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Calming the Comeback Customer

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The easiest way for Keith Benline to explain it to customers is that a car is a lot like a light bulb: It seems fine, it looks fine, it works fine, you know, until it doesn’t.

“It’s similar to your buddy coming into your house and flipping on the light switch and suddenly the light bulb burns out,” explains Benline, owner of Robert’s Auto Service in San Diego, Calif. “Are you going to turn to your buddy and tell him he broke your light? Does he need to replace it since he was the one who flipped the switch? Of course not, but when it comes to people’s cars, that’s the way they feel about it.

“If you just did a repair on someone’s car, and two days later, the service engine light comes on, they’re going to think you did something. It’s just the way it is.”

What Benline is referring to is comeback customers—a problem in shops about as common as, well, light bulbs burning out.

Most repair shops deal with comeback customers nearly every single week, says Jeremy O’Neal, an industry consultant with more than 20 years of experience spent behind a service desk. And with increasing technology, that’s not going to change. What needs to change, though, is how shops deal with these issues.

“I think that 80 percent of shops don’t handle the situation how it should be handled,” O’Neal says.

The biggest mistake? O’Neal says it’s simple: “The priority can’t be about making the sale when you have these situations; it’s about keeping the relationship with the customer.”

Rick Ruback, owner of Rick’s Automotive Inc. in Cleburne, Texas, doesn’t see a whole lot of comeback customers in his repair shop. The shop has a 100 percent approval rating from more than 70 reviews on its website and has regularly hit the 100 percent mark in AAA customer-satisfaction surveys.

Still, Ruback understands that angry customers are inevitable in every business.

“You can’t please 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time,” he says, “but you can do your best to.”

It all starts with communication, Ruback says, and that’s what O’Neal preaches to his clients through his consulting firm, Advisorfix.

“When (you have comeback customers), you have to handle the situation in the right way,” O’Neal says. “If you don’t, you’re likely never getting that customer back.”

In order to keep those customers, O’Neal says to focus on five simple steps:

1. Hear the customer out. The tendency is to get defensive and assure the customer that it wasn’t your fault, O’Neal says. Fight that tendency.

“You can’t just say, ‘It’s probably nothing that we did, but I’ll write it up for a diagnosis, and we’ll get the technician back in there to see what’s going on,” O’Neal says. “Right up front, you have to let your customer know that you stand behind your work and you’re going to take care of them. If you don’t have those good feelings immediately, it’s going to backfire on you.”

So, this is what O’Neal suggests saying: “I’m really sorry that we had this issue and the (check engine) light came back on. What I’ll do is get it back in the shop right away and have Paul take a look at this. We’ll get to the bottom of it. You have my word that if it’s something we did or caused by the repair we did or something we overlooked, we’re going to stand behind it and take care of you 100 percent. Give me about an hour or so, and we’ll have some answers for you. Does that sound alright?”

2. Review every detail of your work. “You’ve got to be very sure of your diagnosis, and let the customer know that you know exactly what caused it,” O’Neal says. “Apologize for the inconvenience and let them know that this is exactly what is going on.”

Even if you think you know what caused the new problem, O’Neal says, still run through the initial work with a “fine-toothed comb.” Knowing every detail about your initial repair—and the new problem—lets you better engage the customer the second time around.

3. Explain thoroughly. Even if you know 100 percent what the cause of the problem is, O’Neal says, that doesn’t mean the customer is 100 percent going to buy into it.

First, O’Neal says, explain exactly what you did in the first repair and assure the customer that you checked each and every aspect of it the second time around. Then, explain the differences between the old and the new problem.

“Then, if it is another issue with the car, you have to pull the benefits out,” O’Neal says. “Say, ‘Look, I’m glad that (the check engine light) came on, because it gives us a chance to address it as a smaller issue rather than turning it into a major issue.’ That’s really what your focus has to be on.”

Thoroughly documenting the original work or volunteering to show the customer the problem in the car can be huge assets, too, O’Neal says.

4. Price the new job fairly. O’Neal isn’t one for discounting a job in this type of situation. “It can imply there’s a gray area in that it might have actually been the shop’s fault,” he says.

“Be fair with the customer in these situations, and realistically, just make sure you recover the time you have into the job,” he says. “I don’t discount my stuff at this point in time. If it’s something we didn’t do, then the customer needs to pay regular rates for that service.
“Customers understand you are entitled to a fair profit, but they don’t want to feel like they’re getting raked. You just have to be fair.”

5. Follow up. Personal attention goes a long way in showing a customer that you care about keeping them as clients. O’Neal suggests a follow-up phone call 48 hours after the
second repair.

“It needs to be a personal call from the service advisor who worked with them,” O’Neal says. “I’ll call them up two days later and say, ‘Hi, it’s Jeremy. I just want to make sure your car is running well and you’re not having any more problems with it and that we did fix your problem for you. … Should anything come up, just let me know.’ You’d be surprised how far that goes.”

O’Neal says not to stop there, though. One thing he used to do as a service advisor and suggests shops get in the habit of with these types of customers is to send out a hand-written thank-you note.

“I don’t even put my business card in there,” he says. “I just sign with my name and my company, and maybe throw in a ten dollar Starbucks gift card or something.

“It’s not a business solicitation, it’s just a personalized note saying that you appreciate their trust in you and a little bit of an apology for any inconvenience they may have had. You’re just saying, ‘Here’s a token of our appreciation.’”

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