Customer satisfaction research, a rare undertaking in the automotive repair industry, is an invaluable element to inspecting what you expect from service personnel. At Merchant's Inc., ongoing research and customer follow-up exemplifies how the dealership excels by applying the ``inspect what you expect'' philosophy.
Everywhere I go I meet owners and managers who want to expand their share of the automotive service market. Here, I'll continue the discussion I began several columns ago on how this philosophy has helped Merchant's-a 130-store dealership based in Manassas, Va.-grow its service business and prepare itself for the future.
After all, customer satisfaction and customer loyalty are inseparable. As competition in the auto repair arena intensifies, only those businesses with the most loyal customers will survive and thrive.
Mark Grote is Merchant's vice president of marketing and Curt Brush is director of customer satisfaction. They said their customer satisfaction work includes ongoing surveys and studies of Merchant's customers as well as consumers in general.
And there's a company-wide toll-free number customers can call if they're unhappy with the way they have been treated.
Often times, some calls to ``800'' customer complaint lines net a consumer nothing more than a bunch of lip service.
However, Mr. Brush emphasized that at Merchant's such a call is treated very seriously and given top priority. If the only way to satisfy the unhappy customer is to refund his money, it's refunded!
Merchant's also gauged customer reactions for four years via a self-addressed, postage-paid reply card that was hung on the rear-view mirror of each and every customer's car.
Understandably, the company's satisfaction meisters are guarded about certain aspects of their work. But Mr. Brush did allow that the program yielded thousands of reply cards per month. Thousands-that's a healthy response in my book!
Whenever a reply card showed a customer would not return to Merchant's again, a follow-up call was automatically made to that person.
``Once we made that call and got to the root of the issue-the real or perceived problem-we usually could resolve it and get them coming back,'' Mr. Brush told me.
Mr. Brush's staff also pulled work orders at random, telephoning customers with a standard set of questions about their experience at Merchant's.
After thousands of reply-card and telephone responses, Merchant's is refining its customer-satisfaction effort. With four year's experience under their belts, company leaders think they're ready for surgical strikes instead of saturation bombing.
Rather than use the customer follow-up plan company-wide, they plan to use it to troubleshoot and fine-tune stores that need improvement.
For instance, Messrs. Brush and Grote agree that repeat business is among the more meaningful indicators of true customer satisfaction and loyalty.
So when a store turns a high volume of service but shows an unusually low percentage of repeat business, it often indicates underlying problems that warrant attention, Mr. Grote emphasized.
One step toward improvement will be reinstating a customer follow-up program for that store's clientele.
``When you consider what it actually costs to attract a customer and get him in the door the first time, it reinforces the importance of keeping them,'' Mr. Brush explained. ``And in spite of all our hard work, we still don't always know or learn why a customer doesn't come back.''
Mr. Grote emphasized repeatedly that from Merchant's ownership to top management to entry-level tire-changers, the company gospel is consistent and fervent: Customer satisfaction comes first, company profits follow from happy people.
When pressed for other significant lessons learned from Merchant's intensive follow-up program, Mr. Brush cites timeliness and promptness. ``These days, when you tell someone his car will be ready by 5:00, that car better be ready or you'll hear about it! Customers' time is more valuable than ever before,'' he said.
Mr. Brush admitted that reply card complaints about late work could and did strengthen some store managers' arguments for additional technicians.
Another conclusion Mr. Brush has drawn from the follow-up pro-gram is something that would benefit all customer-conscious dealers-he prefers reply card input to telephone interviews.
``When you fill out a reply card, you have to pause and think for a moment before you write. So I think the written response is more indicative of how they really feel about Merchant's,'' he said.
Whether telephone call or reply card, the program reminds all service personnel that management inspects what it expects, he added.