Running a Shop Human Resources Shop Customers Leadership Customer Relationship Management Hiring Shop Staff

Tips for Hiring Front Office Employees

Order Reprints
Tips to Hiring for the Front Office

Trace Coccimiglio had never set foot in a body shop before he bought one.

From the first time his shop, Valet Auto Body, opened its doors in Draper, Utah, in 2009, he knew he was in trouble because he had zero experience in the collision repair industry.

“I made hundreds of expensive business mistakes,” he says.

So, he faked it until he made it. And, faking it involved learning the hiring process via trial and error. However, over the years, Coccimiglio noticed patterns regarding the best customer-facing employees. Learning those and creating a system for hiring those employees has allowed his shop to grow to $3 million in annual revenue. The shop gains the majority of its sales and 31 percent of its business from repeat customers and 12 percent stems from customers referring friends and family.

Kyle Holt, president of S/P2 online training, says a significant component of hiring employees that will treat the customer with the “golden rule” is to focus on their soft skills in the interview.

Holt has worked in the industry for about 16 years, providing online training to shops and students in career technical schools. He founded S/P2 with his father in 2002 and since then has developed training programs on safety and environmental compliance, soft skills and human resources training.

While everyone in the shop may come in contact with customers from time to time, it’s beneficial to hire people for their customer service skills in front-office jobs, Holt says.

Coccimiglio and Holt share how to look for skills to hire for a customer service position.


1. Forget About Industry Experience.

Coccimiglio started by hiring an estimator who turned out to not know the job. He threw out the criteria of working in the auto industry and hired people based on their conversational skills, a method that’s worked for him.

“I want someone that won’t make the customer feel like they’re just checking boxes on a sheet,” he says. “They’ve already been through that with the police department and insurance company.”

Holt agrees. For most people in the general public, they don’t know the technical skills and language that the technicians, estimators and other shop workers know, he says. The hire needs to be someone who can speak with empathetic language and acknowledge the potential feeling of helplessness or loss.

Employers need to hire staff that can relate to customers and let them know accidents and repair most likely won’t be a recurring process.

Coccimiglio will ask the hire about his or her past work experience and then listen to make sure the person can hold a conversation and above all, does not blame past employers.


2. Focus on Nonverbal Communication.

Look for how the person observes and mimics your body language, Coccimiglio says.

“They’re going to be nervous in the interview setting so that’s the difficult thing,” he says.

Holt says to take notice of whether the person shook your hand right away and made eye contact. Did the person show up in a T-shirt and jeans, or dressed in professional attire?

And, you want someone who can sit and absorb, as well as engage. A shop owner wants to avoid hiring someone who’s kicking back and not sitting up straight, Holt says.

If the person shows up 10 minutes early for the interview, that is a good sign.


3. Find Someone with Initiative.

The hire should be able to jump in front of the customer’s needs and be flexible. The minute the conversation becomes about the employee trying to sell to the customer and not the customer’s needs, whether that be time availability or finance worries, then you lose the business, Coccimiglio says.

Holt says the owner can test the hire to see if he or she can form a solution to a hypothetical customer problem. He says to look for the candidate’s willingness to tell the hypothetical customer right away that there was an issue with the repair and say, “Here’s what happened.”

Other red flags that the candidate shouldn’t do include interrupting you during the interview, apathy about his or her career or your company and arriving late to an interview without a legitimate reason.

You need someone who will listen to your customers early on. If a customer doesn’t want to fill out a sheet with his or her basic information of name, address and insurance company, and instead wants someone to immediately hand out an estimate, then the hire needs to accommodate that need.

“The hire should take the sheet and just follow the customer out the door,” he says.

And this hire needs to put the customer first, always.

“The minute you start jumping ahead of the customer, you’re done,” Coccimiglio says. “Like when you buy a house, the minute you think the agent is only worried about commision is the minute you stop trusting them.”


4. Throw Preconceived Notions Out the Door.

Holt says he’s heard of shop owners being reluctant to hire millennials because they are “too engrossed in their phones.”

He says many shop owners are hesitant to go further after initial interviews with millennials because their time spent on electronic communication hinders their in-person communication skills.

Yet, that is not a fair assessment of the hire’s professionalism and is a skill that could be used to your advantage.

While younger hires might know how to communicate differently than older hires, Holt says the shop owner should remember to account for their professionalism in an interview.

If a younger hire has more experience using telephones and other electronic communication devices, then the employer could train that hire in other areas.

Technicians and estimators coming right out of school may not know what communication skills look like in the workplace and then it’s a matter of gauging natural instincts and assisting with additional training.

“We don’t necessarily get to pick from hundreds of candidates,” Coccimiglio says.


5. Conduct Multiple Types of Interviews.

Holt says it’s best to interview a candidate once in person and once over the phone. Two interviews provides the shop owner with information on the candidate’s in-person communication skills, as well as his or her telephone skills.

With fewer telephone conversations and more texting among millennials, Holt says this can be a way to see if their skills will be able to reach a customer through multiple platforms.



SIDEBAR: A Soft Skills Checklist

Eye contact

Holt says the candidate should not shy away from looking the owner or interviewer in the eye.

Good posture

Look to make sure the candidate is sitting up straight and tall in the chair. In the case of customer service positions, the candidate should sit up straighter and carry themselves with a formal attitude. There should be no fidgeting.

Active Listening

A shop owner needs to make sure the interviewee did not only answer the question, but also took a few seconds to absorb the information and understand the context.

Problem Solving

An interviewer can ask a question like, “Share an example from a past job of a difficult customer.” A person in customer service needs to be able to handle a difficult customer as well as happy customers. The question can also determine if the person has problem-solving skills when thrown into an unexpected situation.


The biggest soft skill to look for, Holt says, is the ability of the candidate to put him or herself in the shoes of the customer. In order to identify empathy, look for the potential hire’s ability to storytell and not just give curt, one-word answers. Giving more than one or two words show that the candidate cares enough about the situation to find a solution.

Related Articles

Three Tips for Finding and Grooming Employees

Hiring an Office Pro

Hiring a Sales-Minded Office Staff

You must login or register in order to post a comment.