Learning From Customer Service Mistakes

June 1, 2015
Three shop owners detail their biggest faults in customer service and how they used the experience to turn their communication skills around

 Every shop owner strives to make the customer happy. The processes put in place are designed to move cars efficiently through the shop and back to the customer, who will hopefully recommend the shop to their friends, write a positive online review and come back in the future.

But, as we all know, it’s not always sunshine and roses. Whether it’s a grumpy customer or a poor system in place at the shop, every once in a while, you get that dreaded one-star review, or an angry email, or a customer yelling at your staff in the lobby.

As Joe McKenna, owner of Golden West Collision Center in Sunnyvale, Calif., points out: Shops do everything they can to avoid providing bad customer service experiences, but when everything goes wrong, that presents an opportunity to learn and improve. 

“I’m not afraid to say I’ve benefitted from my mistakes,” McKenna says. “In fact, that’s how my shop has grown the most.”

That mentality is what led McKenna and two other shop owners to share with FenderBender how their “customer service horror stories” became lessons that completely reshaped how they handle the customer service experience.

Three Hours Later…

One day, Kevin Conner walked into his lobby and found a man yelling at his front office staff, angry that his estimate had increased from the original.

Three hours later? Conner and the man were shaking hands.

That’s because Conner, owner of Conner Brothers Body Shop in Richmond, Va., knew he needed to communicate and pinpoint the problem. He simply invited the man into his office, had a discussion about the estimating process, and listened intently to the customer.

What he discovered was that the customer had recently lost his job, which had already put him on edge. But they also found common ground: As the marketing director for his former company, the man knew about the importance of communicating with customers.

“We had a long conversation about the ugly and inefficient estimating process with insurance companies, and he began to see some of my difficulty,” Conner says. “I had to explain that 99.9 percent of the time, the first estimate from insurance is not in your favor. And my goal is to work in your favor and do the best quality job possible so you can walk away happy.”

And while this particular customer walked away happy and with a better understanding of the estimating process, Conner realized that most customers don’t receive a three-hour one-on-one discussion to ease their aggression.

“He helped me understand, from his perspective, what he was getting from my staff,” Conner says. “And that’s where we then had to change our approach to our customers and try to educate them better.”

This incident took place several years ago, and Conner claims it is still extremely difficult to explain the messy estimating process—but his shop is making progress.

Working with the front office staff, Conner has crafted a flyer for customers to help explain the timeline and intricacies of the repair process. Making everything clear from the get-go has greatly improved his shop’s communication with the customer and set realistic expectations about how estimates can change.

“In our area, we’re ranked No. 1 in customer service, but we still end up with upset people who don’t understand the repair process,” Conner says. “If I can crack that nut? I’m going to be a millionaire.”

“Eliminating estimators from our operating procedures has been a major change and we can already see it is allowing for us to be a lot better with our customer service and communications.”
—Randy McPherson, owner, Mander Collision & Glass

Updating the Customer

Randy McPherson’s shop, Mander Collision & Glass in Waukesha, Wis., has always been successful, but he says for a long time, his shop consistently botched one simple step: Updating the customer.

McPherson says even if everything goes wrong—parts are backordered, the phone is ringing off the hook, and the painter called in sick—it doesn’t matter to the customer when they’ve shown up to pick up a car that isn’t ready.

“Our poor communication skills and inability to update the customer on the repair process were, for a long time, an ongoing struggle,” says McPherson, who notes that his son, Nathan, has lead much of the improvements since then. “If they came in and the car wasn’t ready, they’d be pretty upset because, at that point, if they were important to us, we’d be communicating with them.”

In McPherson’s busy shop, he realized his estimators were simply overworked—they were in charge of writing estimates and updating the customer on the repair process. Because of the shop’s struggles, he determined the latter was more important to focus on.

Instead of recruiting a customer service representative (CSR) from the outside, McPherson shuffled from within. He created repair planners in the back who map out the repairs that his CSRs then explain to customers and provide updates on.

His CSRs have cut down on writing estimates by about 40 percent, and he hopes that someday he can completely eliminate that job duty from the position.

“Once the car comes in the shop, [the customer service advisor] is not responsible from that point on for the repairs and the documentation,” McPherson says. “Their job is to update the customers. Eliminating estimators from our operating procedures has been a major change and we can already see it is allowing for us to be a lot better with our customer service and communication.”

Zero Defense

Your shop could have dozens of five-star reviews on Yelp—but, sometimes, it’s the lone one-star review that catches the reader’s eye.

Joe McKenna experienced the dreaded one-star review recently. And to make matters worse, this particular unhappy customer has over 100 followers on Yelp, which means people trust her opinion.

But instead of skulking or ignoring the review, McKenna promptly responded and had a discussion with the reviewer. After discovering the customer was unhappy with the clean-up job on the inside of her car, he simply dropped his guard, offered to come to her and clean it.

Once she agreed? That one-star review became a five-star review.

As simple as that remedy may sound, McKenna said the art of “zero defense” is something he struggled with for a long time.

“One thing I’ve learned over the years is to have zero defense,” McKenna says. “I used to take it personally when people would accuse us of doing something to their car, and I didn’t think it happened here. As soon as I got defensive, even the littlest amount, things would escalate. They would come unglued more and I would get upset.”

What McKenna learned was the difference between “being right” and “doing the right thing.” His old practice was to spend time defending his shop. He would go through photographs and show them to customers to prove he was right.

In the end? Even if he was right, he was losing time, money and customers.

“Bringing that up in the first place and going through that process is defensive and way more time consuming and detrimental to business than just fixing the problem,” McKenna says. “If a customer comes to pick up their car and they notice a scratch or a scuff mark on it, I’ll ask for the keys, drive it into the shop and take two minutes to buff it out. Problem solved.”

McKenna even offers to come to the customer himself, since most of the complaints are small matters his shop can fix on the fly. This practice, in particular, he says, is a blessing for customers who lead busy lives and don’t have time to go all the way back to the shop.

“A lot of this stuff might seem like a big deal, but to us it’s very simple to resolve,” McKenna says.