WASHINGTON-Interested in getting the government off your back? Developing a high level of customer satisfaction is the way automotive repair facilities can get rid of, or at least prevent, increased government regulation, according to A. Keith Smith.
He's chief of field operations for California's Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR), the agency that made headlines a couple of years ago when it charged Sears, Roebuck and Co. with auto service fraud.
Speaking at a recent meeting of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association's Inter-State Government Information Council, Mr. Smith pointed out that, nationwide, automotive repair ranks first or second in the number of complaints received by state and local governmental consumer agencies.
Federal legislation for regulation of the automotive repair industry is a real possibility because of this high incidence of complaints, he continued. By its consumer fraud charges against Sears Auto Centers in California two years ago, the BAR focused national attention on the auto service business.
But increased regulation isn't necessarily the answer, he said, adding that consumers are best protected through a fair and competitive market with high standards.
To avoid further government regulation, Mr. Smith suggested auto service businesses establish an ``organizational culture'' directed at satisfying customers.
While honesty is the foundation for such a culture, and must permeate every aspect of a business, he said, competence and communication with customers and employees are important principles as well.
Mr. Smith outlined to the NTDRA several steps dealers should take to create the proper culture:
Honesty-Establish an honesty and disclosure policy. Make sure it is strictly adhered to in all areas of the business, including advertising and sales, repair diagnoses and estimates, explanations to customers, handling complaints and billing.
Competence-Hire good employees and measure their effectiveness by: developing preferred practices; ensuring information availability and use; and testing theoretical knowledge, skills and performance.
Communication with employees-To reinforce employees' understanding of their importance in implementing the dealership's policies, adopt the following: a purpose, mission and vision statement; underlying values; goals and objectives; operating principles; and competitive strategy.
Communication with customers-In dealing with customers: clearly explain products/services; explain and record diagnoses; understand and record customers' problems or needs; explain and record what the dealership can and will do; explain and record options, benefits and costs; obtain and record informed agreement; explain and record any unanticipated changes; clearly explain the billing; explain the customer satisfaction policy; and understand and correct any continuing problems.
Once these steps have been taken, Mr. Smith said, a dealership's focus should shift to discovering customers' specific expectations.
First, listen to customers to find out what they value most. Then the auto service provider should use that information to establish what Mr. Smith called a ``breakaway strategy''-distinguishing his dealership from the competition.
The strategy doesn't end there. Follow-up measurement is essential, Mr. Smith told the NTDRA, in order to evaluate how well customer satisfaction is being delivered, and to make changes where needed.