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Three Steps to Building an All-Star Customer Service Team

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There are few industries like collision repair, which often receives customers immediately after a traumatic experience. Crying, yelling, frustration and emotional exhaustion are not uncommon sights at the front counter, and it’s customer service representatives, service writers and managers who are on the front lines to console the weary and pick up the pieces. 

On any given day, front-of-the-house staff may be lending a friendly ear, negotiating the labyrinth of insurance claims, explaining the intricacies of repairs, or in worst-case scenarios, hearing a string of unfiltered vitriol that can upset staff and bystanding customers alike. 

And these often emotionally distraught customers are the very same people shops send out into the world to write first-person reviews on sites like Yelp. 

Scared? Don’t be. Some do-it-yourself, in-house sales psychology can help your staff master the human psyche—no Ph.D. required. 

Here are three strategies for managing the human condition to your shop’s benefit. 

Strategy #1: Hire people people.

A well-worn parable in customer service is the comparison to a high-end waiter. Politely inquisitive, attentive to unspoken needs, cool under fire and infinitely knowledgeable—these are qualities that apply to any service industry. 

Rather than focusing on industry experience or interest in cars, many experts advise shops to find people with empathetic skills who can be trained in the details of collision repair, rather than vice versa. 

“We’re paying the painter and bodyman good money ... to do good work and focus on process, but then we may hire a high school student and pay someone not a living wage to be the first point of contact for anybody who contacts our shop,” says Jonathan Purifoy, sales effectiveness manager at Axalta Coating Systems. “They’re often under-trained, they’re not paid well and they’re the first line when it comes to any customer contact. I think that’s screwed up.”

He recommends that shops tailor job applications and interview questions toward finding employees with naturally caring demeanors and problem-solving skills that can be employed in a range of situations. 

Before bringing candidates in, however, he suggests having finely tuned scripts and customer-focused processes, so you can ask specific questions of candidates and see if they can think on their feet. 

“I would take that script and do a role play with [a candidate] and say, ‘Here’s how we answer phones, what do you think?’” he says. “A savvy person with experience will have some initial feedback.”

Derek Tipton, owner of the two-shop City Collision chain in central Florida, says if customer service candidates don’t have the right attitude and focus on customer care, they will not work at either of his locations. 

As an analogy, he uses the example of two pizza restaurants in his town.

“One place in town has the best pizza, but I won’t go there because their staff is rude and the service sucks,” he says. “I go to the place that I feel has the second best pizza in town—their staff is tremendous, and they roll out the red carpet for you when you walk in the door.”

His comparison is that City Collision isn’t the only choice in Ocala or Gainesville, and that a key goal at the shop is turning everyone’s bad situation into a pleasurable, customer-centric experience. 

To hire the right people, Tipton pays attention to how people carry themselves in person, how they dress, how much they smile, their glass-half-full/half-empty quotient, and how they react when he stays quiet and lets them fill the void. 

“Sometimes in an interview, I just let people talk … because you can learn so much about them,” he says. “When I bring up things that they have on their résumé or application and you ask a couple of questions, [are previous circumstances] everybody else’s fault?”

Strategy #2: Establish bulletproof policies.

Even with customer service rock stars in place, shops need to implement strategies to ensure that customers are being listened to, challenging people are handled with a delicate touch, and scripts are in place to make certain that staff members are portraying the business in its intended manner. 

Purifoy says that standard operating procedures [SOPs] and scripts can make a tremendous difference in crafting a great customer experience, while also potentially increasing a shop’s closing ratio.

“The [customer service representative] is typically the first contact a customer has with the collision center,” he says. “If he or she doesn’t follow a well-developed script or SOP, they may lose business, referrals and money.”

Purifoy lists additional customer service basics including mandated opportunities for staff to listen to the customer’s concerns, and asking “emotionally intelligent” questions like, “Are you OK?” and, “How can we help?,” rather than harsher questions like, “How do you plan to pay for this?” or, “How much is your deductible?” 

He adds that part of the procedures should be clearly explaining how long a repair will take, what they should do if their car is totaled, the easiest way to get a rental car, and how staff can help customers after business hours if needed. 

At Tipton’s shops in Florida, a six-step SOP covers customer greetings by formally introducing themselves to the customer, determining the customer’s intentions, informing them who else they will be meeting with, asking if there is anything they would like while they wait, and introducing the customer to anyone else they will meet. 

To improve insurance CSI scores, Tipton’s staff has also implemented specific language into the scripts to help customers make connections between frequently asked survey questions.

“If we’re calling saying we’re just trying to keep you updated, some people won’t connect the dots and are like, ‘You didn’t keep me informed, you kept me updated, so that’s a no,’” he says, laughing. “The words that are used in the survey are the words we use—calling to keep you informed.”

Strategy #3: Listen, respond to customers.

While top-shelf customer service requires a degree of inherent emotional intelligence, specific tactics can improve the empathy and responsiveness of customer-facing employees, while also helping put customers at ease. 

Steve Trapp, North American strategic accounts manager at Axalta, says shop staff needs to slow down to listen and take time to connect with customers. That could include taking a few moments away from the desk to look at the car while hearing their concerns. 

Other cues, like touching the car, nodding in agreement, pointing at things the customer is mentioning and engaging customers that are interested in conversing, are all subtle behaviors that can go a long way in customer satisfaction. 

Additional time with customers, he says, will also provide casual opportunities to find out customer priorities, including whether the job is customer- or insurance-pay, their desires for the thoroughness of the repair, and any interest in
added-value services. 

“Some people don’t want to have someone try to add value or up-sell them. Unless they opt in for that, they’re not interested in that [and] they see you as being a slimy salesman,” he says. “You want to read that and say, ‘Would it be OK if we looked at some of the additional damage throughout the rest of the vehicle to see if there’s anything else we could repair for you while we have it here for repairs?’”

Tipton reminds his staff to relate to customers, with suggestions like shaking their head in acknowledgement, never cutting them off or raising voices, saying, “I understand,” when listening to their concerns and occasionally covering something for a customer even if it isn’t justified.

“Is it going to cost me $100, is it going to cost me $200?” he asks about covering erroneous items. “A lot of our customers now are repeat customers and the reason is the way they get treated. They know that [we] do a great job and, if we do have problems, we’re going to be nice about it and they’re going to get taken care of.” 

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