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Customer Service Secrets from Outside the Industry

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With consumers’ ever-rising standards, the gulf in customer service between the world’s best companies and the rest is getting wider. Few companies can rival the design acumen or market dominance of Apple. Similarly, the customer enthusiasm for leading companies like Nordstrom, Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods and Marriott is the stuff of business legends.

While very few companies in the collision repair industry can match the resources of these behemoths today, their unquestioned success at transforming their respective industries can offer many lessons that smaller businesses can aspire to match.

FenderBender spoke with Michael Pellett, regional training center manager for Sherwin-Williams Automotive, to see how shops big and small can lift tangible customer service ideas and general inspiration from some of the leading companies on the planet.

“For so many years we’ve been trying to convince collision repair shops that they have to operate less like an old-fashioned body shop and more like a successful business,” he said. “They’ve put all of their attention on fixing broken cars and didn’t pay a lot of attention to the customer base.”

Lesson #1: Focus on design

Look at any Apple-made product or visit any of its 250 retail stores across the U.S. to marvel at the execution of design. Products have high-quality materials, tight tolerances and beautiful simplicity that have made iPhones, MacBooks and iPads the envy of global manufacturing.

Under the visionary direction of Steve Jobs, a man who also had a passion for architectural design, Apple stores are bright, inviting and modern environments that encourage customers to hang out, rather than just grab their products and hit the door.

For collision repair shops large and small, Pellett sees parallels in how retail stores appeal to women. Rather than the dirty, cluttered shops of the past, top-tier repair shops have been forced to make dramatic changes to appeal to a customer base that is increasingly gender balanced.

“In 2014, there’s no shop owner that can say most of [their] customers are men, because that’s just not the case,” he said. “It gets really sophisticated at the upper end where people realize that, as part of the selling role, I have to have the attention of my customer. If my customer’s a mother with young children and the children are distracting her, that means I don’t have her focus during the selling process.”

Widely applicable takeaways for improving the design environment for today’s customers include adding a children’s play area, clean bathrooms, bottled water or coffee service, easy access to customer parking spaces and magazines that appeal to a general audience, rather than one that’s exclusively male.

“If my body shop does not look nice and does not look inviting, I’m not going to get people in the front door to be exposed to any customer service that I may have to offer,” Pellett said.

Lesson #2: Empower staff to use good judgment

Nordstrom is one of the most widely studied retail operations in the business world, recognized as offering some of the industry’s best customer service practices. While many are familiar with its tolerant return policies, its singular mantra for success is to hire smart people and empower them to use good judgment in all situations.

In practice, this motto spelled out in Nordstrom’s Code of Business Conduct and Ethics applies to myriad situations its employees face on a regular basis, with the word “judgment” appearing 19 times within the document.

“[W]e ask that you follow the philosophy Nordstrom was founded upon: use good judgment in all situations,” it reads. “Doing so will empower you to provide outstanding customer service every day, one customer at a time.”

In repair shops, Pellett sees a lesson that includes giving estimators, customer service reps or other customer-facing staff the freedom to react with empathy to every customer’s needs.

“Each collision and each customer is unique, and the customer-facing employee has to be empowered to make adjustments for each customer within the confines of the business’s standard operating procedures,” he said.

As an example, he cited a hypothetical situation with a customer who is concerned about not having a vehicle during the repair process. A good estimator, Pellett said, will listen to that concern and will consider “a toolbox of possible solutions,” including checking to see if that customer has rental car coverage, offering a loaner vehicle if available or, if not at fault in a collision, whether the at-fault party can cover a rental car.

“I think our people have to understand that they are, in fact, able to make minor adjustments to better service the needs of the customer,” he says.

Lesson #3: Adopt modern marketing tactics

When it comes to poor customer service, airlines are a frequent recipient of widespread consumer ire. The industry as a whole frequently ranks near the bottom of rankings like the American Customer Satisfaction Index, in which airlines most recently came in at 40th out of 44 surveyed industries. Even so, Southwest Airlines bucks the stigma by regularly appearing near the top of customer service rankings.

The company’s Facebook wall is largely a positive environment, with upbeat postings from the company’s marketing team and glowing words of praise from elated customers. Posted complaints or questions are quickly answered in a similarly lighthearted tone, directly connecting the company to its customers in a way few businesses—large or small—have mastered.

Many collision repair outfits lack the staffing or resources for aggressive in-house social media marketing, but Pellett said as smartphones become increasingly ubiquitous, repair shops need to ditch ineffective or outdated marketing tactics and focus on channels that are used by contemporary, tech-savvy customers.

The key to reaching modern customers, he added, lies in the instant feedback, always-on connectivity and direct line of communication between a business and its customers that can be achieved with web-based or social media marketing platforms.

All shops can take small, steady steps to move their marketing efforts into the modern era as a way to better connect with customers and create an ongoing dialogue.

“They need to have the tools in place to drive traffic to their website, and optimize that website for their traffic,” Pellett said. “They should have a Facebook page, and it’s got to be a good mixture of some fun stuff, helpful hints and some things that drive traffic … back to their website.”

Lesson #4: Educate your customers

Whole Foods is a fast-growing and widely respected company whose retail outlets can transform entire neighborhoods—the so-called Whole Foods Effect.

The company also seeks to educate its customers on healthier eating habits, wider issues of mutual concern—think genetic engineering, pesticides and sustainable agriculture—but also teaching its customer base about Whole Foods itself.

“With ever-increasing competition, helping our collision customers understand why they should do business with us is very important,” Pellett said. “Educating them on who we are, what we stand for, how we do business and, most importantly, what’s in it for them is all part of customer education.”

Before settling on a customer education message, he says shops need to figure out what makes their services unique, whether that be skill in color matching, timeliness of service or anything to help differentiate themselves “from the 150 shops that can do the same repair.”

Educating customers is also a means of improving customer service if used on a case-by-case basis with individual customers.

In Pellett’s experience both as a trainer and a  customer, that means figuratively “putting their arm around” customers to guide them through the repair process with a human touch.

Lesson #5: Happy employees mean happy customers

Having been inducted into the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hall of Fame back in 2008, as well as receiving glowing press in countless business publications, Marriott is one of the world’s largest hoteliers with locations in 72 countries. One of the its notable founding principles is putting people first, making sure its employees are satisfied so they can make the brand’s customers happy.

That “people first” value has helped Marriott land on many “best employer” lists, with a variety of policies, events and programs to ensure its employees are happy, healthy and active stakeholders in the company’s success.

“To me, a better shop is one that pays fair wages, has some benefits, keeps the guys busy, gives them good equipment,” Pellett said. “I think that tends to give us a happier workforce.”

He recommends the book, Customers for Life: How to Turn That One-Time Buyer Into a Lifetime Customer, by Carl Sewell, chairman of Sewell Automotive Companies. Topics include the expectations of today’s customers and employees, as well as Ten Commandments of Customer Service derived from Sewell’s experience as a multi-store car dealer in Texas.

Beyond so-called “hard pieces” like compensation, benefits and shop equipment, Pellett also advocates owners and managers focus on “soft pieces” like fostering a family-friendly work environment where everybody is working as a team, rather than independently.

“In a collision repair facility, one thing owners have to understand is that, if their employees aren’t happy, we can’t expect them to make our customers happy,” Pellett said. 

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