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Handling shop interruptions—and a customer's request for a particular tech

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A shop owner in Ephrata, Pa., writes:

“We have a small shop where my husband is the tech and I run the office.

“Periodically, customers will stop in to schedule an appointment but will insist on talking to Greg (my husband) to explain to him what problems they are having with their vehicle. Since he is the only technician at our shop, it is often not possible for him to be interrupted to talk to a customer.

“Yesterday, a customer stopped in and asked to speak to Greg. I explained he is working on a vehicle at the moment and isn't available, and I asked what I could do to help him. He proceeded to explain to me the issue he was having with his vehicle, ending with: 'Greg will know what I'm talking about.'

“As I'm taking all of the information down to put on the RO (repair order), I ask the customer what day he would like to bring it in and he responds, 'I don't know because I don't know if I should drive it or have it towed.'

“Based on the information he provided to me, I suggested the vehicle be towed in to avoid further damage—at which point the customer asked again to talk to Greg to be sure it needed to be towed. Greg was working on another job in the shop involving heavy suspension repairs and was not available.

“The customer—upset because he couldn't talk to 'the tech'—left without scheduling the appointment.

“How can I approach customers differently to help them understand that they don't necessarily need to talk to the tech when scheduling? How do I express that I need all of their issues on the repair order so when Greg does bring in the vehicle, he has all of the information in front of him and can properly test and recommend repairs?”

A company president in Grand Haven, Mich., responds:

“Our response is, 'Will this be Visa or MasterCard?'

“Is it not fair to charge for the tech's time? We explain that we're saving customers money by taking all these notes beforehand. If they truly need to talk to the tech, it's billable at our diagnostic rate.”

Tom Ham replies:

“As shop owners we often spend too much effort on things that cannot be changed easily or at all in some cases.

“Your most efficient way to address this is to let him talk to the tech after you have tried and he still insists. That is, if we are talking about something that occurs once in a while.

“If this happens constantly, then ask yourselves if you are growing enough to add an employee who can help both in the shop and up front in situations like this. In the long run, the business will do best by making almost all customers happy even when their demands are not what we may like.

“It is hard to accept that stopping and talking to a customer is more profitable (in the grand scheme of things) than to not stop and keep working on a job.”

An auto repair marketing professional in Niagara Falls, N.Y., adds:

“I agree with Tom and would also like to add the following changes you may want to try.

“I don't know your specific shop, but when addressing the customer, are you a 'service adviser?' Even a name tag on the counter where you greet the customer would be a start. That's part of 'training' your customer.

“Secondly, seeing that almost everyone has access to email, why not get their email address and explain that the tech will respond but is unable to do so at that time. Again, this too depends on how many times this occurs.

“If you create a simple vehicle problem form—where you make your notes with a space on the bottom for the customer to write their email address and include a simple statement that they may be added to your email list, you could turn that into a win-win scenario.

“I can really appreciate the problem. People want your service as opposed to the dealership because they can talk directly to the tech. In fact, that's probably one of the biggest reasons car owners use independent shops instead of the dealer. But it can really eat up time, too. If you attempt a simple system where you can postpone that contact, the customer will get the answers they want and you can save a big chunk of time.”

The original poster to the forum writes:

“This is an idea I will share with Greg. We are a small 'mom and pop' shop. Greg is the tech. I run the front office. I do approach the customer as the 'service writer.' This customer has been here before and I believe is aware that I am the contact person for scheduling, repairs, authorization, etc.

“Sometimes I feel certain customers would just prefer talking to a man. Thank you for your idea. I'm going to work on implementing that type of form/program for those that insist on talking to Greg.”

The auto repair marketing professional in Niagara Falls follows up:

“I'm not trying to be picky, and certainly not trying to beat anyone up, but in view of your response I wanted to add a couple of things.

“You claimed that the customer has been at your shop before and, 'I believe is aware that I am the only contact person.' Don't assume anything. The only person that gets out of bed in the morning thinking about your business is you. Don't make them think.

“With respect to your form design, I would suggest about five or six numbered lines. If you can, give your customer a copy of it, too. That way, the tech can just reply, 'RE: Line 20.'

“The only other rule that I would create for yourselves is that the response be within X-number of hours. It doesn't have to be immediate, but if you want to build credibility and trust with customers, tell them that the tech will respond within, let's say, 12 hours. At least they know what to expect. When they get the response, it helps to build your credibility.”

A shop owner in Beaumont, Texas, responds:

“Being a female in the service industry has its obstacles, to say the least.

“My husband and I own a shop with four techs, plus the two of us. Customers tend to feel females don't know a thing about auto repair. I can say I have stunned many. I have been around the industry for many years. (My grandfather, father and two brothers are/were all mechanics, and then I married one.)

“There are some customers who insist on speaking to a tech, but you do, in my opinion, need to intercept as many as possible and gain the confidence of your customers as well as avoid interrupting the tech. There are many times when stopping them to speak to a customer isn't possible.”

These questions and responses are posted on the Automotive Management Network website, which is operated by Deb and Tom Ham, owners of Auto Centric (formerly Ham's Automotive) in Grand Rapids, Mich. The comments—used with permission—have been edited for clarity and brevity.
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