Ask for Customer Input

April 30, 2010
If the customer is always right, ask for their input and advice.

Through the years, I have eaten at literally thousands of restaurants. In all those years, I’ve never once been asked if I would like to see something added to the menu. Occasionally, I’ll return to a restaurant I liked, only to find the item or two I really enjoyed actually removed from the menu. What does this have to do with collision repair? I think it only makes sense that the best source of information about ways to improve a business is to ask the customers.

Customer Intelligence

Now I’m fully aware that many shops use some form of customer satisfaction inquiries. Some use a professional call service and others send CSI cards, letters and e-mails. While this does inform a shop of customers’ major concerns, it’s rare for a shop owner or manager to get an in-depth appraisal from a customer. I was recently surprised by an article about restaurateur Danny Meyer who heads up 13 New York City restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. He said that early on in his career, he would look through the reservation book to see who was eating at his restaurant. He now uses an on-line system called “Open Table,” but the purpose is the same: to see which people of note are eating at his establishments and to connect with them.

Customer information forms are woefully inadequate at capturing vital information about a shop’s customers.

While there certainly can be value in speaking to just about any collision facility customer about ways to improve the shop, it seems especially wasteful to miss the opportunity to ask an influential person like an insurance agent or executive what improvements they would recommend. It pays to consider the occupation or profession of most collision repair customers. An interior decorator would probably have some very specific cosmetic improvement suggestions. An attorney might point up legal issues, a CPA might have some tax savings insights and a local politician may suggest some connections that could significantly improve a shop’s bottom line.

I can all but hear a typical shop owner commenting that he or she has enough to do without checking the occupation of every customer who comes into the shop and then quizzing them about suggested improvements. With 13 restaurants to oversee, Danny Meyer no longer has that kind of time either. So he employs an executive assistant who keeps up with the who’s who so she recognizes key names and can focus in on significant people who patronize the restaurants.

Once again, I can imagine most shop owners cringing at the thought of hiring yet another front office person, or asking an already busy employee to take on yet another task. First, that owner should take a hard look at the dollar value of the information that could be acquired:

• One local shop owner who worked on a few police cars asked the cops about structural modifications made to patrol vehicles that he could take into account when making those repairs. Adding that specialty now provides him with a steady stream of police vehicles to repair.

• Another shop owner made it his business to chat with any local politician who came to his shop, and now does a significant amount of work on city vehicles.

• One shop owner became friendly with the oldest Farmers agent in his city, and eventually that helped him become a Farmers Circle of Dependability shop.

• Another owner photographed exotic vehicles his shop worked on—Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris—and placed a scrapbook with the photos and stories about the prestigious owners in his waiting area.

Lifetime Value

In general, customer information forms are woefully inadequate at capturing vital information about a shop’s customers. Part of the problem is a general attitude that any reasonably presentable person can function as a front desk person. I recently asked a paint company’s value added representative what he saw as the most important difference in top shops that he visited. He said every one of them hired highly competent sales people for the front desk to collect key customer information and to capture a job before it ever got to an estimator.

Marketing and management guru Jay Abraham counsels his clients to calculate the lifetime value of each customer who can be kept as a customer that long. One definite way to do this is let that customer know that you have adopted one of his suggestions for your shop. Subconsciously, that gives your customer a bit of ownership in your business. They likely will keep coming back to see if that suggestion has been implemented. And there are no better customers to keep than those who have professional influence.

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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