Playing it Cool as a Leader

Jan. 1, 2020
Two long-time industry leaders share how they handle unexpected customer issues and maintain their professional composure in the moment.

Elissa Larremore often fills in for her customer service representatives if they’re out sick or on vacation.

One day, she was sitting at her front desk post and received a phone call. A customer was extremely disgruntled, asking  “Where’s my car? Why haven’t I heard from the shop about my vehicle?”

Larremore, the owner of CBS Collision Centers in Shreveport and Bossier City, La., was shocked. She spent the next 15 minutes running around her shop, trying to find out why the car wasn’t scheduled for delivery. She found out that parts had been backordered, causing the delay. A technician and CSR had not kept notes on the repair or updated the team.

Instead of holding it against employees, Larremore used it as a learning opportunity. 

“Communication is key between you and your team,” Larremore says. “You need to have communication during release meetings and keep notes on the repairs.”

Since then, she has focused on viewing the situation from her employees’ perspective, enabling her to observe problems as they occur and fix them on the fly. Larremore previously served on the 2018 board of directors for the Automotive Service Association. 

Shop owners face unexpected challenges every day. In fact, the business requires it. A customer never expects to be in an accident, after all. At the end of the day, the important part of the process is how the unexpected situation is handled. Was it handled with grace and dignity, or did the shop owner end up losing a long-term customer in the process?

Bob McSherry, the owner of North Haven (Conn.) Auto Body, is an owner known for his “hot temper.” As the main representative of his brand, he’s learned how to set frustration aside and face problems head on. He’s been speaking out in the industry about owning your leadership style since 2012. 

Larremore and McSherry share how a leader can maintain composure in the face of customer-related challenges. 

Trick No. 1: Stay informed so you don’t overreact.

Sound simple enough? Well, if a shop owner doesn’t know the problems with the repairs, then he or she can’t anticipate a customer asking about them. 

Larremore recommends that shop owners conduct two production meetings per day. She says to keep them concise. During the meetings, go over whether parts have been ordered, any parts delays, and where the car is in the repair process. Have one meeting in the morning and one meeting right after a lunch break.

It’s important for the owner to not hide in the back of the shop and let the front office staff handle complaints. Larremore says the owner needs to face issues head-on. 

McSherry also stresses the importance of listening as an owner. Shop owners need to not only listen to a customer but also listen to their staff. Employees might have provided an incorrect answer but had a reason as to why that occurred. 

Trick No. 2: Embrace change instead of fighting unexpected hiccups.

“We’re not in the old-school collision repair era,” Larremore says. “You can’t just bring in a car and one person can immediately work on it.”

Larremore says that, in order for a leader to be able to handle change, he or she needs to lead a team that can adapt as well. One way Larremore cuts down on surprises associated with repair changes is by encouraging her team to update all tasks in CCC ONE. 

When there’s a change in the repair, one technician can go into the management system, push a red flag button and assign a task to another technician. This way, there’s less likely to be a surprise on any end of the repair. 

McSherry switched over in June 2019 to a management system that allows technicians to take detailed notes. He often references notes on every repair before talking to customers. And, if a customer was called or texted, that information will also be stored in a system that anyone on his team can access.

Trick No. 3: Cross train employees to fill in during an emergency.

In case of emergencies when the shop’s team is missing multiple employees, cross-training can help solve issues. 

If the estimators are all busy with customers, then another CSR can step in and help someone else because he or she would have been trained to know how to fill in for that role.

Larremore says she cross-trains all her estimating, CSR and parts employees at her two shop locations.

 “Sometimes it’s the perfect storm, and a CSR will be out sick and someone else has to fill in,” Larremore notes.

She also says owners should train their employees in person, because then the staff members can learn the same habits the shop leaders have. 

Trick No. 4: Step away from the situation.

McSherry says the best way to calm down in the heat of the moment is to take a short walk away from the confrontation. He will take a short walk around the outside of his buildings to make sure he can take a few breaths and fully assess the problem. 

He says that it’s best to keep his cool and not let the employee see how it affects him. If walking away does not help him refocus or gives the customer a moment to refocus, McSherry will ultimately let the customer go. He says this scenario is rare.

Trick No. 5: Have a back-up plan.

Larremore once had all her work notes on her phone and suddenly at night, her phone screen went dark and stopped working.

She panicked. What would the shop owner do without her notes? Fortunately, Larremore’s phone turned back on after about an hour, but she says she learned a lesson she’ll never forget. Now, she takes handwritten notes, as well. While she still keeps notes on the notes app on her phone, she also has a stack of legal pads that she records information on, as well. 

She also tries to train her team to recognize customers that have problems. If the customer is upset at the beginning of the repair, it’s likely they will be upset at the end of the repair, to some extent. as well.

Or, if the situation throws the employee for a loop, then step away from the conversation for a moment. Larremore suggests stepping away and discussing a solution with another employee to gain perspective.

“Anger never solves anything,” Larremore says. “My employees take their cues from me. If they see me acting angry with a customer, then they will do the same.”

McSherry comes equipped to every customer interaction with a few rehearsed lines. If the customer is being rude to him or his staff, he’ll simply stop the topic of conversation and attempt to diffuse the situation. He says stopping the customer gives the employee involved time to formulate their thoughts.

Trick No. 6: Be fully present with the customer.

“One of the worst things a shop owner can do is ignore a customer complaint,” Larremore says. “Don’t dodge their calls, don’t hide in the back and wait for the customer service representative to handle it. Head it off before it gets bad.”

Larremore says if customer challenges aren’t dealt with, the customer is more likely to escalate the situation and become more upset. She leaves behind frustration, anger and fatigue. Instead, the Louisiana shop owner focuses on listening and makes sure to let customers share concerns.

 A shop owner needs to own up to a mistake made, McSherry says. The owner needs to listen and then tell the customer how it’s going to be fixed. Most importantly, the shop team must act with a sense of urgency in fixing the issue—he suggests fixing the car the same day if it’s on-site.