Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2006   by Tom Venetis, Editor

How Fountain Tire Took the Top Spot in Customer Satisfaction

Want to keep clients coming back? Take the time to listen, make them feel part of the decision making process

When Edmonton, Alta.-based Fountain Tire received news it had taken the top spot in J.D. Power and Associates’ annual Canadian customer satisfaction survey amongst-service providers, it was a sure sign the company had chosen the right path to improving customer satisfaction in its shops across Canada.

Nelson Tonn, director of marketing for Fountain Tire, said the company was aware its customers were often leaving some of its shops dissatisfied, something that was confirmed by an earlier J.D. Power study.

“About a year-and-a-half ago, we got our hands on the survey and we found ourselves below the industry average,” Tonn continued. “We at head office came to realize that our customers were not receiving the same level of service across all of our stores. So we decided we had to become serious about how we sounded, looked and acted with our customers.”

Brent Hesje, CEO of Fountain Tire, said the company had to develop a set of general principals that every one of the company’s 130 locations — all its store managers and staff — could follow so customers would feel they were being taken care of and leave satisfied with the service they were given.

“Really, this idea of having a set of guidelines came about when I and others came here to work one day and just started talking amongst ourselves about the terrible customer service we had received over the years,” Hesje said. “What we all came to realize, was that all of us could be very critical consumers, but we were not being very critical or creative retailers when it came to customer satisfaction. To put it very simply, we wanted to treat our (Fountain Tire) customers in the same way we would want to be treated ourselves as customers.”

First steps to improving customer service

One of the first steps Fountain Tire took was to create a position for a director of store learning. The person who would take the position would help the company facilitate communications between the Fountain Tire stores and head office in order for the company to learn what it had to do to improve customer service directly from those on the front line, and for the stores to better communicate the guidelines and initiatives to the staff and to find out how well those guidelines and initiatives were working. This two-way, open communication was key in discovering where the fundamental problem lay in customer satisfaction: how the managers and staff spoke and interacted with a client the second that person stepped through the front door.

“The biggest issue we discovered was consistency,” said Shad Smereka, director of store learning. “What we found was that the stores had different levels of service and different ways of approaching a customer. A customer could go into one Fountain Tire store in one location and get a certain level of service and then go to a different store location and get a different level of service.”

This inconsistency also was apparent in how information about a customer’s vehicle was presented and how the store managers and technicians spoke and interacted with the customer throughout the servicing of the vehicle. The best shops would engage the customer right away, in the first moments of walking in the front door and then walk that customer through the maintenance of the automobile, taking time to explain what was being done and why, and answering questions as to why the technician was recommending certain work be done. Other shops, while doing a good job on the vehicle, often had the interaction with the customer at a minimum.

Smereka and Hesje agreed with J.D. Power’s findings that inconsistency in customer interaction and communication was the biggest factor in leaving a person dissatisfied with the overall experience of a shop and the work done on the vehicle. “Customers are ultimately looking for a consistently good experience,” J.D. Power wrote in the “2006 Customer Commitment Index Study.” “An improvement in consistency goes hand-in-hand with improved customer satisfaction ratings.”

A simple “Hello” goes a long way to keeping customers coming back

“One of the first things we began to strive for is to acknowledge the customer within 30 seconds of that customer walking into the shop,” said Scott Shewchuk, a manager of a Fountain Tire store in Edmonton, Alta. “During busy times and seasons, it is very easy to leave that customer standing there. But what we have found is that if you acknowledge them when they come in, even telling them that you will be with them in a couple of minutes because you are busy right then, it will really put them at ease and to be more open to you when you come to talk with them.”

Shewchuk said that personal gesture sounds simple, almost too simple to really work. But he found such a first step improves a customer’s overall satisfaction, something he can attest to from his own experience as a consumer.

“I’ve walked into stores where no one acknowledged me and I walked about and then walked out without buying anything,” he added. “The stores that I stay in are the ones where the staff acknowledges me and asked how I was.”

Fountain Tire’s management soon had all of its locations not only have a procedure to greet clients when coming into the shop, but even how to approach clients when on the phone and answering questions. Another thing was to have every shop take the time to listen to the customer and their concerns, and then empower the customer so he or she can decide on the best approach to fixing the problem with their vehicle. This might mean having the technician go through a written checklist of the work done on a customer’s vehicle and then giving the customer options as to how to go about fixing a problem: from listing available parts that can be used for a problem and letting the customer decide what part they are most comfortable paying for, or letting the customer decide on when to fix a problem if the issue is not critical and the fix can be done safely at a later date.

Fountain Tire found this empowerment of the customer raised the customer satisfaction level incredibly.

“The great part of having that kind of customer consistency is that it gives me confidence, as a manager, that I can send one of my customers to a Fountain Tire shop in British Columbia and I know they will be taken care of and will leave satisfied,” Schewchuk said.

“The building of trust with the customer is important. As that relationship gets built the customer will start to outsource the service decisions to (the shop),” added Hesje. “People today are very value conscious and that is why building relationships are so important right now.”

Educating the customer makes the customer happy

A particular benefit of working to improve the customer satisfaction was it made educating clients on the importance of regular vehicle maintenance and service easier, which benefits the bottom line of the individual shops and the company as a whole.

“We found as an organization that we were not all on the same page when it came to automotive service,” Hesje added. “It was in our brand, but as an optional item. Now, we have made a decision that service is going to be a key strategic part of all locations. All of our stores will offer servicing on brakes, suspension, steering and preventative maintenance.”

Shewchuk said improved customer satisfaction not only makes the education on vehicle maintenance easier, it also helps overcome a perennial problem in getting people to better maintain their vehicles: money.

Car owners often have the impression that when a technician recommends some maintenance work on a vehicle, it is really a crafty way to simply extract extra money from them for work that really does not need be done. Preventative maintenance costs money, but paying a smaller amount earlier means avoiding paying a much larger amount later when a small problem becomes a larger mechanical and safety issue.

“We have to let the customer know that while this part is OK, the next time we will have to take care of it and they can budget accordingly,” he said. “Everyone is competing for the same maintenance dollar, but we are going to give the customer options as to whether to do something now or later.”

But that education component goes both ways. Fountain Tire has rolled out an Internet-based education program for its store managers and technicians. Managers can use the Internet to keep up-to-date on new sales and marketing programs from Fountain Tire, and technicians can now get information and training on the latest vehicles and technologies.

“Training is always ongoing now (with the Internet),” said Shewchuk. “There are things you can always improve on and learn. Training is ongoing. It is like brushing your teeth everyday.”

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