Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2008   by

Customer Tracking

Your customer database may contain some clues about who your best customers really are.

Whether your customer list consists of a few numbers stored in a phone, or a huge database in a remote server, tracking your customers is a vital part of your business.

And it can contribute a lot to your bottom line.

Think of the database as an extension of your memory, containing all the little details about your customers and their vehicles that allow you to best meet their needs, and run your business efficiently.

A well-managed database can help minimize slow times, prevent recurring problems, and keep money in your pocket. Ultimately, it will even help expand your business.

But using the information wisely is important to preventing the kind of misunderstandings that can irritate customers and make them feel “stalked.” And of course you have to be aware of those increasingly important regulations about how to keep personal information and protect individual privacy.

Here’s a quick look at building, managing, and working a customer database to your advantage.


Build it

A good customer database should include three things at the very least: customer contact information, vehicle information (including VIN and most recently recorded odometer readings), and details of past repairs you’ve done.

That’s the minimum information you should record for each vehicle. It will allow good shop software to write a repair order quickly. It’s also the information that is legally required on a legitimate work order.

But there are advantages to collecting even more information.

Any recommended work should also be recorded so you can bring it to the customer’s attention. Hopefully you can find a way to schedule that work when business is slow.

The odometer readings can also help estimate annual mileage – a great tool when trying to schedule service appointments.

All of this valuable information can be used in conjunction with business management software that will automate the process of booking in work, following up with customers, and predicting the timing of the next service call. With a keystroke you can highlight your best customers, with an eye to keeping your shop busy and productive.

Today’s software packages are so powerful that they can track every variable in your business and give you extremely accurate reports that will help you understand where you’re making – or losing – your money. But it’s in the customer database management that you reap real, tangible benefits.

Your list is extremely valuable, which is why most shop owners want it to grow. (Not all. There are a few fortunate ones who have all the business they can profitably handle right now, thank you very much.) Growing your customer list is what marketing is all about.

There are plenty of ways to bring in new people. Advertising is an obvious way, with lots of options, including billboards, radio, newspaper, and Yellow Pages. This can be expensive, though, and there are some great alternatives for the budget-conscious.

A referral program, which rewards customers who bring in a friend, is a great way of showing appreciation for new business. Your community “Welcome Wagon” program is an option – but be careful about giving away your services. A free oil change is a common incentive but perhaps a $10-off coupon is better. Figure out what works for you.

Car care clinics seem to be a popular option these days. This puts a human face on your business and shows that you’re “in their corner” when it comes to maintaining their vehicle. But if you can use your event to support a local charity, you can score some free publicity from a local newspaper or radio station.

In each case, whenever someone new comes into your shop, take the time to introduce yourself and get enough information for your database. This is where tomorrow’s work will come from.


Maintain it

Maintaining the database just means keeping the information current and accurate.

Keep customer and vehicle information up to date. Note any customers who move away.  Make sure there are no “dummy” entries that compromise the integrity of the database. When your customer sells their car (or it finally dies) and buys a new one, update your records. And employee vehicles should also be noted – some vehicles are simply not going to be money-makers.

Incorrect information contaminates the database. You want your database to be as efficient as possible to keep contact costs low.

Some systems allow you to include photographs in your records. This can be helpful when documenting recommended or declined work. You can take a picture of the suspect part, and use it as reminder to yourself to bring it to the customer’s attention again. Or you can use it as a selling tool, showing it directly to the customer.

Update your records with new information as you get it. Marriages, births, hobbies, common interests… all of this can be brought to the screen quickly when you’re on the phone with them, or when they’re in the shop.

And be sure to back up your database regularly. Depending on the software you use, this might be a relatively simple step. The cost of external hard drives – or back-up drives – is plummeting. It’s cheap insurance. There’s no excuse for not safeguarding the data on which your company is built.

Remember to keep the back-up in a safe place, not with your computer. This simple step can save a world of aggravation.


Work it

Your database should be able to show who your most profitable customers really are – the customers who spend the most money, not the ones with smiles and doughnuts for the staff.

Keeping good customers coming back is important and many shops are working hard to maintain the relationship. But there’s a fine line between maintaining contact with customers and frightening away business. Each contact method has pros and cons and you need to decide what works best.

Customer contact is usually a variation on phone calls, letters, flyers or e-mails.

• Telephone calls can be done by an employee or a call center, working from a report of recently serviced or due-in-soon vehicles. The customer is politely thanked for their business or reminded of an upcoming service. This is also a good opportunity to find out if there are any new concerns or issues with their cars. Because you’re working with people who have an existing relationship with your shop, this kind of call is at least one step above the kind of annoying cold-call telemarketing that people hate.

• Mailed letter or flyers can be simply created using a template from a software provider. Just remember, when your prospective customers are reviewing it you have literally seconds to grab their attention and win a sale. If your flyer is one of a bunch that are sent at the same time in an envelope full of coupons, you might not even get that.

• Some carmakers use telematics to monitor the vehicles they’ve sold and then mail or e-mail service reminders. You can do the same by tracking kilometers driven and using the e-mail address you’ve collected from your customers. There are some great programs that allow you to customize e-mail reminders with information about your shop. Check out the system carefully, though. I’ve heard horror stories about shops that have accidentally passed along computer viruses. It takes a lot of public relations skills to overcome such a mistake!

Generally speaking, problems ensue when reminders don’t match reality – like when work was recently completed but a service reminder for that exact work goes out anyway. Or when the mileage estimator is inaccurate.

Each customer is unique, so there’s no sure-fire system that will suit everyone. The important thing is understanding and respecting your customers’ needs to keep the relationship profitable.

No matter how big or small your operation is your customer database is important. And you may be surprised who your best customers really are.

Maintain your database, look for service opportunities and respect the customer. Maintain regular contact without being a pest. And don’t be afraid to get help from the pros. It’s good for your bottom line.

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