Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2010   by Tom Venetis, Editor

Are You Listening?

Customer communications means listening as well as knowing how to talk to your clients

Customer communications is something every shop does and often does badly, very badly. SSGM has for quite a long time promoted the mantra of long-term maintenance business, that profitability and success comes from moving shops from breakdown business to on-going maintenance work. But talk to many shop owners and managers and what you often hear is too many customers get away from them with few becoming those much sought-after repeat, long-term maintenance customers.

It is certainly not because shops lack the technology to communicate with people. All of the top-selling shop management software solutions offer various means of keeping in touch with customers, from email to automated service reminders. There is also a wide range of freely available online services, including popular social media networks such as Facebook.

Joe Gibson, director of sales and marketing with the Roseville, Calif.-based CustomerLink Systems Inc. says many automotive service shops use some kind of automated service reminder system but do not get the full benefit from it because they are so poorly integrated with customer information and how customers think about maintaining their vehicle.

“Automotive maintenance and repair is not something people keep in front of their minds at all times,” he adds. “It is something, as consumers, we tend to forget about. The challenge is getting and keeping people’s minds focused on doing regular, preventative maintenance on the vehicles and that the service shop is the expert to go to.”

The problem with automated service reminders is the ‘trash’ factor. Most reminders, those sent by traditional mail or email, are simply sent directly into the trash. To most, such reminders are nothing more than junk mail bearing little real connection to a person’s driving habits or vehicle history.

“I had a vehicle that was under the manufacturer’s warranty and I received a notification from the dealership saying I was due for my 15,000 mile service,” Gibson continues. “The problem was I had less than 11,000 miles on my vehicle.”

It’s pretty obvious what happened. The automated system the dealership used was not tied to any relevant information about Gibson’s vehicle service history. Instead, the systems relied on an arbitrary protocol that after a certain number of months the owner was to receive a notice of upcoming maintenance work. In Gibson’s case, it was time for the 15,000 mile service. Is it any wonder that most people junk such reminders? They are nothing more than generic reminders that never reflect the reality of a vehicle’s history and the driving habits of the vehicle owner.

Any automated contact system has to directly tie-in to a shop’s customer database and regularly update with accurate information about vehicle history and the driving habits of vehicle owners. More critically, what is unfortunately overlooked too many times is that any outgoing reminder has to be customized for each customer. If a vehicle owner prefers email to traditional mailings of paper service reminders then the shop has to be cognizant of that preference and work to meet that expectation. If another owner drives the vehicle very little, notices for maintenance work might be more effective when tied to educational material about what needs to be maintained on a vehicle, even if it is not driven much, as well as special offers and pricing for that work. What is important to remember is communications must be personalized and the person receiving that communication has to be made to feel that the shop owner and manager truly care about them and their vehicle, and the shop and its technicians are there to provide quality service.

Jeremiah Wilson, president of Utah-based ContactPoint Solutions points out that many failures in customer communications can be traced to very simple mistakes, some of which come down to such things as how service writers and owners interact with people or how they present themselves to customers.

Wilson does a simple exercise to make this point. Take a group of people and ask them to recite to each other a simple statement or part of a conversation in their normal tone of voice. Now take those same persons and ask them to face away from each other and say the same thing, but modulating their voice so it is happy or more engaged or reflecting different emotions in a natural, non-theatrical manner. It sounds simple. The reality is many people will continue to speak in the same tone of voice, regardless if they are saying the statements in a ‘happy’ tone or anything else. Now, imagine if a customer comes into a shop and is greeted by someone who says ‘Hello’ in a tone that can’t be distinguished from genuine interest or indifference.

Wilson says such a simple mistake costs shops repeat customers, and it is something that many shop owners and managers have difficulty grasping. It is seemingly intangible. It is much easier to understand the need for effective signage, a clean and welcoming reception area or for employees to wear clean uniforms and do quality work. You have to work at teaching people to recognize that they sound boring or uninterested and to actively change their tone when speaking with people.

The next mistake many make is not actually ‘fixing’ the problem that customer has. This seems an odd thing to say as when someone comes into a shop there is obviously a problem to be fixed. It might be the vehicle needs new brakes or a tie-rod has to be replaced. Once a service writer knows that, the problem has been identified and the needs of the customer can be satisfied.

“The biggest mistake this industry has is not determining needs … and just fixing problems,” Wilson says. “When you can determine that a person needs their car back in an hour because they have to pick up their kid from soccer practice or school, then you know the real need of that customer, which is what the person needs the car for. Too often we focus on the mechanical problem and we concentrate on fixing that mechanical issue. But the customer’s need is not the mechanical problem. It is something else. When you recognize that then you can start to build a relationship.

“Too often I have shop owners and managers say, ‘I could care less. They need their car fixed. What is the big deal?’ The ‘big deal’ is what people buy, that you know them, that you know what they use the car for and what their values are. Once you have that then you have a long-term customer.”

Once the real needs of the customer are determined then it will become easier to do the next, often most difficult, part of customer communications: selling one’s business and expertise. Wilson says many shops don’t sell themselves because they don’t want to sound like pushy sales people. Owners and managers fear if they or the service writers begin selling the shop’s strengths, the quality of work or the experience and knowledge of the technicians the customer will quickly tune out; or worse, take their business somewhere else.

“This is not a commercial,” Wilson adds. “This is truly letting the customer know why you can take care of them better than anyone else. You want to give them peace of mind. The failure comes from not listening to the customer and determining the needs of the customer.

Finally, shops need to get more technology savvy as well. Young people today are especially connected to new communication technologies. Shops need to invest in such things as search engine optimization (SEO) and using Google Analytics to help drive people to their shop’s Web site, ultimately driving more business into the bays. Another is to use social networking sites to reach customers and build and maintain relationships.


CustomerLink Systems Inc.

ContactPoint Solutions


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