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All About People

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Like it or not, running a shop requires that you think about more than just fixing cars. If every customer who comes into your shop doesn’t walk out smiling, it’s time to reexamine your customer service philosophy.

Mark Hambaum, an independent business consultant and training manager who’s been in the automotive industry for 10 years, minces no words when it comes to customer service. If you want your business to have a future, he says, you better start paying attention to how you treat your customers.

“Most people get into this business because they like cars, but it’s really a business about people, he explains. “The customer is more important than fixing the car in some respects.” He says the industry has skills training down, but there is a lack of emphasis on how the customer is treated. That’s an oversight Hambaum says could cost your shop valuable business.

If you don’t have a customer service policy, you’ve just identified the main reason that customers are leaving your shop unhappy.

Automotive Management Institute Executive Director Toni Slaton believes the automotive industry may be catching on to the need for better customer interactions. She says courses focusing on customer service—including Hambaum’s seminar, “Attracting, Keeping and Satisfying Customers”—are among the most popular. Repair shops, she says, are starting to recognize that improving service techniques can really set them apart from other shops. “People use that as their unique selling point, as something to retain and impress customers,” she says.


Improving customer service doesn’t necessarily require an organizational overhaul, Hambaum says. Try these four tactics today:

1. Tap into the voice of your customers. Ask them what they like, need, and want.

Obviously, the first step in improving customer service is to figure out what customers want, something Hambaum says repairers commonly misunderstand. Think first about the customer, he says, not their car. Just about any shop in town can fix a car, so it pays to wow customers with your concern for their well-being.

The most effective to way to find out what customers want is simple: Ask them. While there is nothing wrong with using written, online and phone surveys to get some candid feedback from customers, Hambaum says not to underestimate the value of face-to-face feedback.

Giving customers the chance to offer constructive criticism not only helps business improve, but it also shows that you care that their needs are met. No need for heroics here. Spending just a few minutes, as the owner or manager, with the customer before they leave can mean the difference between seeing that person again or waving good-bye to their business forever.

2. Make life easier. Don’t make customers jump through hoops.

Customers can choose any number of shops for collision repair, so don’t make them jump through hoops to do business at yours, Hambaum says. Be flexible; sticking to a strict idea of what you will and won’t do for a customer is a surefire way to lose business. “When you start using words like ‘never’ and ’only,’ that’s a problem,” Hambaum explains. Say, for instance, you don’t provide loaner cars; you could still give a particularly frazzled customer a much-needed ride. Hambaum says it’s all about finding little ways to make the customer’s life a little easier.

3. Beat your estimate.

The key to exceeding customer expectations is to underpromise and overdeliver. Customers don’t want any surprises when it comes to their final bill—unless, of course, it’s for less than they expected, Hambaum says. Write the estimate a little high. And if additional charges come up while fixing the car, give the customer a call to discuss it with them. This way, customers won’t think you’re trying to cheat them when they see the final bill.

4. Finish your work early.

There is nothing worse for business than not having a car ready when the customer arrives to pick it up. Avoid keeping customers waiting by anticipating surprises and overestimating how long the car will take to finish. Imagine how pleased your customers will be if you consistently have their cars ready a day or two earlier than expected.


Hambaum has noticed that a lack of customer service is usually rooted in a larger problem, such as a leader who has no set goals, or goals that aren’t clear to the staff.

“Where there’s a lack of leadership or a lack of clear vision … you find trouble,” he says. This trouble often comes down to employees who don’t understand how to treat customers. For example, if one of your service goals is to make sure customers are always addressed by name, you have to train your employees to do so. Though it may seem obvious, Hambaum sees these types of communication breakdowns all the time.

It can be hard to identify the source of your customer service problems when you’re fully entrenched in the day-to-day. Hambaum recommends you take a moment to evaluate your existing customer service policies. And if it’s the case that you don’t have a customer service policy, you’ve just identified the main reason that customers are leaving your shop unhappy. “Every business [needs] some kind of service philosophy,” he says.

As you review or create your service policy, keep in mind how you’d like people to be treated in your shop. When they’re talking to their friends and family, what would you want them to say about their experience with your business? Considering questions like that, either on your own or with the help of a consultant or seminar, can help you create a more satisfying customer service policy. Your exact goals, and how you go about meeting them, will be specific to your shop.

Keep in mind that change doesn’t happen overnight. But taking the time to improve your customer service will surely set you apart as a business that puts customers first.

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