Auto Service World
Feature   March 3, 2015   by Andrew Brooks

The communication connection

Improving customer communications will require a major culture shift for many traditionally minded businesses.

These days, the aftermarket is under more pressure than ever.

The market is intensely competitive. Margins are tight. Vehicles are as complex as the space shuttle. And OEMs are doing everything they can to keep the automotive customer in their service bays.

In a market like this, the old-fashioned, price-driven approach doesn’t cut it anymore. When it comes to auto repair shop management, service operations have to forge a new relationship with their customers – one based on trust and loyalty.

A culture change is required, says Bob Greenwood, president and CEO of Automotive Aftermarket E-Learning Centre. “A lot of companies in this business are still into the old selling game – flavour of the day, menu pricing, certain kinds of service – rather than boiling it down to the individual client.” Greenwood believes the aftermarket has to move from a transactional mindset where the goal is simply selling a given job, to a long-term relationship based on educating the client and fostering trust.

“I use the term ‘client’ rather than ‘customer,’” Greenwood says. “To me, ‘client’ denotes responsibility. The better shops today understand that a relationship of trust is in play.”

The aftermarket isn’t educating the customer about what’s going on in the industry and how vehicles have to be maintained according to the customer’s use patterns and expectations. What’s missing in the equation is the development of the required ‘soft’ communication skills that enable service operations to connect on a human level with their customers – or clients.

Dennis Snow, president of Snow & Associates, agrees that customer communication is essential to establish a trust-based relationship. “You can boil it down to eye contact, tone of voice, and so on; but what you’re looking for is the building of trust,” he says.

For Snow, the transactional approach kills any chance of establishing a long-term relationship.

“We’ve all been in stores where every interaction is transactional and there’s no attempt to build a relationship. Whereas you remember the times when someone actually listens to you and doesn’t talk to you in technical terms.”

10-Web2-Industry TrendsSnow says that a transaction-based approach, in which “I bring my car in, sit in the waiting room, get my car, and go,” isn’t necessarily bad service. But it leaves the customer with no motivation to come back.

“They might come back,” he says, “but if you haven’t differentiated yourself, they’re just as likely to go somewhere else next time if it’s more convenient for them.”

As a professional trainer himself, Snow believes in the importance of training in the ‘soft skills’ of customer communication; but he admits that the really important training happens on site, every working day.

“The key trainer in an operation is a manager,” he says. “It’s not about putting people into a classroom; the best training is, for example, when a manager says to the service advisor, ‘You know, I realize we’re really busy, but I think that you made that last customer feel a bit rushed.’ That’s the best training there is.”

Bob DeStefano, president of SVM E-Marketing Solutions, lists the three most important soft skills as being empathy, good listening, and storytelling.

“Empathy is the ability to see things from the customer’s unique perspective,” DeStefano says. “By effectively stepping into their shoes and understanding your customer’s feelings, you demonstrate that you truly want to help them and not just make the sale.”

On the topic of listening, he paraphrases from Steven Covey’s bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: seek first to understand, then to be understood.

“Everybody loves a good story,” he says. “By communicating with customers through the use of relevant examples, you create a memorable experience that will move people to action.”

Employees at all levels should work on enhancing these soft skills, DeStefano says. “Not only will it help front-line employees better serve customers, but [they] also create a more pleasant and effective operation in the back office.”

While a lot of soft skills boil down to individual personality, DeStefano does believe in the importance of good training programs, citing Dale Carnegie in particular.

Communication also includes the appearance of a workplace – and even the approach to company policies, DeStefano says.

“I’ve encountered many examples where strict company policies turn away valuable customers. An example is having a very strict return policy. By listening to customers and being empathetic, you may uncover they have valid concerns that need to be addressed. That’s how you create loyal customers,” he says.

The age of social media has highlighted the importance of treating customers well and building good relationships. For Snow, information technology provides a great channel for businesses to stay in front of customers, advising them of service intervals and staying top of mind. It becomes even more critical as a way for customers to broadcast good or bad experiences to the world.

Snow points to the YouTube video “United Breaks Guitars” as an example. Now at 14.5 million views, the video was posted by Canadian musician Dave Carroll after his valuable guitar was wrecked by United Airlines baggage handlers. In the video, Carroll performs a humorous song that focuses on the indifference he encountered when seeking redress. He even names the very last employee he was in touch with.

“Now, when people have a bad experience they can tell their friends and colleagues about it right away, while their emotions are still running high,” Snow says. “Instead of telling nine people, they can tell millions. The same for a good experience too, of course. On social media we need to be managing the message that’s going out from our customers.”

When it comes to websites, says Greenwood, the biggest mistake companies are making is rushing to get a site up and running without having thought about what they want it to say and do for them.

“Does it reflect our culture and who we are? Many companies get a nice, flashy website going, but when the customer goes to the site they too often find a shop that looks like it hasn’t changed in decades. That’s a real disconnect – and there goes that trust element.”

Companies need to stop thinking of a website as a separate marketing channel, says DeStefano. “They need to think of it as the hub of their marketing. Also – this may sound like a ridiculous statement – but all too often, companies do not design their website for their customers and prospects. Rather, they take an egocentric approach to Web design, more interested in talking about themselves and their products instead of solving their customers’ problems.”

If your website doesn’t serve your prospects and customers, then it isn’t serving you either, DeStefano says. Businesses should build websites that are customer-focused, offering content and interactive features that relate to customer needs and offer solutions.

“If your customers and prospects don’t find your website relevant, trustworthy and satisfying, they will leave,” he says. “Remember, your competitor’s website is only one click away.”

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