How to Talk to Customers

Oct. 1, 2011
The skills your customer service representatives use to interact with customers can be a deal closer—or breaker.

Training—collision industry experts are saying shop employees need more of it.

It’s no secret that the exotic metals and electronic gadgets used in vehicles today are causing technicians to see the constant need for education. Without it, they can’t perform their job correctly. The same goes for your customer service representatives (CSRs). Since so much of their job is focused on customer communication, wouldn’t it make sense to ensure they’re equipped with the skills to do it right?

Dale Shellenberger, director of operations at Collision Care Auto Body Centers, thinks so. For a long time, the communication skills on behalf of his CSRs were less than adequate. “We lacked communication skills both in-person and over the phone,” he says. “We communicated like robots.”

Shellenberger says his CSRs had trouble using the right tone of voice when speaking with customers, and the hospitality offered to customers when they walked through the door was less than desirable.

There were times when a shop employee never greeted customers when they entered the facility, Shellenberger says. In those cases, the front office staff were already helping other customers, but new customers just saw them sitting there. Reading the CSR’s body language, some customers perceived they were being ignored and left the shop.

“With customer communication, you have to be continually focused on improvement, just like you do with any other process in the shop.”     
—Dale Shellenberger, director of operations,
Collision Care Auto Body Centers

“I didn’t like our CSI results,” Shellenberger says. “I thought we could do a lot better, but we needed some type of communication information and training to help.”

So Shellenberger hired ContactPoint, a phone communication training and coaching firm for the collision industry, to help. The company provides regular communication training to Shellenberger’s CSRs including role-playing, feedback and coaching from recorded conversations withcustomers and best practices for body language.

Shellenberger says he’s seen a difference. Customer comments have become much more pleasant to read, and CSI scores jumped six points.

“The training has made a huge impact,” Shellenberger says. “With customer communication, you have to be continually focused on improvement, just like you do with any other process in the shop.”

Robert Rick, executive facilitator at DuPont Performance Coatings, says your shop’s CSRs could benefit from communication training, too. Whether customer interactions are over the phone or in-person, CSRs need to let customers know they’re professional and excited to be talking to them.

Rick isn’t just talking about what your CSRs say to customers, but also how they say it. Body language and tone of voice is as much a part of communication as your words. But those skills don’t always come naturally, so your CSRs might need a little education to get up to par.

Communication and Revenue

CSRs are the customer’s point of contact at the shop. And customers need their first interaction to be a “wow” moment. That’s called a moment of truth, Rick says. That moment of truth should give customers confidence in your organization and make them want to do business with you.

But, Rick says many shops struggle at that moment of truth, and tend to push customers away with poor communication habits.

Jeremiah Wilson, president of ContactPoint, agrees. “If airline mechanics don’t know how to do their job, they’re going to make a fatal mistake due to that ineptitude,” he says. “In the same respect, it’s just as important for CSRs to have the necessary communication skills; mistakes will be made if they don’t.”

Of course, bad communication won’t result in any fatal incident, but it can affect your shop’s revenue and long-term relationships with customers, Wilson says. There have been studies on children to prove that.

If you show a child 10 images of different people and ask them to choose the best-looking ones—five of which are smiling and five not—they always choose the smiling images because they appear more inviting, Wilson says. The same goes with phone calls. Children always say they would rather talk to people who are smiling after listening to 10 different calls.

That same effect will happen with customers at your shop. They want to do business with people who make them feel comfortable. “CSRs need to see that direct connection between revenue and customer communication,” Wilson says.
Shops ultimately want to fix cars, and customers ultimately just want their car fixed, Rick says. But customers need to be impressed with proper communication before that process can begin.

“CSRs represent your company,” Wilson says. “They need to have the education and training to do that effectively or they will definitely have a negative impact on the growth of your business.”

Body Language, Tone and Words

CSRs need to interact with customers politely, professionally and in a way they can understand, Rick says. That’s done with three elements: body language, tone of voice, and words.

What might surprise you is that the actual words a CSR uses are the least critical elements of communication. During in-person interactions, 55 percent of communication relies on body language, 38 percent on tone of voice, and 7 percent on words. And over the phone, 86 percent of the interaction relies on tone of voice and only 14 percent on words, Wilson says.

So it’s body language that drives the customer experience when they walk through your door, followed by your words and tone. Rick walks us through a typical customer interaction, and highlights how those three elements go hand-in hand to “wow” the customer at the moment of truth:

• Body language should show you’re interested. Stand up when customers enter your facility. Standing shows the customer you noticed them and are ready to help them out. That gives the customer a nonverbal greeting and acknowledges their presence.

• Your tone will follow. Your tone of voice will be amplified because you’re standing instead of sitting. That helps you project a sense of excitement, authority and professionalism.

• Your words complete the package. Once customers notice your nonverbal greeting, give them a verbal one. Make eye contact and welcome them to your shop.

This example shows how body language, tone and words must come together to impress the customer. Remember, that process shouldn’t only be followed when customers initially call or come to your facility. This needs to be practiced during every interaction with customers throughout their entire experience. Wilson offers a few other tips you might find helpful to keep in your back pocket:

• Speak in layman’s terms. Don’t talk to customers like they know the collision repair industry, Rick says. Avoid using industry-related acronyms or jargon. Make sure to explain repair processes in terms customers can understand.

• Expose your palms. Don’t cross your arms, and keep your hands out of your pockets. Keep your arms down at your side with your palms facing outward. That’s a subtle piece of body language that shows you’re open and willing to help, Wilson says. The president of the United States is trained to do this during speeches.

• Get on the customer’s level. You don’t want to come across as an intimidating person. Don’t intimidate the customer by standing tall in front of them. If you’re taller than the customer, try to sit down for the conversation. You can also spread your legs farther apart in order to lower yourself to their height.

• Let customers see through you. Turn your body to a 45-degree angle during conversations. That makes you appear less intimidating, and causes customers to open up and talk more.

• Stand with the customer. Talk with the customer, not at them. Never talk across the counter. Walk around the counter and stand next to the customer while looking at the car or paperwork. This allows you to become partners in the discussion.

• Get the customer’s name and use it. Get the customer’s name within the first 10 seconds of the conversation. Make sure to call them by name throughout the entire interaction. And don’t forget to tell them your name, too.

• Be confident. Make sure you can clearly and concisely convey information. Avoid using “um,” “ah” or “uh.” Those words make you sound less credible, and puts doubt in the customer’s mind that you know what you’re talking about.

• Keep your mouth empty. Don’t chew gum or tobacco.

• Keep language appropriate. Avoid using any terms of endearment like honey, dear, guys, dude, buddy, sport or chief. CSRs have to get those words out of their vocabulary. In addition, vulgarity and profanity should not be used in any form.

• Prove you’re listening. Once the customer tells you what they’re looking for, acknowledge and validate what you heard. Repeat the information back to the customer. That shows customers you’re listening and engaged in the conversation.

• Use proper grammar. Improper grammar is always a negative. For example, try not to say “them” when you should say “those.”

• Be thankful. Sincerely thank customers at the end of every interaction. Do this consistently.

• Identify personality traits. Depending on personality characteristics, some customers want you to spend more time with them, and others prefer to get in and out as quick as possible. It’s important for CSRs to identify the personality of each customer so they can appropriately adjust their communication style. However, that is a very advanced skill that should only be taught to CSRs who are ready for it.

Training Options

Proper communication takes time and can be very difficult to learn. You have to be patient when you’re teaching somebody how to change the way the way they communicate.

Your CSRs don’t actually need to have a college degree in communications, but a little training can make a huge difference. Rick offers a few suggestions where you can look for help:

• Paint companies DuPont, for example, has several training programs that touch on communication skills. Your paint vendor or jobber might also offer similar types of training.

• Automotive Management Institute (AMI) There are several online and in-person communication training courses offered through AMI. Visit for more information.

• Industry events NACE, SEMA and other large industry events offer training courses. Some of those revolve around communication, and are open to anyone.

• Industry consultants There are many collision industry consultants who offer communication assistance.

• Masters School of Autobody Management

• Dale Carnegie Training

• Community colleges

Hold CSRs Accountable

Customer interaction is obviously the primary area where your CSRs will have the biggest impact on your business. Solid communication can increase sales and customer satisfaction, Rick says.

But, if that communication skill set isn’t there, your CSRs won’t be successful in generating business. They will succeed in sending business to your competitor, though, Rick says. Shop operators need to hold employees to a high communication standard.

“Many owners don’t see communication as being that important,” ContactPoint’s Wilson says.

Shops are often more worried about other efforts, such as advertising, marketing and production, because they understand how those can directly impact revenue.

“Lean production and throughput are critically important,” Rick says, “but they mean nothing at all if you don’t have a customer.”

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