s avoidable. This is where asking the right questions in a few seconds can save a great deal of time.

Relationship and qualification questions to ask include:

  • Do you want us to repair your vehicle?
  • How soon would you like your vehicle repaired?
  • Is everyone who was involved in the accident OK? (Be caring and empathetic.)
  • Would you like us to arrange a rental vehicle?
  • Would you like us to assist you with the claims process?
  • What’s your most important concern with the repair of your vehicle?

Arguably, some of these questions may fit into multiple categories. This isn’t the point. The point is that a process should be used to qualify the customer. And normally from these questions, you can determine if the customer is a serious candidate for your services or a “shopper.” In fact, at this point, we often find that shops have already made the sale and either scheduled the vehicle or gotten the keys.

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If the customer says he wants you to repair his vehicle – and as soon as possible – that may mean: Make out the key tag, get the rental arranged and set up the file folder with the repair authorization signed.

The Hand Off: Customer Meets Estimator
At this point. A critical hand off usually occurs: The customer is introduced to the estimator.

Here, we need to briefly review some gender differences. Males and females handle the “buying decision” differently, and each establish positive or negative impressions by their different needs. Many books on this subject are available and are authored by notable authors such as Brian Tracy, Michael Bosworth, Stephen Heiman and Terri Sjodin.

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Generally speaking, females want to build relationships, and trust is established by their decision making. Females also believe and trust other females faster than they do males.

On the other hand, males tend to get to – and focus on – the bottom line quickly and have a tendency to discount the technical ability of females (especially with automotive concerns).

This is a small, generalized snapshot of gender differences, and it’s not intended to be all-inclusive or to stereotype anyone. But the more you know about gender differences, the more it will help you understand the importance of – and how to handle – the hand off.

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The front desk position of collision repair facilities is generally staffed with a female. This fits nicely with the general needs of female customers if your employee is properly trained. But most repair facilities are also mainly staffed with male estimators. For the female customer, this new person (the estimator) is an unknown to the newly formed relationship that was building with the front desk person, so it’s important that the hand off include an introduction phase and a reassurance stage.

The introduction should include a succinct explanation of the process to follow. For example: “Mary, I’ve gotten all your contact information, so I’m going to call our estimator, John Davis. He’ll look at your vehicle, gather some additional information and write an estimate on your vehicle.”

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The reassurance portion of the hand off should go something like: “John is very thorough, and he’ll make sure your vehicle will be restored back to the way it was before the accident. He’s also very good at explaining the process and assisting you with your insurance claim.”

Now, when John appears, he should be introduced to the customer, handed the completed customer profile form and allowed to take over. The hand off is now complete, and it’s John’s turn to run with the ball.

If, however, during the qualification process, the job was identified as a possible DRP, then call the insurance agent to get the assignment number and to assist the customer in reporting the accident – and then get the assignment number.

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Closing the Sale – If You Want the Sale
If the customer isn’t there on a DRP assignment or if he’s there for a company your facility doesn’t partner with, you need to get serious at this point. Why? You’re on the spot to demonstrate that your shop is where he wants his vehicle repaired.

The first determinations you must make are: Is this just a shopper, and does this repair fit within your product offering? In either case, you can’t just blow off the customer. You never know. This vehicle could be the family’s spare sixth car, and they could own five nice late-model vehicles and have three teenagers at home.

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If the person is just a shopper, you also don’t always have to spend 30 minutes writing an estimate. Just ask them how you can help them. If they already have a few other estimates and want to just “cash out,” offer to look at the other estimates and verify that the amounts are accurate. Then let them be on their way. But take the time to mention you’re there to help if they ever need any other work done (on those nice late-model, money-making vehicles their teenagers will soon destroy).

I also suggest having a pad of estimate sheets available to quickly handwrite an estimate for the vehicles you know aren’t repairable – or aren’t being repaired. Reduce the cycle time of the estimating process, and spend the few minutes creating a good impression to the customer.

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If, however, it’s a job you want, then make sure you allow time to convince the customer your company and you are who they want to do business with. This is where we commonly see a lack of training: Most estimators don’t know how to “close the sale.”

Closing the sale isn’t going over the estimate line for line and then saying, “We generally run about a week, two weeks behind and we’d need to order the parts, so give us a call if you want us to do it.”

Does this sound familiar?

The process of selling is just that – a process, not a slick used-car salesman approach, but a system to follow. This training is available in hundreds of books and seminars, but the common themes are:

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  • Be honest and believable.
  • Look professional.
  • Be courteous, but positive assertive.
  • Be informative, and use phrases that assume you’re repairing the job.
  • Ask questions about their needs, such as, “How often would you like to be updated during the repairs?” “Do you have a preference of a day of the week?”
  • Ask for the sale (this the No. 1 forgotten question to ask).
  • Be prepared for “push backs,” such as: “I need to check with …” or “I need to talk to my insurance … .” For example, if someone says, “I need to talk to my insurance agent,” you can say, “OK, let’s call him up now to see how we can reduce your ‘running around’ and get your vehicle back as soon as possible.” Then call the agent and get the assignment or claim number. Or when someone says, “I need to discuss this with my spouse,” you can respond with, “Because I’d like to ensure we order your parts as soon as possible and have a spot for you, can we call him/her while you’re here to look at the best time to schedule? That way, I can answer any questions personally.”

The key is to remove barriers and see if they’ve begun to “trust you” – or are they unsure of what you’re telling them? If it’s the latter, then your company needs to work on interpersonal skills to make the customer comfortable with your company. Remember, customers come to your facility to get rid of problems, not get estimates.

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We’ve worked with clients to get to more than an 80 percent closing ratio – if they follow the system. You’re providing a solution to customers problems, so make sure they feel the same way.

For male customers, we’ve closed the sale at the hand off by simply saying, “What’s a good week/day for you to bring in your vehicle?” We knew to do this based on their customer profiles when they answered the questions:

Have we repaired your vehicles before? “Yes.”

Do you want us to repair it? “Yes.”

How soon would you like to get your vehicle repaired? “ASAP.”

We met the need of the customers – hence, we scheduled the jobs.

If you’ve identified that the customer has reservations or you know their insurer is a strong DRP force in your market – and you’re not a partner – then you need to spend some time educating the customer of his right to choose (if he still has that right) and showing him why he should choose your facility.

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If the customer is female and your estimator is male, the discussion about consumer rights and how she can demand your shop over the DRP one may be better communicated by your front desk person (if female) or by a female estimator. Very often, a female will normally “push back” regarding what you’re saying about her rights, unless you’re perceived as very trustworthy. This push back is likely no reflection on you, but just one of the differences mentioned earlier about genders.

We often recommend that our clients employ male and female estimators. The advantages of having female estimators in the mix have been statistically proven by experience time and time again.

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How Should You Write the Estimate?
Another common scenario is when the visible damages are only a portion of what you know the final repair costs will be or when you’re simply unable to see the “uncovered damages.” This could be a result of weather (a thunderstorm, snow, ice, it’s too hot or cold outside, etc.), the vehicle’s condition (dirty or parts won’t open such as doors, hood, decklid, etc.) or location of vehicle (in storage lot, no lift, etc.). Some of these problems can be overcome, but if they’re not, they can all affect cycle time dramatically.

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There’s also a decision you need to make in these cases if it’s a “competitive bid.” In other words, you don’t have the job closed, but you believe you’re competing for the job based on the estimate. In these cases, estimates can vary tremendously. One estimator figures items not visible but surely (he believes) needed, while others figure structural damage they believe is present but not the items the other estimator figured that weren’t visible. And, of course, another estimator only figures what he can see. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before. I know I have.

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In fact, a friend of mine had a mishap last winter. Her car slid off the road, and her mirror was broken off when a mailbox jumped out and hit it. Then her car went through some bushes that suddenly appeared. She went to four places to get estimates on her two-year-old Saturn.

The estimates she received were for $1,500, $2,700, $3,000 and $3,400.

When she brought them to me, I looked them over and sent her to a friend’s shop. The final bill was – believe it or not – $250 to fix the vehicle. A mirror and a complete polish of her vehicle were all that was needed. There was no scratch that was missed, nor did the car require refinishing. All other estimates figured different needs of refinished panels, R&I trim and even replacement of panels. No one mentioned polishing as an option.

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My point here is that estimating inconsistency causes big problems for production – and can also cost you the job. If a job is such that you can’t see all the damage because it’s not accessible without a “tear down,” tell the customer this. If he insists you provide an estimate anyway, don’t put down items you can’t see, but list them on the estimate and explain that they could be possible needed items once repairs have begun.

Getting the keys and performing the tear down gives you the best chance to accurately determine the parts and labor necessary to complete the job. This also helps production and parts management.

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If you have to write a “visual inspection” for scheduling and production sake, make sure to note on an estimate copy the probable items and labor you believe will be needed later. Also, note in the computer to look at the paper estimate before scheduling or to see you before scheduling. This will be helpful for gaining a better understanding of parts and labor time needed.

If vehicles are scheduled solely on the original estimate, it won’t be long before the amount of supplemental parts and labor needed causes a major backlog in production. This we don’t need! And at this point, we certainly aren’t going to meet our customer target delivery dates either.

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One important pre-production process is the key to this problem (and though it’s slightly out of the scope of this article, I’ll mention it briefly). The process – called staging, blueprinting or creating the repair plan – should be used when the vehicle enters your facility. This process can be aided greatly if you take good notes about possible needed items at the time of the estimate.

With this process, the vehicle is torn down to identify any critical supplemental parts that could hinder production. Also, parts received are checked to the vehicle for accuracy, and supplemental approvals (if necessary) begin. Proper communication on the original estimate can greatly improve this process.

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Going After “The Ones Who Got Away”
Even using the best sales system and doing everything correctly, you’ll still have a customer segment who “just wants to think about it” or will say, “No.” In these cases, you should have a follow-up system – not just a follow-up letter thanking them for the opportunity they’ve given your company but a process to achieve results.

Though the follow-up letter is part of the system, it shouldn’t look like a sterile form letter. Create a more personal letter using fonts besides Times New Roman, and make sure you don’t input the customer’s information in capital letters (that’s a telltale sign of a form letter). The best form letters don’t look like form letters.

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The first part of a system is for the estimator to “rate” the job at the top of the customer profile form.

A suggested rating system:

  1. Jobs we want – non-referral or not our DRP;
  2. Jobs we want – referral;
  3. Our DRP or repeat customer;
  4. Jobs not desired;
  5. Total losses or customer has already selected another facility.

In addition, the estimate file number, estimated days to complete the repairs, the best day of the week to schedule, the date the estimate was written and probable supplements are listed on the form.

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At the end of each day, your front desk person sends an estimate thank-you letter for all estimates in Type 1-3 that weren’t scheduled. These letters should be mailed every night for proper timing. At the end of each week, special Type 5 letters should be sent to all Type 5 jobs, thanking them for the opportunity and “if our shop can be of service in the future, please see us again.” The customer profile forms are then filed by day of week the customer got the estimate.

Each day, the front desk person pulls all non-scheduled customer profile forms from three days prior with ratings of 1, 2 and 3. She then calls the customers to attempt to schedule them. The customer profile form should be used to make comments and track the calls.

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Before making calls, the front desk person needs to determine with production the scheduling needs for the upcoming weeks by reviewing all customer profile forms with the estimator to verify scheduling days and drop-off times.

Some word tracks for follow-up calls might sound like this:

“Hello, Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms. ________, this is ________________ from (Your Company). How are you doing today? I wanted to let you know we’re setting up our production schedule for the next two weeks, and we have a open slot for ____________. Would you like us to hold that spot for you?”

“Hello, Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms. ________, this is ________________ from (Your Company). How are you making out with your insurance claim? If you’d like us to assist you with your claim, we ‘d be more than glad to. We have a scheduling date available on ________. Would you like to drop your vehicle off then?”

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“Hello, Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms. ________, this is ________________ from (Your Company). I believe (Their Insurance Company) is coming out to our shop next week; perhaps we could have them handle your claim at the same time, and kill two birds with one stone. Would that be of help to you? Would ___________ be OK with you?”

At times, you’ll likely reach an answering machine or voice mail. In these cases, a different script should be considered, such as:

“Hello, Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms. ________, this is ________________ from (Your Company). Could you please contact me regarding your vehicle at __________________. If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I’ll follow up again tomorrow. Thank you, and I look forward to your call.”

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It’s been proven that those who follow up on their estimates gain up to an additional 25 percent of jobs. The key is a timely follow up – within 72 hours. What customers tell us is that those who follow up show they really want their business.

In addition, always attempt to find out the reasons the customer can’t commit to an appointment and try to assist him in his needs. If he’s decided to go to another repair facility, ask:

How didn’t we meet your expectations or needs? What could we have done better? And then document the file. This provides valuable information and shows you how to improve.

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Getting Them to Pick Your Shop
The system I’ve explained here has been proven effective in not only closing more sales, but providing superior customer care. Always remember, it’s more cost effective to sell the job to customers who arrive at your door than to try to drive new customers to your door.

For many repairers, the “estimating experience” is the best part of the business; for others, it’s the part they dread. The difference is normally how they understand their role in the process and how well they’ve been trained. Customers will go where they feel comfortable – DRP or not. The choice is yours how they feel about your company.

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What Women Want

  • Generally speaking, females want to build relationships and tend to trust other females faster than they do males. The front desk position is generally staffed with a female, and this fits nicely with the general needs of female customers if your staff member is properly trained.
  • Most repair facilities are mainly staffed with male estimators. For the female customer, this new person (the estimator) is an unknown to the newly formed relationship that was building with the front desk person, so it’s important that the hand off (from front desk person to estimator) include an introduction phase and a reassurance stage.
  • If the customer is female and your estimator is male, the discussion about consumer rights and how she can demand your shop over the DRP one may be better communicated by your front desk person (if female) or by a female estimator.
  • If you can, employ male and female estimators. The advantages of having female estimators in the mix have been statistically proven.

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Questions to Ask
The questions your front desk personnel need to ask potential customers can be divided into three key categories:

  1. Customer and vehicle information;
  2. Sales and marketing;
  3. Relationship and qualification questions.

Contributing Editor Tony Passwater is president of AEII, a consulting, training and system-development company. He’s been in the industry for more than 27 years; has been a collision repair facility owner, vocational educator and I-CAR international Instructor; and has taught seminars across North America, Korea and China. He can be contacted at (317) 290-0611, ext. 101, or at ([email protected]).Visit his Web site at www.aeii.net for more information.

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