Calming Customer Complaints

Feb. 1, 2011
A negative customer experience could turn out to be quite the gift, letting you improve so you don’t get the same complaint twice.

Eric McKenzie, body shop manager at Park Place Bodywerks in Dallas, recently put a new door on a Volvo. The customer came to pick the car up, and noticed some paint peeling on two of the roof moldings.

“The paint had obviously been peeling for a while,” McKenzie says, “but the customer claimed it was never that way before.” She just noticed the problem, which isn’t unusual, since customers tend to pay attention to their car much more closely after a repair than before.
The customer was livid about the problem; McKenzie took a verbal beating as she vented her frustrations.

Sound familiar? In moments like these, the way you choose to respond is critical.

“Customer service is the primary reason customers switch service providers,” says Steven Feltovich, manager of business consulting services for Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes Corp. In fact, 70 percent of people who switch service providers do so based on poor service.

Fortunately, McKenzie has some experience under his belt dealing with tough situations. With 500 repairs moving through his shop every month, McKenzie knows a complaint will arise from time to time.

“I’ve found that if you’re empathetic and give the customer alternatives and guidance to pursue for a solution, they’ll actually end up thanking you.”
— Eric McKenzie, body shop manager, Park Place Bodywerks

After the customer vented, McKenzie kindly explained his side of the story, and why he believed the paint problem wasn’t anything new.
“It looked like something that might fall under warranty, so I gave her some alternative solutions on how to follow-up with Volvo corporate to get it fixed,” McKenzie says. “I’ve found that if you’re empathetic and give the customer alternatives and guidance to pursue for a solution, they’ll actually end up thanking you.”

Complaints can be frustrating for any shop to deal with, but it’s important to keep in mind that there may be a hidden silver lining. Complaints can be seen as a gift, giving you ideas and opportunities to improve your business.

Understanding some of the industry’s most common weaknesses in customer service can help you prevent those issues from ever happening in the first place.

Drivers of Satisfaction

Industry overcapacity and more informed customers are making customer service more important than ever. Customers have tons of choices about where to bring their vehicle for repair, and they’re much more educated about what a quality business should be able to offer them, says Feltovich, who is an instructor for the Automotive Management Institute (AMI) on customer service courses.

“Service organizations are more transparent to customers today; they see failures on behalf of the business immediately,” Feltovich adds. The differentiator between businesses is the people, and the level of service they offer to customers.

So the key to customer satisfaction is to proactively understand what customers are looking to get out of their repair experience.

Understanding the details of those expectations will allow you to put processes in place to achieve the highest possible level of service—before a customer has to tell you what you should have done better on their repair.

Dusty Dunkle, president of Customer Research Inc., a customer satisfaction indexing (CSI) company, says the industry’s worst areas of CSI performance are keeping customers informed and on-time deliveries. “Over-promising, under-delivering and customer communication are the industry’s biggest weaknesses.”

Jason Bertellotti, vice president of repair solutions at Mitchell AutocheX, another CSI company, says shops need to know the four elements that most significantly affect customer loyalty. Those elements are: delivering the vehicle on time; keeping the customer informed; quality; and shop service.

Many shops will ignore the comments they receive from customers in those four areas of repair excellence, Bertellotti says, and not use that information to improve in the future. But they’re doing themselves a disservice, because there are pretty simple and systematic things that can be done to change outcomes with customers.

If you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, though, you can’t even begin to improve.

On-Time Delivery

When customers perceive their car as being completed on time, their level of loyalty is significantly higher than when they perceive it to be late, Bertellotti says.

Most shop owners know all too well there are many things out of their control that can affect repair completion, which is the primary reason on-time delivery is one of the most common customer complaints.

Fortunately, shops owners and experts say there are three simple tactics to help avoid that:

• Make projections, not promises. Many shops set themselves up for failure knowing there are things out of their control that can slow down the repair process, Dunkle says. You can make yourself look really good on the spot by promising a fast turnaround, but that leaves you liable to look really bad if you can’t follow through. Successful shops won’t make any promises regarding a specific date of repair completion.

Dunkle suggests listing everything that could occur throughout the repair that may delay the process. Make a projection, not a promise, for a timeframe of completion, barring any unforeseen roadblocks.

• Set achievable expectations. If a customer pushes you to provide a specific timeline on their repair, lean toward the furthest outside date for completion, Dunkle says.

Don’t move toward the earliest possible date in order to make yourself sound better up front; that could hurt you if you’re not able to adhere to that.

• Don’t put off telling customers about problems or delays. If there is an issue or delay in the repair, talk to the customer about it immediately. Most customers will be forgiving if there’s a delay as long as they’re aware of the process and understand why it’s happening.

“AutocheX data shows that if a customer is kept well-informed about delays, they will most often have a positive perception of their repair experience,” Bertellotti says.

Kept Informed

New technologies are changing the way some businesses interact with customers. Make an effort to understand the customer’s expectations for good communication during the repair process. Some people may consider a phone call when the repair is completed to be sufficient, some may expect a call everyday, and some might not want you to call at all.

“We see that referrals increase if the customer is kept informed up to their standards,” Bertellotti says. Data show that even if a job was delayed by a short amount of time, customers who are kept informed throughout the process rate shops higher than if the job was on time and the customer was not kept informed at all.

• Ask questions up front. Ask the customer how often they prefer to be communicated with, and the method by which they prefer that to happen—whether it’s by phone, email or text message.

“We see a lot of shops are afraid to ask those questions,” Bertellotti says. They tell the customer what their typical communication process looks like, but don’t take the time to make sure that’s OK with the customer.

• Adapt to every customer. Different segments of customers want to be communicated with in different ways, Bertellotti says. There’s a lot of research regarding the different generations and the way those groups like to communicate. But every customer is different; not everyone fits the mold for what their generation tends to prefer.


Customer perception of quality tends to be very subjective, and is often based on cosmetics and presentation, Bertellotti says. You can improve a customer’s perception of your shop’s quality simply by taking time to make sure they understand the work you’re going to perform, and following through with what you say you’re going to do.

• Don’t get overly technical. Shops can help customers appreciate the repair quality by explaining the process in terms they can understand, Bertellotti says. Using common terms like “fender” as opposed to “quarter panel” is important to most customers.

• Walk through the estimate. Really good shops spend time during the check-in process walking through the estimate with the customer, and pointing out all the damage on the car as they talk about it, Bertellotti says. But don’t confuse the customer; use visual aids to keep things simple.

“It makes no difference whether or not the customer’s perception is based on fact. It’s their reality that counts.”
— Jason Bertellotti, vice president of repair solutions, Mitchell AutocheX

John Gustafson, owner of Gustafson Brothers in Huntington Beach, Calif., who routinely has CSI scores above 98 percent, photographs and marks up repairs with three colors while the vehicle owner is still at the shop: green for damage that will be repaired, yellow for damage the customer might have repaired, and red for prior damage that will not be repaired.

• Don’t allow for unkept promises. Many unkept promises for shops include customer requests, Feltovich says. Some shops will promise to adjust a molding, buff a panel or clean something free of charge. Those are the first places a customer will look, and will base their perception of repair quality upon those promises.


The area of service doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the actual repair, but can make or break the customer’s experience, nonetheless. Customers have very high expectations when it comes to service, Bertellotti says. And exceptional service can provide the “wow” factor that creates enthusiastically loyal customers:

• Return the car cleaner than it arrived. When the repair is complete, give the vehicle a quick interior detail and vacuum. Make sure not to leave any spare parts sitting inside.

• Return the car with the right amount of gas. Fill the gas tank if you can afford to, Bertellotti says.

• Have a clean facility. “Customers want to know their car was handled in an appropriate manner in a nice facility,” Bertellotti says. “We get a surprising number of survey responses where people were really put-off by the [lack of] cleanliness of the service center.”

The customer perceives how you treated their car based on how you treat your facility and how your employees look. Make sure your facility is clean—especially the restroom, the waiting area and the chairs that customers sit on.

• Create a pleasant environment. Offer coffee and decent magazines. “Customers are spending a lot of money with you, so those little amenities are not too much to ask,” Bertellotti says.

Importance of Perception

The most important thing to remember in the way you handle customer complaints—or work to avoid them—are the things that create a customer’s overall perception of your business.

Customer perception plays a huge role in the customer’s satisfaction, Bertellotti says. Shops can positively influence a customer’s perception by setting realistic goals and communicating with the customer throughout the repair process.

“It makes no difference whether or not the customer’s perception is based on fact,” Bertellotti says. “It’s their reality that counts.”

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