Maintaining the Owner-Customer Relationship

April 1, 2014
How to take a step back in your business without walking away from your customers

Mike Townley is a numbers guy. As the operator of Valley Motor Center Autobody in Van Nuys, Calif., he measures everything—from basic key performance indicators to customer purchasing habits, data he obtains through surveys.

And there’s one specific number that really sticks out to him: 30.95 percent of all customers claim to have chosen his shop solely on its reputation.

“Now, we’re a 90 percent DRP-driven shop,” Townley says. “So, I’d expect the top response to be that they were directed here by insurers. But it’s not. All our data shows that people are coming here—and coming back here—based on the way we treat our customers, the service we give.”

And for a $10 million shop that’s averaged double digit year-over-year growth each year since 2008, that personal customer attention is something Townley is fighting to maintain.

Keeping a close connection with customers is difficult for any growing business, says Josh Fuller. Fuller and his older brother, Chris, run their family’s 100-year-old repair business, Fuller Automotive in Auburn, Mass.

The business just underwent a $1.5 million expansion, more than doubling its auto body space to nearly 17,000 square feet.

“We’re a true family shop; my grandfather started this business,” Fuller says. “Even as we’re getting bigger, people still expect that personal touch—especially from my brother and I. That’s why they come to us.

“But the larger you get, the more you have to sort of take that step back into an owner’s role more and more. It can be hard to figure out that balance of being involved with customers but also running the business the way it should be run.”

Both shop operators shared their top tips for maintaining a personal connection with customers while stepping back from day-to-day operations.

Home in on the Delivery Process

Fuller admits that he struggles to talk face-to-face with many customers during the early stages of the repair process. But one place every owner can effectively get involved is during the delivery of the vehicle.

“A customer is going to react a little differently when they realize the owner took the time out of their day to help solve their problem.”
Josh Fuller, co-owner, Fuller Automotive

“I personally walk out each customer at the end of each repair,” Fuller says, noting the shop churns out 150 repair orders each month. “We have this nice delivery package with the repair order, our warranty and some information about our surveys and review systems. I go over all of that with them, and really emphasize how grateful we are that they gave us their trust.”

It’s something that doesn’t take up much time in your day, Fuller says, and it’s an easy way to show customers just how much their business means to you.

Greet Repeat Customers

Townley’s front desk staff puts an emphasis on generating information from customers prior to them dropping off their vehicles. One point of emphasis is determining whether they are a repeat customer.

“We get their information and set up an appointment for them to come in, and I make sure I’m there to greet them when they get in,” Townley says. “It’s just a simple thing of greeting them by name and thanking them for coming back. Real quick, simple—but sincere.”

There isn’t a better compliment than having a returning customer, Townley says, and it’s a simple strategy for customer-owner interaction that helps keep that relationship going.

Make the Hard Calls—and the Good Ones

Inevitably, every repair business is going to have to deal with an unhappy customer. For Fuller, that is when he likes to step in. It’s not that his team can’t handle the situations—they can, he says—he simply sees it as another opportunity to show his family’s commitment to that customer.

“A customer is going to react a little differently when they realize the owner took the time out of their day to help solve their problem. It makes them feel important,” he says. “And, really, it shouldn’t be a common occurrence to where it bogs you down.”

Fuller recommends making some of the “good calls,” as well, such as letting customers know their vehicle is finished early or that you found a way to save them money.

Online Interaction

Townley receives electronic notifications when someone has posted a review to any of the shop’s online platforms, whether it’s Facebook, Yelp or Google. And he takes the time to personally respond to each one of them.

“It takes just a few minutes to check them out every day and make sure we’re keeping in touch with those people,” he says. “Not only does it help with those customers who posted the review, but any potential or new customers checking out our online reviews will see that as well, and they’ll see that we’re involved and accountable to our customers.”

Rewarding Referrals

Referrals are an essential part of maintaining growth. And both Townley and Fuller want to ensure their customers understand just how much they appreciate a referral.

“We really work hard to nail down just where those referrals come from,” Fuller says. “Our staff is trained to get as much info from customers as we can, and we usually are able to find out where most of our customers work.”

So, when they find out one of those customers referred them, they will send a card—normally with a gift basket or gift card, but always a handwritten note, included—to that customer at their workplace.

“It kind of shows that added touch of remembering them,” Fuller says of sending it to offices rather than homes. “And it’ll be seen by more than just them.”

Work with Insurers

The same process for customer referrals applies to insurers, as well, Fuller says. He personally thanks the agents that send business his way.

Both Fuller and Townley say that keeping face with the agents in your shop’s area is a simple, and crucial, customer service strategy.

“And insurers are our customers, whether most [owners] like to think of it that way or not,” Townley says.

Empathy on Total Losses

Most shops see a total loss as, well, just that—a waste of time for the entire staff. Townley doesn’t view it that way.

“That’s another opportunity to really engage with a customer,” he says. “We really focus on a program we put in place to show empathy in those situations.”

Townley will talk with the customer, explain the situation, but then offer advice on dealing with their insurer to receive proper compensation and the best routes for looking for a new vehicle.

“Most customers don’t know what to do in that situation, and they’ll really appreciate the help,” he says. “They might not turn into a customer this time around, but this could make the difference the next time, and for referrals.”

Create a Culture that Extends to Your Staff

No matter how much you try, there’s no way for an owner to be there for each and every customer in the way you’d like, Fuller says. Inevitably, you’ll miss one every now and then. The majority of the items in this list can’t be carried out every day, but rather in a shop owner’s “extra minutes” in the shop.

That’s why your staff is so crucial, he says.

Fuller and his brother have worked hard to fill their shop with what they feel are the right people—employees that share their values and customer service beliefs.

“You need to create a culture in your shop where you can trust that your staff will treat each customer the way you would, will treat them like family,” he says. “When you reach that point, your staff becomes an extension of you.” 

About the Author

Bryce Evans

Bryce Evans is the former vice president of content at 10 Missions Media, overseeing an award-winning team that produces FenderBender, Ratchet+Wrench and NOLN.

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