Service advisors are the liaison between the customer and the technician. It is hard to underestimate the importance of their job. Here are some tips from some of the industry's best.
By Allan Janssen
Newcom Business Media
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In September, I asked you to send in the names of truly exceptional service advisors.
The thought was that in these tough economic times, the person at the front counter, who deals directly with the customer, plays an increasingly important role.
The response, which included photographs, anecdotes, and testimonials, was overwhelming. And from the list of “exceptional” service advisors, I spoke to five to get an idea of what advice they’d have for people just starting in the business.
Troy Goldstone, service manager at the Academy Road location of Tony’s Academy Auto Service in Winnipeg, Man., was described by his boss as a top-notch communicator.
Trevor Rogowski earns high customer-service surveys every month at Brantford Honda, in Brantford, Ont.
Brandy Godwin elicits “nothing but praise for her customer service abilities” at Rivers Edge Service in Prince George, B.C.
Marcia Hay at Caliber Automotive in Edmonton, Alta., was introduced to us as “the best service advisor in the business.”
And a customer told us about how Wendy Norris, co-owner with her husband Bob, of Bob’s Automotive in Hamilton, Ont., “always treats customers the way she would want to be treated.”
Here’s what these exceptional service advisors came up with:
BE A FRIEND
Troy: Get to know the customers. The husbands, wives, kids… even the grandparents. The conversation often turns to personal matters.
Brandy: Personal circumstances come into play all the time, every day. That’s my job. That’s where getting to know your customer and the position they’re in comes into play. If they’re a single parent, or have just lost their job, or are planning to go on a big trip, or are planning to sell the vehicle… all of these considerations go into how you treat them. I’m going to every day, no matter who I’m talking to, ask how their day is going. How did work go, how are the kids.
Wendy: I know their circumstance. I know the people that have been battling cancer, and the people that have been laid off. I just know these things. You have to.
Trevor: I get to know my clients and take a little more time with them, and maybe even tell them a little about myself. I want them to feel comfortable with me. On occasion I’ve seen tears from customers, but that’s not common. In those situations, I just say, ‘Do you need someone to talk to?’ Sometimes they just need a good ear. Get to know your customers and they’ll start to trust you.
TAKE THE STRESS AWAY
Troy: In a lot of cases, they’re very stressed, especially if the vehicle has come in on a hook. Show some empathy for them in the situation. Make sure they understand that this is a normal day-to-day situation, and you deal with it all the time. “Don’t panic about how much it’s going to cost. Let’s wait to we hear from the technician. It might not be as bad as you think.’ If they need to be somewhere, help them get there. We have rental cars available, and we’ll often drive them home, or to work. They need to continue on with their day. Once they’re at work, or home, or at the airport, they can think clearly about what needs to be done to the car. The very first thing you have to do is take the pressure off them. Take the stress away. Once they’ve relaxed, you can consult on what needs to be done. Now they’re ready to get the information they need. And when they have the information they can make a choice.
Brandy: The biggest thing is instilling confidence in the customer that you’re doing the best that you can for them. Making them fully confident in your abilities and the abilities of your technicians.
KNOW HOW TO PRIORITIZE
Marcia: We talk about the safety items first. And then we can talk with the things that could be done another day. That’s how we work out a plan. Focus on what has to be done in order to get them back on the road. But you still tell them about the other things that should be done. I say, ‘This is what you have to do today in order to drive your car. And these are the items that you should do when you can.’
Troy: Deal with the big things first. If the car has a broken ball joint, tackle that first. Don’t worry about what else the car might need. You have to start with the items that are most pressing as far as safety goes. I’ll say, “If we can get through these today, and leave the rest for later, even three months or six months, at least we have a plan now.” If you have a tire rod end in that has some play in it and you have front bushings that are falling out, you need to look at those two items and focus on the fact that they’re safety items and need to be dealt with immediately, even if there’s a number of other items that need attention too. The vehicle also might need a coolant flush the new spark plugs but whatever the other items are, these are the pressing items as far as safety goes.
Trevor: A lot of things can wait, and that’s where I become a consultant. That’s where I get a lot of trust from my customers.
Marcia: It’s all about attention to detail because you have to be very organized. You can’t miss things. Especially when you’re giving an estimate. You can’t then go back and say, ‘Sorry, I missed something; I have to add $500.’
Troy: You want to be thorough, but at the same time, if it takes you longer than two to five minutes to write a work order, you’re asking the wrong questions. A big portion of what you do in the front end, is nothing more than customer service. Being able to show some empathy, being able to take the stress and pressure away from customers, being able to work in an office environment, completing paperwork, and keeping things lined up, those are key skills.
BE WILLING TO LEARN
Marcia: I learn something every day. I certainly don’t know everything, and I don’t want to know everything. But I keep my eyes open. And I’ve learned lots in the last four-and-a-half years.
Brandy: When I don’t understand something about the job, technically, I ask a tech to show me. I want to be able to communicate to the customer myself so I don’t have to call the techs to the front. You have to be willing to learn.
Troy: When a technician tells you that a ball joint has play in it, go back and take a look and see what he’s talking about. It makes it very difficult to sell that job to the customer if you haven’t seen it yourself. You have to have some knowledge of how a car works. But that can be taught. What cannot be taught is customer service. If someone does not have basic customer service skills, they’re not likely to develop them. That has to be somewhat inherent.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
Troy: Whenever possible I show them on the vehicle what the problem is. We also hang onto the old parts to show them to the customers. That is the way to sell the larger job. It builds rapport and trust.
DON’T LET CUSTOMERS DEFER EVERYTHING
Troy: I’ve learned to say, look if three or four months is going to make a big difference financially, then these items can wait. But if there’s no compelling reason to wait, then let’s do them now. It may as well be done today. It’s great maintenance.
BE A STUDENT OF CRM
Troy: I’m always looking for examples of good and bad customer service. Customer relations management is what my job is all about.
Brandy: Business management training has given me more confidence in talking to customers. I know why I’m doing things a certain way. I’m not working blind.
Wendy: I’ve taken some business management training – day courses – that have been really informative and have helped me do my job. You can always pick up something – even if you change only one thing that you do.
Trevor: Reading their answers, their expressions, their posture, everything. I’ve had some great training that discusses different personality styles and how to understand a customer’s motivations and attitudes. It’s amazing how you can apply that to almost every person that walks through the door.
BE ANIMATED ON THE PHONE
Troy: You have to talk on the phone as if the person is right there in front of you. Your smiles, your hand gestures, people perceive them. It comes through in your voice.
KNOW WHAT THE TECHS NEED
Troy: Every technician describes things up a little differently. I need to know what ”a little bit of play” means. One guy will tell you it’s falling out when it’s only got a little movement in it. The next won’t tell you it’s falling out until it has fallen out.” In distributing work to the technicians you pick their strong points. That doesn’t mean someone gets all the gravy. It just means we give them work that we know plays into their strong suit.
Brandy: You have to avoid putting them in ‘scramble mode,’ where they’re working on 10 things at once. Scheduling their work is a big part of the job. You don’t want to cause frustration in the back. If you schedule two tire jobs at once, knowing the shop has only one tire changer, you’re going to cause problems.
Wendy: I grill the customers for as much information as possible so I don’t get raised eyebrows from the technicians. I want them to be able to start on the job with the information I gave them, not come to the front asking questions. If I’ve got the time, I’ll look up TSBs and point them out to the techs. Sometimes I’m even right!
Trevor: When they tell me about extra work they’ve found that has to be done, I try to call the customer right away to get approval. They want to get started. They’ve got a car on the hoist and they want to keep working.
Troy: There will always be push back, especially from people on flat rate. That’s when you have to remember the last job you gave them that was gravy. If they give you push back, you can push back with that.
SEE THE JOB THROUGH
Troy: The consultant who dealt with the client in the morning should be the consultant who deals with them when they pick up. It if that’s not possible then whoever is on the desk in the afternoon has to have a thorough understanding of what that vehicle needed and any special situations that exist. That customer’s car disappeared into a black hole for most of the day, and yet it doesn’t look any different than when they dropped it off, except for maybe a wash. You need to go through that invoice very carefully to explain all the work that was done and the warranties that are available. They’ll leave feeling so much better then if they just walk in and paid a cashier they’ve never seen before. You need that face time with the client at the end of the day.
Brandy: Spend time with customers when they’re picking up. You want to spend five to 10 minutes with them if possible. That’s when you explain the value you offer them, and that’s when you get to know them.
DON’T FORGET YOUR DUTY TO THE COMPANY
Brandy: I see myself as both a consultant and a salesperson. Part of my job is to help keep the company profitable. But at the same time I have to help customers who are facing a big decision that sometimes involves a lot of money. It’s a balance.
Wendy: I see myself as both salesperson for the company and a consultant to the customer. Obviously the business is there and has to be profitable. But I also treat the customers as if it were me on the other side of the counter.
Marcia: We don’t try to sell something they don’t need. We only recommend what the car needs. I’ll tell them it is what it is… and this is what it needs. Then if they decide to do it that’s their decision. Do I feel bad? Yeah, all the time. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be presented with a $2,000 bill for my car. But at the same time, we didn’t build the car, we didn’t buy the car, and we didn’t drive the car. This is what it needs. And this is what it costs.” Sometimes you have to turn your emotions off. I’m not cold or rude about it. But there are some things I can’t change. You have to remember, they come to us for a reason; they know their car needs work and they know we can fix it. Some people needed a lot of empathy and handholding, but if they really couldn’t afford it they probably wouldn’t have come in at all. People surprise you. Just when it looks like they’re going to walk away from the car, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, just go ahead and do it.’
AVOID BAD SURPRISES
Trevor: There are things you can do to prevent customers from getting angry or frustrated. Sometimes even before the job begins you can prepare them for potential problems, or warn them about things they may not have thought about. If you warn them up front, they’re less likely to be upset about it. It’s not like it took them by surprise.
GO THE EXTRA MILE
Trevor: Got a call about a car that had been worked on and now wouldn’t start. He drove to her house and got the car started so she could go to the event that she had to go to. It was rewarding for me because she called the next week to thank me for getting her on her way.
Troy: We’ve had complaints of grease marks left on the steering wheel or on the floor, and we’ve actually sent the vehicle out to be detailed. Somehow we had missed that in our post-repair inspection, so we took care of it.
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