Rethinking Customer Communication

July 1, 2012
The rise of the single point of contact.

Gary Corbett used to get frequent complaints from customers who said no one from the shop called them back and they didn’t know what was going on with their car.

Frustrated, Corbett decided to create a more streamlined communication process in the shop to deal with the issue. Rather than a customer calling and talking to someone who may or may not know what’s going on with a vehicle, now one person at the shop is responsible for staying in consistent contact with that customer.

“It was the communication that was the problem, so we looked at that,” says Corbett, general manager at Zimbrick Body Shops in Madison, Wis.

Many shops are taking a similar approach to Zimbrick, creating one point of contact for customers—someone who can be the go-to person to streamline and personalize communication. That leads to higher customer satisfaction and better customer satisfaction index (CSI) scores.

“The benefit of having a single point of contact that I’m comfortable with and understands my needs is it creates a sense of comfort,” says Harold Thompson, business development manager for BASF.

Corbett immediately saw a turnaround in customer satisfaction after implementing the new strategy. He rarely saw feedback before the change, but started getting it in droves afterward through emails, letters and CSI survey comments. Customers praised their point of contact for being pleasant and keeping them updated.

“If customers talked to a bunch of different people, they often felt as if they were just one person in the pool.”
—Jim Marshall, owner, Marshall’s Auto Body

“I’ve never seen so many people going out of their way to make the comments on the survey card,” Corbett says.

Shops that switch to a single-point-of-contact model can see swift results.

Marshall’s Auto Body in Billerica, Mass., made the change a few years ago. Customers there consistently complained that they felt like a number. Owner Jim Marshall says customers wouldn’t always get a timely update, and staff didn’t give them the personal attention they deserved.

Mark Mueller, senior manager for PPG Industries Business Solutions, says it can be tough to find the right customer service employees
to communicate with customers clearly and confidently. “They need to feel comfortable with the person they’re talking to,” he says.
“That person needs to be confident on their own, and needs to know when to pull in the expert on the repair.”
The ideal person who can workwith customers has these qualities, Mueller says:

Another important piece is having a basic understanding of the repair process. In many cases, an I-CAR class or two for receptionists or other customer service staff would be useful, Mueller says. “In most cases, especially in smaller shops, they probably have the people there, they just have to develop the skills,” he says.

Marshall decided to change things at the 15-employee shop to give customers more personal service. He started assigning one staff member to a customer’s file. Now customers are taking the time to give positive feedback, and the number of customer surveys coming back to the shop is up about 10 percent. The shop’s CSI score is 99.

“If customers talked to a bunch of different people, they often felt as if they were just one person in the pool,” he says. “They didn’t have that attention they needed.”

Here’s how he managed the change:

Marshall says before, the information flow was chaotic. Say for example a customer called and asked a question about their vehicle status. Depending on whether they talked to the production manager, customer service representative (CSR) or appraiser, different pieces of information would fall through the cracks. “It left a lot of gray,” he says.

Now the information flow is focused. When a vehicle comes in, one appraiser is responsible for keeping the customer informed about whether a part is on back order or when the vehicle will be finished. The production manager oversees the workload of the shop’s two appraisers who communicate with clients. He makes his decision on assigning a customer to an appraiser based on their individual workload.

Each day the production manager meets with appraisers to talk about the status of the vehicles in the shop. This way everyone is updated, and appraisers know how to keep clients informed.

“Now I have a lot more accuracy in getting communication to the customer,” Marshall says.

Corbett managed the change at Zimbrick a bit differently from Marshall, but with the same goals in mind.

In the past, the estimator had tried unsuccessfully to be everything to everyone. He would try to get back to the customer, but may have been too busy handling insurance communication, parts procurement and other issues. Sometimes the customer would call and ask a question of the receptionist, who couldn’t answer a question or would simply pass along a message that never got returned.

“Before it was too many things to handle for one person,” Corbett says.

Now customers are assigned to one of two customer service representatives (CSR), who get all of the personal information and schedule estimates. The estimator now concentrates on assessing damage, taking photos and completing all necessary technical work, whether it is an insurance claim or customer pay job. Then he gives the estimate to the CSR, who finds out what the customer needs, arranges for transportation, and gets the car scheduled for repair.

The CSR is the sole point of contact, but if a customer has a specific technical question that the CSR can’t answer, the CSR will bring the estimator in to talk to the customer. For example, if a client has a question about alignment or paint, then the CSR would connect the estimator and customer to answer any questions.

Separating duties like this is key. When you’re deciding to assign one person to a customer, remember that not all people with technical knowledge are great at communicating, and not all employees who are great with people have the right technical knowledge and confidence.

“It’s all about putting the round peg in the round hole—not putting people where they’re uncomfortable,” Corbett says.

Shops and consultants say it’s important to separate administrative and technical duties, and play to strengths while doing so. Let employees with technical knowledge handle the vehicle, as they do not always have the ability to empathize with and comfort customers who need specific kinds of attention after an accident. Then let those who have a strong ability to work with people handle customers.

“You’re not going to make it OK unless you can provide the caring and understanding it takes to make those problems go away,” says Thompson of BASF.