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Empathy: The Secret to Stellar Customer Service

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Empathizing with customers can be just as beneficial to a business’s bottom line as a perfectly-executed repair, says Loren Margolis, an executive leadership coach and the founder and CEO of Training and Leadership Success. 

By putting customers first, listening to their concerns, and empathizing with their situation, she says, collision repair shops can increase their business and their quality of work. 

“If you think about it, the reason someone walks into a [collision] repair shop is because they don’t feel safe,” Margolis says, “and that is the perfect opportunity to be empathetic.”

Donna Stobart, an administrator at Kevin Ball Auto Body in Leadington, Mo., is known by both clients and coworkers for her stellar customer service and inviting tone. She says one of the cornerstones of customer service is active listening. One of the ways she listens is by treating customers as if they’re old friends.

Empathy may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about customer service, but by being empathetic, your bottom line could begin to reflect the quality of your customer service. 

It all starts with a curious mind, caring heart, and these helpful hints. 

 

Let them tell you their story.  

“Listening,” says Margolis, “it sounds so simple and basic, but it is the basis of showing empathy.” 

Listening is an ability we all have, but when it comes to sales it should be a skill, and Margolis says to truly listen, you have to make your hands still. 

“Put down your phone, the tool in your hand, whatever it is, just make your hands still,” she says. 

The second commandment of listening is eye contact. Margolis says this shows that you’re actively listening and that customers have your undivided attention. 

The third rule is to not interrupt. 

“Even though you’re the car expert and you can probably assume what they’re going to say next—don’t,” she says. 

The final step to effective listening is to mirror what the other person says. Margolis points out this can be as simple as saying, “So based on what you’ve told me…” 

Stobart says to get people talking she treats them like she has known them forever. 

“Tell them you’re glad they are OK and offer them a beverage,” she says. 

Then, as he or she is describing their situation, Stobart says to remember a minor detail, or two, to which you can circle back.

“When they come to pick up their car later, you can mention the grandparent they told you about,” she says, noting it shows not only that you were listening, but that you care about them and not just their business.

 

Read the customers. 

Stobart says one of the biggest boons to customer service is being able to read people. After someone has experienced a traumatic event, such as a car crash, they’ll want to talk about it.

“Women are more willing to open up and tell you things right away,” she says, “But the men want to tell you things, too.” 

Much of the time, customers just want someone to listen, so shop employees must be willing to start a conversation. 

Stobart says that at Kevin Ball Auto Body the owners take time to watch videos on conducting top-tier customer service, and pick up tips by reading industry magazines.  

But for someone who has worked in a shop for decades, it may be harder to shift your perspective. That’s why Margolis has five simple words to reframe the conversation: “Put yourself in their shoes.”

This can be done in a variety of different ways. If you’ve ever experienced a collision, say, “I’ve been there, I can relate to the stress you’re feeling.” It shows customers that not only are you listening to what they have to say, but it lets them know they are not alone. 

Margolis says making comments that may seem frivolous, such as “How are you healing?” can strike a chord with someone who’s obviously distressed, and put them at ease. 

Even if you haven’t been in a collision, she says almost anyone can relate to having their sense of freedom taken away. Bringing your vehicle into a repair shop is like losing a part of your life that you’ve become reliant on, she says, and that’s scary. 

By assessing a customer’s needs, as well as their attitude, shop workers can show empathy and get their customers to walk away thinking, “Wow, they really listened to me.” 

Margolis says that’s exactly how you win repeat business. 

 

Show empathy without being condescending. 

Margolis recalls a time in her early 20s when a car behind her hit an icy patch, causing it to ram into the back of her vehicle. She says she and her father went to the local collision repair shop and what ensued was an interaction she still remembers years later. 

“The technician talked to me and not my dad,” she says. “He said he would fix [my car] and have it run just like it used to so I could feel safe driving it.” 

Margolis says she even remembers thinking as she left the shop, “He must have a daughter too.”

What may sound like an easy and routine interaction is, unfortunately, a rarity for some women who bring their vehicles in for repairs. 

Margolis says to be mindful of the language you use when interacting with female customers.

“Don’t call me ‘sweetheart,’ ‘honey,’ or ‘dear,’” she says. 

The most important thing to remember is to treat women with the same amount of respect you would treat a male car repair expert, says Margolis. 

Stobart says she’s seen similar issues at Kevin Ball Auto Body. In some cases, older gentlemen come into the shop and only want to work with another man, she says. On the other hand, she says some of its estimators have needed a little extra training, particularly when it comes to being patient, to help women who’ve brought in their vehicles.

“Men don’t want to sit and listen,” she says, “so we’ve worked with [our estimators] to develop a rapport.” 

Regardless of who walks through your door, treat them with understanding and respect. 

Marolis gets straight to the point: “Don’t treat people like they have no idea what they are talking about.” 

 

Eavesdrop for good.

Another straight to the point statement from Margolis: “Customers are not stupid.”

When they’re sitting in the waiting room looking at their phones, they are also listening. 

“They will absolutely hear how other customers are being treated,” she says. 

When shop employees address customers in the waiting room, Margolis says it should be treated as a customer service demonstration. That’s why it’s important to treat each customer like they are your first of the day. Something as seemingly trivial as repeating someone’s name can make a world of difference for your bottom line.

“People will not go to your shop if they feel like a number,” she says. “There is a direct link between empathy and customer service and the amount of business you get.” 

 

Hold each other accountable.

Stobart says she and her colleagues at Kevin Ball Auto Body have worked together long enough to develop a constructive rapport. She says they’re not afraid to say things like, “You may have rushed through that one,” if it means providing better service.

Showing empathy and providing holistic customer service aren’t just one person's responsibility. For your shop to be as successful as it can be, each staff member must learn how to communicate effectively and put customers’ needs first, ahead of any repair order.

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