By donalee Moulton
In a competitive aftermarket, attracting new customers and convincing them to return is more than smart business. It’s essential. It is also a skill and a way of doing business that can be learned and enhanced.
It all starts with a conversation, says Mary Jane Copps, owner of The Phone Lady, a consulting company based in Halifax that works with companies to improve their telephone sales, marketing, and related skills.
At the heart of the conversation is a genuine interest and curiosity in the customer and their needs. That, in turn, translates into trust, the indispensable ingredient in customer loyalty and retention. “You move from being a salesperson to a trusted advisor. You are offering more value,” says Copps.
Conversations consist of more than merely talking, however. The focus must be on learning the customer’s needs, goals, and concerns. It’s about building a relationship. Questions that call for “yes” or “no” answers or other narrow and specific choices won’t work, says Copps. “Close-ended questions make people feel manipulated. You’re kind of cornered. It feels like the person is leading you where you want to go.”
Instead, open-ended questions are recommended. Ask the customer, for example, why they need this part, or so many of these parts. Inquire about their experience in this area, any problems they have encountered. “Conversations reveal opportunities,” says Copps.
“Being able to ask a question or add a piece of information in real time is how you increase revenue,” she notes. Copps recommends the aftermarket sales team get together and develop a list of open-ended questions they can ask customers collectively. This gives the salesperson options and requires less thinking on the fly. It also reaffirms the importance of customer engagement.
The initial conversation with a new customer, whether over the phone or in person, also sets the tone for the future relationship and begins to build your store’s reputation. “This is my opportunity to represent the company and myself at our best in order to ensure the customer has a terrific and memorable first visit with us,” says Sydney Furner, a journeyman parts technician with Auto Electric Service in Yorkton, Sask.
When opportunity knocks, however, not all salespeople are armed and ready to engage in meaningful conversations. “Most experienced salespeople have these skills, but they are rusty. They have moved behind their email,” says Copps. She recommends frontline staff hone their conversational acumen by calling family and friends they’re not talking to regularly. It’s also helpful to plan a call. Make a list of the points you want to make and relevant information you can provide.
“Maintaining a long-term customer requires maintaining the relationship that has been built over time through honesty, integrity, consistency, trust and knowledge as well as continuing to offer great service,” stresses Furber.
The aftermarket is strong in terms of building both relationships and trust – a reality that may be born of necessity, notes J.D. Ney, director of J.D. Power Canada in Toronto. “The aftermarket can’t rely on automobile customers returning. There’s no warranty work. Every sale is a retail sale.”
The aftermarket is making more of those sales, according to the J.D. Power 2019 Canada Customer Service Index Long-Term Study. It found that although automobile dealers in Canada receive 54 per cent of revenue spent on servicing vehicles four to 12 years old, they continue to lag aftermarket service facilities in share of visits (48 per cent vs. 52 per cent). “As vehicles age and require more complex and costly repairs, aftermarket service is doing a better job at attracting and retaining customers, especially as warranties start to expire, consequently capitalizing on the more revenue-lucrative repair work,” says Virginia Connell, automotive research and consulting manager at J.D. Power Canada in Toronto.
One of the keys to transforming a one-time customer into a repeat customer is making them feel welcome. That doesn’t require expensive give-aways or a swank store. “Make them feel special by thanking them for coming in and sharing their business with us and offering an invitation for future visits,” says Furber. He notes it can be as simple as saying, sincerely, “We look forward to seeing you again.”
There are missteps salespeople make that can make the difference between welcoming a customer back and nudging them to take their business elsewhere. “When you’ve been selling a product for a long time, you make assumptions about what people need instead of asking them,” says Copps.
She notes that salespeople at all levels of experience also often talk more about themselves than the customer. “You need to show why something should matter to the customer.”
Furber points out it is important to live up to your promises. “Each time a customer returns, they expect the same great service they received during their first visit. They also may be more open to expanding their relationship with us by allowing us to learn more about their future wants and needs.”
The J.D. Power study found that two simple tasks drive improvement in customer satisfaction: greeting customers immediately as they enter the store and returning the car cleaner than when it arrived. Overall, aftermarket providers were found to do a better job of greeting customers immediately than do dealers (51 per cent vs. 35 per cent), but dealers are more likely to return vehicles cleaner (33 per cent vs. 9 per cent).
Another critical driver of customer satisfaction is follow-up. This and giving the car a quick wash are two services dealers are pushing hard, notes Ney. “These are halo activities. Aftermarket shops, for the most part, don’t do either of those.”
Happy customers – whether first-timers or loyal clients – are also talkative. The J.D. Power study determined that word of mouth is more important for aftermarket providers. Aftermarket customers “definitely will” recommend their facility 52 per cent of the time after maintenance work compared with 39 per cent for dealers. The gap for repair work is even wider (57 per cent vs. 34 per cent, respectively).
It’s a competitive market, and conversations that matter to customers can clearly give you a competitive edge.
When it comes to showing new customers their business belongs with you, what’s a salesperson to do? Sydney Furner, a journeyman parts technician with Auto Electric Service in Yorkton, Sask., recommends the following six steps:
Furber also points out that each long-term customer has specific needs for their business. “By offering tailored training seminars, new product reviews, and discounted pricing, we can maintain a long-term customer relationship.”
donalee Moulton is a freelance writer based in Nova Scotia.