What to do when a phone call coincides with a walk-in customer

Jan. 1, 2020
The walk-in customer is or should be secured business, while the phone call might just be your mother-in-law.

Here's a situation we've probably all faced as shop owners: A customer or potential customer walks in the front door just as the phone rings. Do you answer the phone first, or greet the customer first? And more importantly, does your staff know how you'd want this situation handled if they're the one in the front office when it occurs?

I've posed this situation in various classes and forums to solicit discussion about it from others, and thought sharing some of that input could be helpful as you decide (or reconsider) what the policy should be at your business.

Mike Anderson

Tracy Thrall at Fleet Solutions, a paintless dent repair company in the Chicago area, said he would acknowledge the customer who walked in, telling them you will be right with them. Then answer the phone, he suggested, but tell the caller you are with a customer and you will need to call them right back.

Roberta Ferrara of Budds Auto Body in Cedar Grove, N.J., agreed.

"I always greet the customer at the door, and make them feel welcome," she said. "I excuse myself and then answer the phone."

Barrett Smith of Auto Damage Experts in Florida said how you handle the phone call (after making eye contact with the walk-in and letting them know you will be right with them) is an opportunity.

"Consider that the walk-in is evaluating you and your professionalism," he said. "If they were calling, they wouldn't want to be ignored."

That said, if the phone call can't be handled quickly, it's best to arrange a callback after you take care of the walk-in, he said.

"Now, if you're already engaged in a call when they walk in, acknowledge them and let them know you will be right with them, and then use your phone conversation to gain the respect and trust of the walk-in," Smith recommends. "Mention your lifetime warranty, etc., to the caller, for example. Make it as short as possible without rushing the caller."

But in a discussion online, a shop manager in South Africa said he wouldn't make the walk-in customer wait while you answer the phone.

"The walk-in customer is or should be secured business, while the phone call might just be your mother-in-law," he said.

Truman Fancher of Truman Fancher Auto Collision Repair in Pelham, Ala., agreed.

"You always take care of the customer who has made the effort to come to your office, which outweighs the one who just pushed some buttons to call you," he said. "My answering service takes care of the caller until I can devote my full attention to them."

Eric Meyer of Key Choice LLC, a group of body shops in the Midwest, said they have a standard operating procedure (SOP) that says in this situation to greet the customer who has walked in.

"I don't want to be treated as second-place when I arrive at a business to do business," he said.

He also recommends always having a backup for the phones. If the front office hasn't answered the call by the third ring, someone else should answer it before it goes to voicemail after the fifth ring.

Jeremy Shuey, an estimator with Lithia Motors in Iowa, said he's a strong believer in building the in-person relationship first.

"I would want to be the No. 1 priority while there," he said. "If you don't have a receptionist or answering service, it may be time to invest in one."

He said too often he's answered the phone only to be stuck in a 15-minute call from someone looking for a "phone estimate" or based on some insurer's need for information.

"I recommend handling business face-to-face and returning the phone call," he said.

But Shuey also offers another alternative: "I do keep customer info sheets that I allow them to fill out if I am tied up for a couple of minutes," he said. "This gives me the ability to finish up what I'm doing and then give them 100 percent."

I'm not sure there's one exact best answer for this situation. I just think it's one you should think about and know what you want to do – and to make sure those you work with know what you want them to do.

Mike Anderson, a former shop owner, currently operates CollisionAdvice.com, a training and consulting firm. He also acts as a facilitator for DuPont Performance Services' Business Council 20-groups.

If you have a business issue or question you'd like Mike to address, email him. [email protected]