Did you ever ``fire'' a customer? If so, you're not alone-and you're not crazy! Less-experienced service personnel should realize they can't please every customer. The best way to accommodate some people is to show them the door as politely and firmly as possible. In the words of some veteran owners and managers, dismiss the customer.
When I was in the shop, dealing with customers was the most challenging, difficult part of my job. I doubted my ability and scratched my head more than once wondering how I could have handled a situation better. That curiosity still fuels my interest in how effective service writers and managers deal with difficult customers.
Today, customer relations experts preach that the consumer is king. Plus, we live in an era of almost stifling political correctness that prohibits ``personal fouls'' in all relationships, especially with consumers. Current thinking says that if someone leaves the store angry, it's your fault.
But frequent reality checks with experienced, successful service personnel reinforce two points. First, you cannot please every customer. Second, and more important, the savvy manager learns how to identify these people and to avoid wasting time on lost causes.
One shop manager demonstrated that his staff specializes in solving driveability problems-including those other shops could not. Understandably, this talent draws many motorists who have already thrown good money after bad at annoying, persistent performance problems. By the time someone refers a consumer to this manager's store, the people are often frustrated, suspicious and downright combative.
``I explain that we have an excellent track record at fixing the tough cases and that this record has built an extremely loyal customer base for us,'' the manager said. ``I explain that our basic diagnostic charge is for a routine check-out that may or may not uncover the problem. In the worst case, that charge entitles them to an estimate of how long it will take to find the problem.''
When the task calls for pinpointing an elusive problem such as a chafed or pinched wire, he faithfully updates the customer every hour via fax or phone. Where possible, he always offers repair vs. replace options.
At this store, service personnel routinely ask customers for both a phone and fax number at work. Sending a detailed estimate over the fax builds trust. It also saves time by answering questions before they're asked, and gives a sense of urgency to the message, spurring the customer to respond quickly. The sooner the technician gets a reply, the sooner the vehicle is done, freeing up the bay for another repair job.
Many service managers know that diagnostic printouts from engine analyzers help build customer trust by serving as an impartial verification of the necessary repair. Because his staff finds so many fundamental steps are overlooked, this manager always attaches an analyzer printout to the work order and keeps another copy on file.
What's more, the extensive and intensive diagnostic work his staff performs made him add a printer to the store's scan tool. (A scanner or scan tool is a diagnostic device that interfaces with the vehicle's on-board computers.) A printout of the scanner's findings also is attached to work orders and another copy kept on file.
``As these computerized systems get older, we notice that one sensor may quit today, setting one fault code in the computer's memory. But a few weeks from now, a different sensor can fail, causing a different code. The printout is a big help because it proves what code the equipment detected and when,'' the manager explained.
In spite of all these efforts to substantiate what's needed and why-and to keep the customer as informed as possible-some people still are not happy. The manager encourages his colleagues to recognize that ``the unhappy ones are actually angry at themselves for wasting time and money by choosing a repair shop carelessly.''
``Or they're furious because the car's at the age where things are beginning to break down. They don't believe printouts showing that a new failure is different from what broke a month ago,'' he said.
What if all his efforts fail? This manager insists the most cost-effective approach is calmly and politely ``firing'' the customer: ``Because our store and staff are unable to satisfy your needs, we urge you to take your business to someone who can,'' is the wording he prefers. Some customers beg to be ``reinstated.'' Others leave in stunned silence, he said. Then life at the store goes on.
In my next column, I'll outline more examples of coping with obstinate customers. Until then, keep your cool!