The key to business success is customer communications. So why is the independent automotive service industry so poor at it? While there are some operations that excel at customer communications, many more would likely get a failing grade from customers.
Talking with some long-time industry trainers and those whose job it is to help put into place technologies to help shops operate more effectively, several key points keep coming up that are best to review.
“If you look at the whole industry across the country, many shops are still holding onto the old business model from the 1980’s,” says Bob Greenwood, president and CEO of Automotive Aftermarket E-Learning Centre Ltd. “That old model is a ‘sell game,’ where you sell the seasonal ‘flair’ or a service, instead of taking on the responsibility of advising the customer accordingly. We fail to educate the client. “
Greenwood adds with vehicle technologies evolving rapidly, adding layer upon layer of complexity to everything from onboard electronics and to engine design, and the growing presence of telematics, “[people] are looking for someone to trust to look after their vehicle. As professionals, it is our responsibility to do that.”
“If we took that approach, that we are being hired by the client to look after their needs and advise them accordingly, it changes the whole communications with the front desk,” Greenwood continues.
Kelly Bennett, business management trainer and coach with Kelly the Coach Inc., says many independents should move away from the still too common verbal communications between the customer, the service writer and the technicians, and instead emphasize written communications.
From his experience in closely analysing how many shops operate, when a service writer goes back to verbally report to the technician what a customer says is wrong with their vehicle, “there are often a lot of mistakes made.”
Think of it as a version of the telephone game played by children, where the message whispered by each child to another soon becomes garbled. By the time the customer finishes describing what is wrong with the vehicle, the service writer has likely heard something else; and when the service writer takes that information to the technician, that technician hears something else. The miscommunication is exacerbated when the process reverses itself and verbal communications is used to get information back from the technician to the customer who is often left confused as to why the technician does not understand what is wrong with their vehicle.
Writing down what a customer tells a service writer and then having the customer review the notes taken, having the technician and service writer produce clearly written and understandable reports on the vehicle, along with clearly spelled out work, will greatly reduce or even eliminate such things as ‘sticker shock,’ and at the very least prevent customers feeling confused as to what exactly is wrong with their vehicle and why the work is needed.
Bob Worts, director, marketing and sales for Ontario and Western Canada with Gem-Car, says today’s customer is too busy to stay around and chat with a technician or service writer, or wait patiently for the work to be done. Shops, he says, need to communicate that “we service all of your needs, not just part of your needs. We need to do a better job both educating the customer on what we do, and, most importantly, to communicate with them in the way they communicate with others.”
Worts says many shops still do not realize that many of today’s vehicle owners do the majority of their communications through smart devices. “That is the way today’s generation of vehicle owners communicate,” he adds. “They are always connected to smart devices, smart phones and their primary means of communications is through such devices.”
Shops need to use new communications strategies to communicate with customers in order to educate them about their vehicles. If a problem is found with a vehicle, the service writer may likely be more successful in reaching a customer with a text or an email with an image of the problem part and an estimate for the work than phoning to explain the problem.
“If you are going to spend a thousand dollars on a vehicle service, you want to know what those thousand dollars is being spent on,” Worts adds. “This allows the customer to see what is wrong and it adds another way of clarifying an inspection report and what the technician has found and why the service needs to be done.”
Worts continues many shops still do not use their shop software to generate repeat, long-term business from customer and vehicle information, even though many systems are designed to make that process easier than in the past.
“If shops use their shop management software more proactively to better communicate with their customers, they will not have to always be working to find new customers,” he adds. “You want to make sure you have all of the information on a customer’s vehicle and to open better lines of communications so you can keep them coming back to you for preventative maintenance work. Customers may come to you for that brake job, but if you are not communicating with them effectively, they are taking their oil change work to another shop or quick lube operation.”
Greenwood says one reason why shops make mistakes in customer communications is that too many shops focus on the wrong things, such as how many clients have come into the bays, the number of appointments booked for the day and what work was done; for example, how many brake jobs and oil changes were performed.
What they don’t do is have a conversation with the customer. This conversation is not to be confused with idle chit-chat. It is about establishing a relationship based on trust and communicating the shop’s business and customer service philosophy to customers.
“You are being hired to review the situation, the services needed and what the vehicle needs based on the recommended service schedule and what is found when the vehicle comes in,” Greenwood adds. “We are moving to a ‘service on need’ model with the introduction of telematics where we will be managing the vehicle and service. Shops that do not have the right relationships in place will not be given permission to read that telematics device and information. And I blame the shop owners for not developing those relationships of trust where we can put telematics systems into a vehicle and then get permission to read and monitor the device on behalf of the customer.”