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Management

Say You Don’t Want a Revolution

If you label your customers as “nuts” to brush off their repair complaints and tell them to “just bring it back” withoutaddressing the actual problem, your comebacks are costing you cash.

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“So what’s the problem? … OK, just bring it back and we’ll take care of it.”

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Just bring it back.

We’ve all used this phrase over and over, but I truly think it’s crossed over from being a good business practice to a comfort zone phrase – a phrase that permits and sometimes encourages inefficiencies. In some cases, “just bring it back” is a good thing for the customer. In too many other cases, however, it’s a damaging phrase that prevents us from improving our systems.

Here’s my translation of what “just bring it back” often really means:

“Just call me a few times – calls that take time from my daily schedule and yours – concerning a vehicle that’s already been completed. Then, just interrupt your schedule and mine to bring it back so it can occupy another parking spot in my lot or bay. Then, I’ll prevent my employees from earning me a profit to re-do your vehicle.”

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While “just bring it back” helps to make you a more responsible businessperson, having to use the phrase regularly can mean you have holes in your system that, by their very design, create the time-consuming, customer-killing, profit-eating monster we call “the comeback.” Though I’m specifically addressing the average vehicle repair here – up to about $2,600 – if you institute measures that prevent these repairs from having to return, the larger repairs will also benefit.

The Denial Period: Labeling Our Customers as Nuts
A comeback or a re-do isn’t just a physical thing; it’s also a mentality – a mindset held by you and your employees that says it’s perfectly all right and a given part of business to have customers bring back their vehicles. I’m not referring to the client who tries to get one over on you by coming back with what are obvious unrelated problems, i.e. the infamous radio that used to work before the accident or the vehicle that now pulls to the left after you repaired the deck lid. These types of clients are in the minority, but we sometimes make the mistake of placing all customers in the same category to avoid having to address a problem.

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If you want to get anything out of what you’re about to read, be as honest with yourself as you’ve ever been. Getting out of the comeback mentality requires starting with a good, long hard look at your processes. You then have to instill this new mentality into your loyal employees, who have imitated the attitude of management. What will you instill? That comebacks are unacceptable and, in large part, preventable. Even if you don’t believe what I’ve just said, as long as you try to see things from the client’s point of view, you’ll have taken a step up in customer service.

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You can start right now by forever eliminating “the customer is a nut” or similar derogatory catch-all slogans. Never say them again. And don’t allow your employees to say them either. Once you or your management has tagged any client with such a label, you’ve given yourself license not to complete repairs as you should. If the vehicle comes back for having dirt in the paint, it’s not because your prep work needs improvement; it’s because the client is a nut and much too picky. If the vehicle has to come back for a part, it’s not because you didn’t take enough time at initial inspection; it’s because the customer is a nut and was impatient during repairs.

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This is denial, my primer-breathing brethren, denial.

Make no mistake. With “the customer is a nut” escape hatch firmly in place, any improvement in your processes is virtually impossible. Why? Because the customer is a nut, so you’re not guilty of anything. Therefore, no improvement on your part is necessary. We can stay comfortable.

Acceptance: We Have a Comeback Problem
Don’t customers know how hard it is to keep dirt out of our paint work? Don’t they know how difficult it is to find qualified help? Don’t they know insurance companies don’t pay us enough?

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No, they probably don’t. They don’t have to know. These are your problems in an industry you’ve chosen for a career. When you start making your problems your clients’ problems, you can’t and won’t address anything that will set your shop apart from shops that are, unfortunately, a dime a dozen.

Vehicles constantly return for trim panels, nameplates, bumper strips, splash shields, stripe tape, etc., items that “weren’t in” at the time of delivery. But why weren’t they? When you start asking questions, you may find these parts weren’t ordered with the original parts order because of a lack of information. If so, do whatever it takes to furnish the necessary information to order everything at the same time. It’s also possible there’s a lack of accuracy on the vendor end. If so, order from another counter person or change vendors. While you’re at it, if you don’t have a lift, get one. Do a better job inspecting damage during the estimating process, and eliminate the “open” items wherever possible during the initial inspection.

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Vehicles also often return with water leaks. We all know how much fun these are for you, your employees and your customers (not to mention the personal items – the Hope Diamond, an original Monet painting and the very first Superman comic book – the customer had in the trunk that are now ruined from water damage). Installing your own leak test process during assembly before installing the interior trim will greatly reduce water leak comebacks. Though our initial reaction is that it’s a real pain to stop assembly to drench the repaired area to test for leaks, I think the reason we see it as such a pain is because we’re not used to doing it. But compare this “inconvenience” to the comeback experience that you, your employees and the customer will endure, and you’ll see that it’s a no-brainer.

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Recovery: Eliminating Comebacks Altogether
A good way to start eliminating comebacks is to make a simple chart that you can use to identify which department is a source of comebacks. If you keep honest and accurate information, you’ll most likely see a pattern stemming from one or more of your processes. Sometimes, it’s a pattern that leads you to one department or employee. It’s possible that it’ll tell you something you already knew but didn’t address because you were caught in the “just bring it back” comfort zone. With enough information, it can also identify which comebacks are justified and which are really no one’s fault.

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This can be used effectively to improve a problem department or an employee’s performance by citing specific cases rather than relying on your memory. It’s also useful when the time comes for an employee raise or review.

At minimum, a comeback chart should contain the following columns:

  • Customer;
  • Vehicle;
  • Delivery Date;
  • Comeback Date;
  • Reason;
  • Department;
  • Employee.

You can also add more specific columns. For example:

  • Initial repair cost;
  • Insurance company;
  • How many days the comeback stayed in your shop;
  • How many hours spent on the comeback;
  • If you paid for a rental car and how much it cost;
  • Corrective measures, etc.

I also suggest figuring out your comeback percentage so you can determine if any of the steps you’ve taken have brought improvement.

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A simple method to figure this is to divide the number of comebacks per month into the number of repaired vehicles for the same month. For example, if you repair 50 vehicles in a given month and six come back, that’s an 8.3 percent rate. Though an 8.3 percent comeback ratio may cause some shop owners to call in the National Guard, others may consider it acceptable. If, however, your goal is zero comebacks (and why would it be otherwise?), 8.3 percent is too high.

So what do comebacks cost you in dollars? A lot. I don’t know exactly how to figure the cost – in man-hours, rentals, administrative time and lost customers, both present and future – but it’s a lot.

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Did I say future customers? Good catch. I did, and here’s why.

Among our customers lurk some ominous figures. You see them every working day. They’re the agreeable ones who don’t say much and don’t pressure you for anything. They’re the “nice guys.”

But I have news for you. These nice guys are dangerous; these are the customers who accept – without complaint – the repair you put before them. They simply nod their heads during the delivery process, take their keys and go on their way. If, later on, because of your “just bring it back” comfort zone, they find a misaligned door or overspray, they won’t complain – not to you, anyway. They don’t have the courage to complain to you, so they tell others instead. With these customers, you’ll never get the chance to say, “just bring it back,” and you’ll never know just how many potential customers and just how much revenue you’ve lost.

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All because you didn’t “just get it right” the first time.

Writer Richard V. Brigidi handles site development for CollisionMax, a collision repair company with multiple locations specializing in insurance claims on late-model vehicles.

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