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

Reaching out to bring customers in

Using the Internet, email to communicate more effectively with clients means repeat business, increased revenue.

Remember the old AT&T telephone jingle about reaching out and touching someone? That jingle put into a single, memorable line the secret behind all effective communications: one has to actively reach out to people on a personal level in order to effectively communicate with them. Service providers can learn a lot from that jingle, as personalized communications with customers is going to be the key to continued business success.

But how does one go about communicating effectively with a customer?

From the phone to the Internet and database

It used to be a service provider could pick up the phone and tell a regular client it was time for an oil change or a regular maintenance check. But times have changed. Today, a service provider often has a database filled with hundreds of client names, too many for any person to phone individually. And how does a service providers recognize in that vast collection of data, invoices and work orders who are regular clients, occasional clients and someone who just dropped by to get a new muffler because the old one fell off on the highway on the way to work? A service provider wants to keep in regular contact with those regular clients as much as possible, as those regular clients are the bread-and-butter of the shop’s operations? But if that service provider can discover who those regular clients are, is a simple phone call good enough anymore?

Bruce Eccles, owner of Bruce Eccles Auto Service in Dundas Ont. said one of the most effective ways of reaching his regular clients is by email.

“Phoning people is the most personal kind of communications there is,” said Eccles. “But the problem is that with most good shops everyone (in the shop) is busy, so it’s hard to make those phone calls.”

Today, most people’s communications is by email, both private and business. And more people are likely to give an email address to be reached at than a phone number; and people are more likely to respond faster to email than a phone call.

But how did Eccles discover those regular clients and so he could email them regular service reminders, follow-up queries about their satisfaction with his shop’s service and newsletters and automobile tips?

Eccles solution was to go with a solution provided by Pleasanton, Calif.-based MechanicNet Group Inc., a customer retention solution made for the aftermarket. MechanicNet CRS mines a service provider’s database and breaks down the customer information so it can be presented in a way that makes customer communications more effective and thereby increase a service provider’s opportunities for generating more revenue. The data mining is done remotely by MechanicNet over secure Internet connection to ensure the privacy and protection of the data and so the service provider does not have to do the work themselves.

“Most service provider’s computer systems today, whether it is DOS- or Windows-based, are built on top of some kind of database where all of the customer’s automotive history and the shop’s work history on that vehicle are kept,” said Steven Liao, founder and president of MechanicNet Group. “What we do is search through that data and look for specific opportunities.”

For example, a shop like Eccles’ can ask MechanicNet to produce all the invoices done in the last three months and send a email or personalized letter or card to those customers thanking them for their business and reminding them of their next, regular maintenance check. Or the data can be mined for more specific revenue generating opportunities.

“We can look through the service history of customers and find the ones who need break jobs, those who may need battery charging inspections,” Liao said. “We can even look for vehicle-by-vehicle and manufacturer recommended (service) intervals, and when a client’s vehicle hits one of those intervals we can publish that auto manufacturer’s recommendations, the work that needs to be done and we can send it to the clients of the shop who have that vehicle.”

This kind of customer communication can be highly personalized so a shop using MechanicNet can ask that the communications, whether by email or regular mail, can read something like, “Dear Jim, Your 2002 Honda Accord is coming close to its manufacture’s recommended maintenance service check for …” MechanicNet will do the email mailings for free and the traditional mailings for a small fee.

The return on investment for doing that kind of personalized, targeted communications with customers can be significant.

“We had a shop in Western Ontario use our service to find vehicles that only needed timing belts,’ Liao said. “That shop owner then sent out an email reminder to those customers telling them that their timing belts needed to be inspected and serviced, and that shop owner had two weeks of timing belt jobs. The shop owner was able to use the technology to find out who most likely needed a timing belt and is now getting those customers to come into his shop.”

MechanicNet also allows a service provider to track how effective a communications effort has been, for example, by showing how many clients have brought their vehicle into the shop after being sent email maintenance reminders; or how many have responded to an email flyer announcing a spring tune-up special.

The MechanicNet customer retention solution has proven so successful that AC Delco has made it available to AC Delco’s 1,400 Canadian service providers enrolled in the company’s Total Support Service (TSS) program.

“MechanicNet is a mechanism that allows our TSS certified repair shops to contact current and past customers, and to maintain proper service records for those customers,” said Corey Graham, national sales and product manager with AC Delco in Oshawa, Ont.

MechanicNet also allows a shop’s clients to access their service and repair records through a User ID and password protected secure site, allowing clients to keep up-to-date on the service their vehicle has received and to use that information for any warranty related issues.

Finding out why someone is not calling as often

One of the most frustrating things a service provider faces is trying to discover why a regular client has stopped coming into the shop for service and maintenance of their vehicle. Is the reason the client stopped coming because of poor service or has the client simply moved?

Carlo Sabucco, owner of the Mississauga, Ont.-based Sil’s Auto Diagnostic Centre said he is using Burlington, Ont.-based Protractor Software Inc.’s business management solution to find out which of his clients has stopped coming into his shop and why.

Like MechanicNet, Protractor allows a shop like Sabucco’s to mine his customer data base and mail or email service reminders to customers, questionnaires to gauge the customer’s satisfaction with the work done on their vehicle and to even schedule appointments for regular maintenance work or for the client to schedule a repair time.

But Sabbuco also uses Protractor to track from his client’s records which of those clients are not coming in regularly. If a customer has missed several maintenance visits and has not responded to any other email or letter queries, Sabucco can use Protractor’s services to contact those clients directly to find out the reason.

“What we have found is that if someone is not coming in anymore (to the shop), it may not be because they are dissatisfied with us,” Sabbuco said. “It is because the client has purchased a new car. But even if they have purchased a new car, we still want to stay in touch with them so we are always on their mind when they think about service or maintenance.”

Eccles said because of today’s very hectic work and home schedules, many neglect to follow the maintenance schedule for their new vehicle. Something as simple as a four month oil change simply gets lost in the shuffle of taking kids to school, going to work and trying to get grocery shopping done.

By sending out a simple reminder by email or a letter that a new car needs to have its oil change regularly and be inspected at regular intervals maintains and builds on the long relationship a service provider has with its clients. While newer vehicles are made to last longer and go longer between maintenance checks, sending a regular email or flyer reminding a client to change the oil on their brand-new car will likely translate into future service business as that vehicle gets older. And since the service providers has proactively reached out to clients on a personal level to remind them of maintenance checks and to give them tips on taking care of the vehicle, that client will likely bring the their vehicle in to the service provider instead of taking the vehicle in to the dealer’s service centres.

Getting it all down on paper

One of the toughest things to communicate to a client is what exactly is wrong with a vehicle and why something needs to be carefully monitored or replaced. Too many clients have come to believe if a service provider tells them that the brake pad or timing belt needs to be replaced, it is because that service provider is only trying to get money out of the client.

Mike Bryan, executive director of the Aurora, Ont.-based Motorist Assurance Program (MAP) said clients today demand a consistent and repeatable level of service each time they enter a shop. It is like entering Tim Hortons. No matter where the Tim Hortons location may be, a customer will get the same level of service each time in each location. That level of service is maintained by having everyone follow a prescribed set of procedures and practices that ensures a consistent level of service is maintained.

The Motorist Assurance Program works on a similar principle. It sets out a concrete set of steps for inspecting a vehicle, for noting the condition of the various systems and parts inspected and for communicating the condition of those systems and parts back to the client and then presenting the client with an easily understandable set of options. Those options are Suggested — that a part needs to be monitored as it is close to the end of its useful life or possibly replaced, or Required — that a part of system has gone past its useful life and must be replaced right away.

“The (MAP) is a check sheet that enables a technician to go through the whole vehicle,” said Bryan. “But what is important is how that check sheet communicates with the customer. It has a set of standards developed by MAP and the vehicle OEMs, and those standards can help the (client) tell what it is the shop is looking at, to describe the item and then explain why there are two options, Suggested or Required.”

Bryan added many shops already do the inspections checks MAP outlines. But MAP allows a service provider to put it down on paper in a professional manner and in a way that can be explained to a customer.

So if a customer sees on the MAP list that something is Recommended, the service provider can explain why that part or system needs to be replaced or repaired, such as a break pad has worn down past the recommended point that the vehicle or break manufacture believes is safe. Replacing that break pad is the only option as to ignore it would place the drive of the vehicle in danger as the breaks will not be working to optimum efficiency.

Bryan said putting things down on paper for the vehicle owner has been a big selling point for many auto dealerships. The dealerships will tell a new vehicle owner that the dealership’s service shops do this and it proves the high level of service and quality their operations offer. It has proven quite successful as it has locked many vehicle owners into believing that only a dealership can service their vehicle properly.

But that is not true as today’s independent service providers are more than qualified to do the same work. Having something like MAP as part of the business emphasizes that service provider’s level of professionalism and the quality of work by giving the service provider a means of communicating the work done and recommendation more effectively.

AC Delco’s Graham said professionalism is, in the end, the key to successful customer communications. While AC Delco’s TSS program offers its participants management training, business skills development and tools to help retain and communicate with clients, the first step is always a consistent and high quality of service. That’s why AC Delco has nearly 40 training locations for TSS participants, hands-on classes and satellite-based training programs.

“You can send emails, coupons, flyers and what have you out to everyone, but if you are not fixing the car properly, then your customers will be upset with you and not come back,” Graham said.

Resource List:

AC Delco

Protractor Software Inc.

MechanicNet Group Inc.

Motorist Assurance Program

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