Learn from Customers

March 1, 2009
Improve your business by learning from customers and letting go of what’s not great.

Paper copying has long been called Xeroxing, making the process synonymous with the name of the company that invented it. But by the year 2000, Xerox, which had stuck to a traditional business model, lost much of its market share to Canon and Ricoh, both of whom had excelled by being inventive. The company was facing possible bankruptcy. Anne Mulcahy, a 25-year company veteran, was advanced to CEO to try to save the company. She refused to accept bankruptcy and decided to beat the competitors at their own game by reinventing the company.

Mulcahy’s first action was to contact customers around the country to focus on their complaints. She told shareholders and subordinates, “I will fly anywhere to save a customer for Xerox.” Her dramatic actions enabled the company to pay off most of the debt, to rebuild the product line and technology base, and to install a new management team, essentially reinventing the entire company.

Meeting Customer Needs

It seems we are in a period of renewal in our country today, with many companies and shops in need of re-invention if they are to survive. Mulcahy may have hit on one way collision repair shops can begin the process.

Many times I have eaten in a restaurant, taken my clothes to a cleaner, or had my car serviced at a local service station. In all these years I have never been asked for my suggestions on how service could be improved at one of these facilities. If I don’t like the service, I generally do what most people do; I choose a different service provider. But how much better it would have been for that service provider if they had known about my dissatisfaction and attempted to change and improve their service?

I know that many shops use a Customer Satisfaction Index (C.S.I.) service or send out survey forms to get feedback from customers on their service. But this is after the fact and it is highly impersonal. Mulcahy made it personal. She went to major customers and asked them directly how she could improve her company’s service. And she said she got an earful.

Collision shop owners are rightfully proud of their superior equipment and facilities, but they might be surprised what they would hear if they asked customers directly what they could do to improve the quality of service. Just for fun, I did a bit of this for one shop. One man complained about the old magazines in the waiting area. One woman objected to the automobile magazines and wondered why there weren’t any that would interest her. Another had the common complaint about the lack of toilet tissue in the restroom.

Compared to the many thousands of dollars a shop owner spends on state-of-the-art equipment, these complaints may sound trivial. And yet these can be the complaints that incline a customer to go elsewhere the next time that collision repair is needed.

In Search of Renewal

Robert H. Waterman Jr., co-author of the blockbuster 1982 book In Search of Excellence—which spurred business managers across the country to new heights of performance—followed up with his own book The Renewal Factor (1987). In it Waterman claims that “habit is the main adversary of renewal.” He also notes that “we change habits by substituting a better habit for the one we’re trying to change.”

Nature provides us with many wondrous examples of renewal. The snake sheds his skin and appears with a new one. The caterpillar metamorphoses into a colorful butterfly. In fact most of the cells of the human body are gradually replaced over a period of about seven years. When we think of renewal, it’s natural to think of adding new equipment, new facilities, and new procedures, but first it may be necessary to engage in some subtraction.

“When we think of renewal, it’s natural to think of adding new equipment, new facilities, and new procedures, but first it may be necessary to engage in some subtraction.”

If a shop’s paint supplier isn’t stepping up to recommend—and perhaps assist with—upgrading paint and painting facilities, and possibly offering a value-added program, it may also be time for the shop owner to break the “old-supplier habit.” A good step toward renewal may be seeking out one who will contribute more to helping him or her stay current with newer, faster technologies. Renewal requires new thinking on many fronts.

Mulcahy removed the old management team and installed a new one to reinvent Xerox. Even the snake that sheds his old skin to display a new one has to first get rid of the old skin. Old bookkeeping methods, old advertising strategies, vendors who no longer give you the best discount, or personnel who no longer produce more than they cost may all have to go to make way for a renewed structure. To paraphrase an old proverb “it’s necessary to clear the lot before constructing a new building.” This may be a vital step toward complete renewal.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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