When Communicating Delays, Promise to Communicate 

April 8, 2024
Production delays are unpredictable; above all, let customers know they can count on getting updates. 

Even if you designed a body shop with glass walls, the work going on in plain view would still appear totally opaque to most customers, many of whom will be in need of collision repair work for the first — and perhaps only — time in their lives. They simply don’t have the highly specialized knowledge to know what they’re looking at, nor could they anticipate the myriad factors affecting their repair timeline. Here is where the glass walls wouldn’t be at all helpful — My car is just sitting there, why is nobody working on it? 

Production delays are, of course, a reality in collision repair. Many are caused externally; some are not. But to the customer, it’s all one. That is why, when it comes to keeping your customers informed about delays, knowledge is power. 

“Education is the perfect word,” says Brandon VanEck, COO of Car Center, which operates five shops in western Michigan. “Because most people if they’re getting their car fixed don’t understand the ins and outs. They kind of look at it as magic, like it comes in damaged and comes back out not damaged.” 

Manage Expectations 

In any business, customer service often comes down to managing customer expectations. And that’s not always easy, particularly when a customer has no realistic frame of reference for a timeline. Pat Crozat, COO of G&C Auto Body, which numbers 38 shops and growing across Northern California, says that setting realistic expectations with guests is a frequent reminder for his staff. 

“You get customers who think that every single part for their vehicle is held in inventory at the facility,” Crozat says, “that it comes in the color of the car, and poof, their car will be done the next day. I’ve actually had customers think that.” 

“Everybody wants to know how long it’s going to take,” continues VanEck. And while that is understandable from a customer perspective, it isn’t something that shops should be trying to guess at. What is important, VanEck says, is to control what you can control and promise what you can promise. Customers don’t need a lecture on the finer points of supply chain logistics, just that there are factors outside of a shop’s control that will affect the repair timeline. 

“The verbiage we use is, hey, I would love to give you a time right now,” says VanEck. “Unfortunately, you never know, when I pull this bumper or fender off, what kind of bracket I’m going to need underneath there, or a sensor or whatever that is going to be on back order. And if I give you a time, then I’m going to be lying to you, and I don’t like lying on my end, too.” 

Open and Continue the Dialogue 

One thing shops can, and should, make a promise on is that they will keep the customer informed. And that doesn’t need to be anything extensive. Anyone who has heard Mike Anderson speak over the last few years is familiar with the concept of the “no-update update.” Reaching out to the customer to reassure them that their repair is on track, even if there isn’t any new information to share with them, can help stave off any worries or negativity from creeping into their minds with the absence of any communication. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to how a shop establishes its communications cadence. There are tools that can help, such as an automatic text messaging solution within management software such as CCC. VanEck says CCC’s automatic texting is a supplement to a manual communication process they’ve developed based around their production schedule.  

The first step is to get a teardown done as soon as possible and get a sense of what the possible parts or production delays could be. Ideally the same day, that general timeline — a best-case scenario, says VanEck — is communicated to the customer with a phone call. Customers then receive updates via phone on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then a final update call on the day before expected delivery. It’s a process that has worked well for both Car Center and its customers. 

“It’s a structured process,” says VanEck. “Careful not to promise too much, or really anything. The only thing that we promise is that they’re going to hear from us.” 

G&C uses CCC for its estimating, but not for management. The business instead uses solutions from Nexsyis, which also has automatic communication features that shops use to stay in touch with customers. But like Car Center, it’s a supplement to an established manual process. Coincidentally, G&C shops also give Tuesday and Thursday updates because that is when the Nexsyis system automatically prompts users to make a customer contact, including via chat or text message. 

Any negative news, however, always commands a phone call. Crozat cautions not to rely too much on automated communication for this reason, always ensuring that the customer doesn’t receive any news in an undesired way.  

“I see where shops fall down is they will then use this technology to communicate an issue to a guest,” says Crozat. “And that is not OK. If there’s bad information you need to let your guests know, that should always be a courtesy phone call, with emotion involved, and empathy, and sympathy. No one wants, ‘Oh, hey, guess what? Your car is late again, there’s a chat box.’ No one wants to do that. You’ve got to keep it personal on negative stuff.” 

Prevention as a Cure 

The best way to reduce customer angst over production delays would be to simply not have them. While that is impossible, spending some extra time doing what you can to reduce delays before they happen could pay off in a multiple of time saved later on. Crozat pointed to preordering parts, for businesses that have the cash flow, as one way to head off inefficiencies and make scheduling out jobs easier. 

Crozat also gives some insight into the scheduling process, noting that while many shops like to frontload their weeks, that’s often just asking for a bottleneck. G&C does try to push smaller jobs to the start of the week, and bigger jobs toward the end of the week, but otherwise schedules work for each day. That helps space out the workflow and ensures thorough work at each step of the process to avoid missing anything. 

Ultimately, there is only so much a shop can do to avoid production delays. It then just comes down to controlling what you can control: Keep the customer informed, and work through the problem as best you can. VanEck says he wants his staff to have the attitude that they will do whatever it takes to overcome a delay. He relays a story that just recently he located a part in Seattle that was the last one in dealer stock in the country.  

“I called them and sweet-talked him into selling it to me,” recalls VanEck. “I said, ‘Hey, charge me over list. I don’t care,’ you know, what I mean? Like, make some money on it. And they did. And we had it overnighted and got it out. It’s more of a mindset of, hey, this isn’t going to beat us, you know?” 

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