Shaun Copeland, general manager of Hi-Tech CARSTAR in Spanaway, Wash., knows all too well how important it is for a shop to recognize distressed customers and communicate with them in a genuine, empathetic way.
He recalled a recent dispute involving a vehicle owner and her mother, who offered to pay for her daughter’s $7,000 repair, requesting the use of aftermarket parts. Upset over poor fit and finish when the job was done, the daughter refused to allow payment, until Copeland stepped in.
“I needed to try and talk both the mother and daughter through the situation, get to the heart of their problems, and present an amicable solution for everyone involved,” Copeland says. “Successfully facilitating the situation really came down to effective styles of empathetic listening and communication.”
Those are tactics all shops should recognize to improve customer relationships and close more sales.
The Need for Empathy
Collision repair professionals deal with wrecked vehicles and insurance claims daily. But customers don’t, and it’s easy for shops to forget what a traumatic and complicated experience it can be for them.
“Accidents don’t happen to people every day, and they’re often in unfamiliar territory dealing with one of their biggest personal assets,” says Michael Pellett, training center manager for Sherwin-Williams. “Add to that the emotional connection people have with their vehicles and the potential of bodily injury to them or a loved one. All of those factors contribute to the stress and impact of dealing with an accident.”
—Michael Pellett, training center manager,
Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes
Empathy is something Pellett says should play a key role in every shop’s customer service philosophy. A shop’s staff should be able to recognize and react appropriately to the emotional needs of customers by showing sensitivity and compassion for their situation. Simply put, customers need to know you care about their physical and emotional needs throughout the repair experience.
Empathy must flow naturally from the CSR to the customer, Pellett says. “Expressing empathy is a good, natural and honest way to promote relationships, both personally and professionally,” he says. It shows you care and have a stake in their well-being.
12 Simple Steps
Communicating with empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s a concept largely based on proper responses to your customers’ thoughts and feelings, which can be difficult to adjust to on the fly. Anyone can learn, though. It just requires perfection of a few communication tactics.
Here are 12 practical skills to incorporate into your daily customer interactions—especially with customers who are complaining, frustrated or distressed.1
#1 Educate the Customer
Educate the customer about what typically happens and what they need to think about during the collision repair process, says Jim McBrayer, president of Program on Persuasion, who has provided training to several collision industry organizations. Make them feel more comfortable by explaining how other people have experienced similar situations, and what you can do to offer a smooth experience.
Answer all the questions customers have about the insurance claim and rental vehicle process, and help them get everything they need out of their vehicle. McBrayer says that helps to alleviate customer concerns up front, which begins to build a connection and sense of trust with the shop.
#2 Show Concern
Ask questions about the customer’s accident so you can understand and sympathize with their specific situation. Show concern and compassion for the customer by asking how the accident affected them, or caused any other associated problems, says empathy communications specialist Kate Zabriskie, owner of Port Tobacco, Md.–based Business Training Works. Try to understand how the experience made the customer feel emotionally, and acknowledge their stress.
Use “words of shock” to validate the physical or emotional severity of their situation—phrases such as “that must have been scary,” “that is awful,” “that must be so upsetting,” or “wow, I can’t believe it.”
#3 Use a Proper Tone
The way you say things can sometimes be more powerful than what you actually say. Be mindful of the tempo, volume and rhythm of your speech.
Always project a friendly, excited tone of voice. Slow your rate of speech down a bit, but don’t go too slowly, Zabriskie says. Try to match the customer’s energy, but not their panic.
“Your tone should never show apathy,” Zabriskie says. “Avoid using tones that express your own frustration or stress.”
#4 Promote Confidence with Body Language
Your body language and nonverbal communication should give the customer confidence in what you’re saying, McBrayer says. Make eye contact, do not multitask, keep your hands out of your pockets, and don’t forget to smile.
“Smiling is the most powerful type of body language,” McBrayer says. “Smiling shows people that you’re glad to see them and that your shop is a good place to be. It’s hard for customers not to be put in a better state if you’re smiling.”
In addition, try to mirror the customer’s body language to help connect with them, McBrayer says. For example, if they’re leaning back with their legs crossed, mimic that sense of relaxation. If the customer is leaning forward with their elbows on the desk, you might want to do the same.
#5 Actively Listen
It’s best to let customers do most of the talking to start the conversation. Ask a few prompting questions, then be quiet and listen. Give people as much time as they need to say everything they need to say without cutting them off.
Take notes and physically write down what the customer is saying, Zabriskie says. Customers feel like they’re being heard and understood when you’re actively doing something.
The way you listen to people is a huge factor, Copeland says.
#6 Express Understanding
Take time to understand the customer’s issues and concerns before offering repair recommendations. Repeat what the customer said back to them to show you heard and understand them. Paraphrase the key information from the conversation and rephrase it in your own words, Zabriskie says. That allows you to verify the information and ensure you’re on the same page with the customer. It also gives them opportunity to add additional information they may have forgotten to mention.
“Making customers feel understood is the key to empathetic listening. That’s when customers feel like you really get them,” McBrayer says. “People who feel understood tend to reciprocate by extending trust to the one who is doing the understanding.”
#7 Ask for the Customer’s Input
Make sure the customer understands your top priority is to provide a smooth, stress-free repair process. Ask the customer if they have any additional needs that you might be able to fulfill to help give them a better experience. For example, the customer might need a large-sized rental vehicle to prevent inconvenience for their family, which you could help arrange.
#8 Be Sympathetic
Zabriskie says putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and acknowledging the pain associated with their accident goes a long way to comfort them. Make a point of saying, “We will resolve all of your issues from this point forward. I’m really sorry this happened.”
#9 Speak Privately
Make the customer feel like they have 100 percent of your attention, Zabriskie says. Pull them away from other customers in your lobby for a private one-on-one conversation in a more quiet, secluded area of your facility.
“The customer should feel like the whole universe revolves around them,” she says.
#10 Diffuse Negative Energy
Be as positive and excited as possible to help reduce the customer’s stress or negativity. Zabriskie suggests using phrases such as “That’s my pleasure” to give a perception that you’re happy and delighted to offer assistance.
#11 Offer Several Choices
Once you understand the customer’s specific situation, present them with several repair options based on their wants, needs, concerns and financial limitations. That shows you heard what they said, and that you’re attempting to provide services based on their unique set of circumstances.
#12 Repeat for Every Customer
Every customer should feel like their situation is unique, McBrayer says. Even though you may have heard the same hail damage story several times prior, the customer should feel like it’s the first time.
“Don’t pick up with new customers where you left off with the previous one,” Zabriskie says. “Build a short pause between customer interactions, and take a moment to prepare for the next person. Reset after each customer to give the next one a fresh start.”
McBrayer says failure to do so will negatively impact your shop’s sales closing ratio because it will detract from developing a sense of trust with your facility.
“Empathetic listening and communication is the first stage of convincing customers to do business with you,” he says. “Being engaged with what they’re telling you is critical in building trust. And that’s the heart of keeping customers and having them refer others to you.”