The Benefits of a Technically Trained CSR

June 1, 2011
Your customer service representative shouldn’t just be a smiling face behind the front desk. With a basic level of technical knowledge, your CSRs can improve your shop’s professionalism and credibility.

For years, Auto Body World Inc. had a team of estimators in the shop’s front office. The estimators handled all communications with customers. But the seven-shop repair operation, based in Phoenix, strayed away from that model in an attempt to become more customer-friendly. The company put a customer care representative in the office to handle customer communications instead.

But that strategy didn’t work as well as the company hoped. “We went from having a highly technical person in the front office to someone with almost no technical experience at all,” says chief operating officer Bryan Hutfless. “We weren’t able to effectively provide our customers with proper information” because the CSR didn’t have the technical knowledge necessary to set realistic expectations for when the repair would be done.

Hutfless says this caused the company’s customer service index (CSI) scores to drop three points.

“You need to have people in your front office with technical knowledge in order to give customers a high sense of confidence in your shop,” Hutfless says. So Auto Body World revamped its front office strategy once again. The company now has two people up front—one customer care representative and one technical expert, called a repair consultant, who handles all questions customers have about their repair. Hutfless says CSI scores quickly rose back up to par after making the switch.

Many shop owners are taking their estimator out of the front office and replacing them with a customer service representative (CSR) to bring more customer friendliness to the shop, says Jeff Patti, consultant with Brandtley Automotive Consultants in Lewisville, Texas. That’s because estimators are very knowledgeable when it comes to technical information, but often are rough around the edges when it comes to customer service.

The problem, Patti says, is that CSRs tend to be entry-level people without any background in the collision repair industry. They often don’t have the technical expertise to properly communicate repairs to your shop’s customers.

Auto Body World’s latest front office strategy certainly works in order to provide customers with friendly service, as well as the technical expertise to guide them through the repair process. But following that strategy also requires your shop to have an extra body up front. Your CSR may just be able to wear both hats with a little bit of technical training.

You can achieve a new level of professionalism at your shop if your CSRs are able to combine excellence in customer interaction with a base of technical knowledge, Patti says.

Trust and Credibility

Body shops are filled with people who have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the technical side of the business: estimators, painters, and various types of technicians. So why is it so important for your CSRs to have that knowledge, too? It’s all about how customers perceive you. They will base the credibility and quality of your organization on their first point of contact at the shop—most likeley, your CSR.

“Customers feel it’s unprofessional when they come in with questions and the CSR has to pass them off to someone else to help them out.”   
— Jeff Patti, consultant, Brandtley Automotive Consultants

“Customers feel it’s unprofessional when they come in with questions and the CSR has to pass them off to someone else to help them out,” Patti says. And even worse, CSRs without any technical understanding of collision repair sometimes convey inaccurate or incomplete information, which leads to disgruntled and dissatisfied customers.

Michael Pellett, training center manager for Sherwin-Williams, says that can hurt your shop’s credibility.

“People buy from people they trust,” Pellett says. “Trust and confidence is instilled in customers when it’s obvious that the CSR has a technical understanding of operations performed at the shop.” That’s one way your CSRs will be able to secure more jobs for your business from the get-go, and give customers the impression that your shop is a quality repair center.

First impressions are critical, says Tom Dance, president of Herb’s Paint & Body #1 in Dallas. It’s essential to have someone with deep industry knowledge represent your company so they’re able to comfort and guide your customers through the repair process.

The Training

In 40 years of running a collision repair operation, Dance says he’s never thrown anyone into the CSR position without working them through a technical training process first. He spends several months doing this before his CSRs even get a chance to sit behind the front desk.

Dance’s CSRs spend time shadowing every employee in the shop: estimators, metal technicians, mechanical technicians, refinish technicians and even the detail technicians.

“We do this so the CSRs have a great working knowledge of every process that goes on throughout the shop,” Dance says, noting this gives his CSRs a strong understanding of shop operations from keys to keys. “Our CSRs need to thoroughly understand what we do, and how customer vehicles are repaired.”

But that’s not all Dance does to train his CSRs. Formal classroom training is also essential for your CSRs, says Dance, who sends his representatives to as many classes as possible for them.

Here are a few ideas to get your CSRs the technical knowledge they need to succeed:

• Community colleges. Community colleges and technical schools in Dance’s area offer automotive training—like basic estimating and vehicle design courses. Dance’s CSRs attend these courses two days a week for one school semester. These courses cost about $500 each.

“These courses give CSRs an introductory understanding of how automobiles are built and the parts that are incorporated,” Dance says.

• I-CAR courses. Patti suggests your CSRs should go through the same training as your estimators. The I-CAR Pro Level 1 Series would be very beneficial for CSRs, he says. That series of classes includes basic information about mechanical systems and estimate writing. It’s about 25 to 30 hours of classroom training that will give your CSR a fundamental technical understanding of collision repair.

• Paint company programs. Many paint companies offer estimating classes that might be helpful. For example, Sherwin-Williams offers a class called “Estimating Solutions for Profit.” Talk to your jobber about basic courses your paint provider offers that you could get your shop involved with.

• New technology courses. CSRs need to stay abreast of new materials and technology advances, Patti says. They should have a basic understanding of hybrid and electric vehicles, too.

I-CAR offers a new technology course every year that addresses changes in vehicles. CSRs should make a habit of attending that class annually so when a new model vehicle comes into the shop, they will be able to understand how it works and how it’s different from older vehicles.

• Industry-related seminars. Local jobbers and dealership groups often hold technical training seminars, like courses on supplemental restraint systems, Pellett says.

Remember, your CSRs don’t need to actually know how to fix cars. They just need enough technical knowledge so they can talk intelligently with customers about their repair, Patti says.

“For entry-level CSRs, the more training they take, the better they become. And it puts them in a better position to be an advocate for the consumer.”
— Michael Pellett, training center manager, Sherwin-Williams

This will allow CSRs to confidently interact with customers without looking like a deer frozen in headlights when they’re approached with a technical question.

Efficiency and cycle time will improve in your shop because your CSRs won’t have to waste a technician’s or estimator’s time by having them explain the repairs to customers, Patti says.

“For entry-level CSRs, the more training they take, the better they become,” Pellett says. “And it puts them in a better position to be an advocate for the consumer.”

Just Like Retail

At first, it may seem a bit unnecessary to spend additional time and money having your CSRs trained on the technical side of the collision industry. But really, it’s just good business practice that will allow you to offer great customer service.

Pellett relates it to the retail industry. It’s really hard to have a satisfying experience in a retail business if the person helping you out doesn’t know about the products they’re selling, Pellett says. Being able to operate the cash register doesn’t mean an employee knows how to offer good customer service.

Dance agrees: Customers want someone with extensive automotive knowledge to take care of them, answer their questions and make sure they’re getting the right thing, he says. It’s critical for CSRs to have a solid understanding of the industry and activities in the shop to ensure your customers are satisfied throughout the repair process.

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