I was reminded of that repeatedly over the last couple of weeks. And it's worth revisiting today.
If you didn't catch our latest Tire Business livestream on Aug. 31 — "Enhancing the Counter Culture" — be sure to sign up and watch a replay. It will be well worth your time.
All four panelists — John Arnold, consumer tire education content development manager for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations L.L.C; Craig Bruneel, president of Bruneel Point S Tire & Auto Service; Bob Kelly, region manager at New England-based Sullivan Tire & Auto Service; and Frank Kneller, CEO of Phoenix-based Sun Auto Tire & Service Inc. (formerly GB Auto) — offered outstanding advice and tips about improving your customer service.
At the end of our discussion, I asked each panelist to briefly provide one key customer service tip. Their responses:
Mr Arnold: "Focus on the customer. Don't fall into the trap, especially if you are a former mechanic, of just focusing on the vehicle. It's ultimately the customer that is bringing you that vehicle. Focus on their needs, their concerns, and you'll never go wrong."
Mr. Bruneel: "It's important to be sincere. Whatever style we use in sales, let them know you care."
Mr. Kelly: "Let them know we're problem solvers. We know the answers and how to get it done. They come in with an issue, and we can ease their pain as quick as we can and work through the situation. And be in a good mood. Our attitude every day has to be positive, and no matter what's going on in the back shop, we have to come out in the front and be ready for the next customer."
Mr. Kneller: "Hire for the smile. Running a store, I used to look at (every applicant's) driver's license and see if they are smiling. You have to start with the right person to begin with, and it's worthwhile trying to find that right person."
Less than 48 hours later, I had an engaging discussion with John Quirk and Tim Winkeler, the executive chairman and CEO/president, respectively, of New England-based VIP Tires & Service. More than 150 attended VIP's 2021 Managers Conference, held Aug. 30-Sept. 2 at the Somoset Resort in Rockport, Maine.
Both executives at the soon-to-be 65-location dealership emphasized two key aspects to VIP's success: its focus on employee engagement — servicing those you employ — and its focus on its customers.
Mr. Quirk said each customer has the opportunity to meet the technician who will diagnose and service the person's vehicle. In fact, he said, his shop provides business cards to techs to distribute to those customers.
VIP doesn't just talk the talk.
This year's winner of the Presidential Award, the top award given at VIP's annual manager's conference, is Colleen Chassie, in her third-year as digital marketing manager. Ms. Chassie manages all digital media, including responding to Google and other online reviews (Yelp, Facebook, etc.).
"She does a phenomenal job," Mr. Quirk said.
Maggie Knudsen, a VIP store manager in Saco, Maine, recounted a story about how she helped a customer get to a wedding safely.
The customer came in on a Friday, needing a tire for her BMW.
The store didn't have the fitment in stock, but Ms. Knudsen said she drove to another store, which had the tire in stock and got it installed on the customer's vehicle in time for her to leave for the wedding by Saturday at 11 a.m.
I got a personal look at the importance of customer service myself a few days later.
In the first instance, I was out on another work assignment, with the intention to dine alone at an upscale restaurant in town.
The restaurant was connected to a small lounge/bar area, which provided additional restaurant seating.
I approached the hostess, and she immediately reached for a menu. Another customer came in right behind me, and she immediately took him to his table, which had been reserved.
The hostess returned to her station and saw me waiting. As she reached for another menu, I told her I was alone. She paused, excused herself and disappeared to the kitchen.
A few minutes later, she returned. "Can you sit in the lounge area?" she asked. The lounge/bar was crowded, with few seats available.
"I'd like a table, please," I responded.
"You will have to sit there," she said, motioning to the lounge/bar. "We can't serve you."
Now if she had used any excuse — such as "You need a reservation tonight" or "We are short-staffed" — I might have accepted that willingly.
She basically refused to serve me, likely spurred on by her boss back in the kitchen.
Another area restaurant got my $30 that night.
Then I witnessed the customer service my brother received at competing car dealerships in our area.
He had found a car he wanted at the first dealership and was negotiating a price for his trade-in. The salesman promised to get back to him the next day with another offer. He never did.
He found a similar vehicle at another dealership, and again started the negotiation process. The dealership responded within 30 minutes with an offer.
My brother tried again with the first dealership.
Despite several emails, the salesman never responded. My brother finally consummated a deal with the second dealership, who had responded to all of his inquiries in a timely fashion.
Still bothered by his treatment, my brother emailed the salesman, he and copied the sales manager, explaining his frustration and their inability to service his customer needs.
My brother pointed out that he had purchased two other new vehicles from this salesman at another dealership, so he was surprised by his treatment.
The sales manager's response?
While he apologized for the salesman's treatment and lack of response — "(the salesman) knows he should have handled it differently," he wrote — the sales manager pointed out that the salesman had just sold a $145,000 vehicle via text and that some customers only want to communicate that way.
The car my brother was attempting to buy was half that price.
This was a half-hearted apology that cemented my brother's resolve never to visit that dealership again.
These businesses fumbled their opportunity for good customer service.
It's a great reminder for all of us: Focus on the basics.