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Speak Up! Communication with Customers

It was all due to an unfortunate misunderstanding — three elderly ladies standing in front of my desk accusing me of overcharging for a repair and giving me an earful. (Not something I’d ever like to repeat.) But I could’ve avoided the situation entirely and saved my customer grief if only I’d communicated better.

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Several months ago, a very sweet elderly lady (we’ll call her Mrs. Mitenieks) came into my shop in need of an estimate on her 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass.

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"Mrs. Mitenieks, what have you done to your car?" I asked.

"Well, I was driving home, missed the turn into my driveway and hit a big oak tree," she said. "I messed it up pretty bad, didn’t I?"

"Yes, ma’am. You did," I said.

"Can you fix it?" she asked.

"Yes, but it’ll cost more than the car’s worth," I said.

Disappointed, she said she couldn’t just go out and buy another car. This one had to be repaired somehow.

Understanding her predicament, I called a salvage yard that handles older-model parts. As I was dialing the phone, I could see how sad Mrs. Mitenieks was. "Don’t worry," I said. "I’ll repair your car one way or another, and it won’t cost that much."

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"I sure hope so," she said.

Sure enough, the salvage yard had the parts I needed, so I wrote up an estimate totalling $1,500 and handed it to Mrs. Mitenieks. She looked it over and told me to go ahead and fix her car. I thought she’d be overjoyed that I could indeed repair her car — and at a cheaper price than expected. But I could sense in her voice and her actions that she wasn’t happy with the estimate. When I asked if she was sure the estimate was OK, she said it was a little steep but she just had to have her car repaired.

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After Mrs. Mitenieks left my office, I reviewed the estimate again to see if I could cut a few corners for her, but I’d already priced the repairs as low as possible. I started thinking about my granddad. Living during the Depression, he knew the value of a dollar. If he found a penny on the ground, he’d stop to pick it up — all the while looking for another one. Maybe Mrs. Mitenieks was like my granddad, I thought.

The next day, I was doing some paperwork at my desk when three elderly ladies — including Mrs. Mitenieks — came marching into my office. The looks on their faces told me I was in deep trouble. They lined up in front of me, side by side.

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"Ladies, what can I do for you," I asked.

"Well, we’re good friends of Mrs. Mitenieks, and we’re shocked at the price you’re charging her to repair her car," said one of them. "We think you’re charging a little too much, and we’re here to change that."

I told them I was sorry they thought I was charging too much but that I’d truly written up the job as cheaply as I could.

All the while, Mrs. Mitenieks stood looking at the floor with a sad expression on her face.

Another lady started speaking. "Sir, I’m going to tell you something," she said. "We’re not as stupid as you may think we are.

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"This morning we went shopping at several dealerships and we can buy a brand new car for $15,000, so we know you can come down off that price. We’re not going to let you rip off our good friend!" she said in a voice that could stop a water buffalo dead in its tracks.

"Wait just a minute," I said, turning to my trusty computer and printing out two copies of Mrs. Mitenieks’ estimate. "The cost of the repair is only $1,500, not $15,000."

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, Mrs. Mitenieks popped her head up. The other two ladies, with their faces all red, looked at Mrs. Mitenieks.

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"I’m sorry for the mistake," she said, looking to her friends and then to me. "But I’m happy you can fix my car this cheap."

A Loyal Following
Elderly drivers make up a small portion of our business. But during the past few years, I’ve noticed the number of elderly customers increasing. To garner the trust and business of this customer pool — and make their experience as pleasant as possible — there are a few things you must consider.

First, I’ve noticed that most of my elderly customers would rather pay for the repairs out of pocket than turn in a claim to an insurance company. The reason is, sadly enough, because of their age. They fear if they turn in a claim, the insurance company will cancel their policy.

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Unfortunately, many elderly people are on fixed incomes and, believe me, they know how much a dollar is worth — especially if they’re paying out of pocket. Knowing that, I’ll repair an older person’s vehicle for a cheaper price than I would anyone else’s.

Also, the elderly are prime targets for scams and crooks. They know this, so they’re often cautious and leery of whoever they take their car to. Because of that, you have to garner their trust. Talk to them. Assure them they’ll get more for their dollar at your shop. Explain every detail on your estimate and show them how you’re saving them money. And make darn sure you verbally tell them exactly how much the repairs will cost — don’t just let them read it off the estimate.

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Mrs. Mitenieks is a prime example of this. I made the mistake of handing her my estimate without telling her how much the repairs would cost. I assumed she’d read it correctly. After such a mistake, I could’ve easily lost her and her friends as customers.

You may not make as much money off these kind of jobs, but you will have the most loyal and friendly customers in the business. You’ll also receive a great feeling knowing you helped someone who really needed it.

Writer Jerry (Mickey) Noel manages the collision shop at Scott Oldsmobile-Nissan, Inc. in Hopkinsville, Ky.

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