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Keeping the Lines of Communication Open

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As with any relationship in life, the success of a relationship between a business owner and their customers is largely dependent on effective communication. Communication opens doors—it’s what lands you the job, builds customer relationships and makes a business thrive.

In the auto body repair industry, open, honest communication is of the utmost importance. When someone has been in an accident, emotions and stress are at an all-time high. They need to know they can trust you and your shop to help them through the entire vehicle repair process from start to finish, and keep them informed at regular intervals along the way.

“Customers have accidents one out of every seven years, and most are not familiar with the vehicle repair process,” reminds Mark Probst, owner of Probst Auto Body in Dieterich, Illinois. “As a collision shop, we need to take time with our customers and explain the process.”

“The first phone call or visit should focus on showing empathy, assuring the customer you’ll take care of everything,” he says. “Part of the process may be explained, along with getting them in another form of transportation and getting them scheduled. A second conversation should happen once insurance information is verified, and to remind them of their appointment. Finally, on the day of drop-off, any concerns they have should be addressed. This would also be a great time to address how the repair process is handled. The more communication and preparation you have up front the better you can ‘set the stage’ for what all should happen and address potential problems you could run into.”

While accidents and restoration projects may bring people into the shop, it’s the experience they have once they’re there that will determine whether they return. 

“It can make or break your business,” says Bob Sloan, owner of Sloan Product, a custom body shop in North Canton, Ohio. “Communicating with your customers creates a relationship and brings loyalty. Once you've earned their trust and respect, you have a lifelong client for whatever they need.”

Honesty is the best policy.

Both Probst and Sloan agree that being up front and honest in every customer interaction is imperative—especially if something has changed or not gone according to plan.

“Honest communication is always best,” says Probst. “No question, always reach out to the customers as soon as something changes or goes wrong during the process that may contradict something you originally told them. Most people understand that stuff goes wrong and you may be delivering them bad news, but what people aren’t okay with is when something goes wrong and no one has communicated to them what happened.”

Probst recalled a time when one of his staff members accidentally scratched a panel on a truck that was in the shop for repair, in an area that was nowhere near the original damage. They began repairs on the scratch without notifying the customer, but the customer happened to stop in to check on progress and saw what had happened. He later told Probst that he wasn’t upset the truck was scratched, but was upset no one had notified him.

“This is a perfect example of why it’s always best to communicate with the customer and be honest,” says Probst. “Typically if you’re honest and don’t make excuses, customers will understand. They may not always be happy about what happened, but the fact you were honest lets them know you have integrity and no matter what you’re doing the right thing.” 

Sloan agrees, adding that you should never over-promise and under-deliver. 

“Always be upfront and honest from the very beginning of a repair or project.”

Communicate during the repair.

Once a customer has dropped off their car, they’re fully relying on you to keep them updated, something Probst and Sloan both make a priority.

“Not only does communication build trust, it also helps the customer understand the repair process … it's all part of exceeding expectations,” says Sloan.

“I provide an overview of how the process will go for their particular job from the start,” he adds. “Once the vehicle gets through the first step of the repair—typically when body work is complete and it’s ready to be scheduled for the paint booth—I let the customer know. At that point, I give them an ETA for completion day. Then, a day or two prior to completion, I provide another update via phone, email, or text—whatever they prefer. Most of our customers these days prefer to be contacted via email or text. We determine that from the very first communication when they request a repair estimate.”

Emails and texts allow Sloan to send progress photos to customers throughout the repair process, providing a more personalized approach.

“It gives them a behind-the-scenes look at their repair, which people really appreciate,” he says. “The amount of information I share really just depends on the client and what the repair or project is and how extensive it is, but being able to text or email photo updates helps me keep a good balance of communicating and being able to answer questions and educate the customer about the process.” 

For larger projects or repairs, Sloan also invites his customers to stop by the shop and check on the progress in person. Probst also maintains certain “touch points” during the repair, but leaves room for flexibility depending on the circumstance.

“Our first, main contact point with every customer happens after we do a complete teardown and blueprint of what is needed to repair the car,” he says. “This helps us set the stage for the rest of the repair. During the next few days we are waiting on confirmation of insurance approval and parts delivery times. Once these items are confirmed, we update the customer with a better idea of repair times. When repairs are started and everything has been approved and verified, we update the customer on a case-by-case basis. This could be once a week, twice a week, etc.”

Probst’s team holds daily release meetings to review every vehicle in process, to give the customer service representative the information she needs to decide who to update. Then, when they’re close to finishing the repair, they let the customer know the vehicle should be ready to pick up within a couple days so they can plan accordingly.

As for what details Probst shares?

“We go over repair concerns first and any information related to the length of repair time,” he says. “This may include quality of parts, any necessary OEM required procedures, sublet repairs that are needed, anything denied by insurance, any possible delays we could encounter, etc. We try to make sure there are no surprises for the customer. I don’t believe there is a need to get ‘too technical’ unless the customer asks for more information.”

Who should handle customer communication?

As a shop owner, the choice to handle customer communication yourself or delegate the role to another person on your team certainly isn’t an easy one, and each option has pros and cons. One way isn’t better or worse than the other—the key is finding what works best for you personally, based on your preferences and goals for your business.

Probst and Sloan take two different approaches, both equally effective for the nature and scale of their operations.

Sloan runs what he describes as a “small-ish family shop,” and handles the majority of contact with customers himself. He likes that it keeps him closely connected to his clientele and his community, but everyone on his team is cross-trained to communicate with customers when needed.

Probst—who runs a larger shop with multiple locations—handled customer communication directly for a long time, but decided to step away from it at the recommendation of a consultant to focus on other areas of the business.

“I was very hesitant at first to make the transition,” he admits. “I wasn’t sure how I would pay another person and I wasn’t sure what my ‘new role’ would be if I wasn’t involved with the customer. Once I did remove myself, though, I found I had more time to spend on marketing, community relations, finance, production issues, etc. Looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made to hire people to handle the front office.”

However you decide to do it, Probst recommends all owners develop their communication skills through education, training, and mentorship/consulting. 

“Read books and learn about people and personalities,” he says. “I highly recommend enlisting the help of consultants and mentors, and attending trainings. There are great coaches out there to sharpen your skills, which will make you a better person/owner.”


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