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Turn Complaints Around

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One of my clients recently discovered a bunch of customer surveys that had not been reviewed—some going back a few months. Included in this batch of surveys were a few with serious complaints. Generally this shop owner jumped right on complaints, wanting to address any customer concerns. But now he was confronted with an uncomfortable time lag. What to do?

It’s well known that an unhappy customer will often complain to a dozen people or more, while a shop owner is lucky if a happy customer talks to even one or two friends or family members. This makes dealing with customer complaints—even, for this shop owner, old complaints—a very high priority.

Primary Considerations

Two questions arise when dealing with the issue of complaints. Who should handle it—the owner, estimator, marketing manager, or production manager? And what, if anything, should be offered beyond correcting a repair or refinish problem?

This shop owner determined that the estimator who wrote the estimate should make the contact because the customer had met the estimator before. But one might object to this approach if the complaint is about the estimate or the estimator. And there is also the issue of personality: Is this estimator a tactful person who is capable of handling a sensitive situation?

Next there is the issue of how far the shop should go to remedy the customer’s unhappiness, whether the complaint is justified or not. This shop owner took the position that it would be okay to offer a gift or two, like a free car wash, a free detail, or even some free movie tickets. But, you might ask, are there any rules of thumb that one should follow in dealing with a complaint like this?

Customer Retention

Depending on the business and the industry, it is generally estimated that the cost of getting a new customer is at least two to three times what that person will spend initially. That means most businesses have to entice a customer to come back several times to recoup their initial marketing investment. If this is true for a typical body shop, then the loss of a customer because of a complaint not adequately handled would be quite expensive. Weighed against this standard, the cost of a gift or two would be trivial.

"Given the economic seriousness of losing a customer, especially during these tough times, handling a complaint well is exceedingly important."

The professionalism in handling the complaint must also be considered. An estimator and even a shop owner may be a bit annoyed by a complaint, even if it’s somewhat justified. That annoyance could creep into the tone of the call intended to mollify the complaining customer and actually make the matter worse. One way to avoid this is to use a practiced script in making the call, regardless of who does it. Each shop owner should give serious thought to exactly what he or she wants to say and exactly what he or she is willing to offer. As an example, here is the script I created for the shop owner with the old complaints (or his representative) to use, based on his willingness to offer some inducements for the customer to make peace with the shop:

It has come to my attention that you were dissatisfied with some aspect of your recent auto body repair at our shop. Although we try to inspect every vehicle very thoroughly before delivering it to a customer, it seems we may have missed something this time. If we haven’t corrected the problem to your satisfaction, please bring your vehicle back to the shop and we will gladly fix the problem.

Also, if we did fix the problem but you were unhappy with our service in some way, may we offer some small token to show our appreciation for your using our shop? We would like to prove that we do try to make every effort to provide the best possible service and if we fall short we like to make it up if we can. Could we offer you a free detail, a car wash, or a couple of movie tickets to show our sincerity?

Given the economic seriousness of losing a customer, especially during these tough times, handling a complaint well is exceedingly important. The complaint itself should never be considered an annoyance. It should always be considered a gift from the customer pointing to something in a shop’s operation in need of improvement, an opportunity to correct something that otherwise might never be noticed.


Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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