Overhauling a Broken Phone-Answering Process
"Dakota Ridge Auto."
Since opening in 2008, answering the phone with a short phone greeting seemed to work perfectly fine for Dakota Ridge Auto, an eight-bay, 3,800-square-foot shop in Littleton, Colo. It was the way it had always been done, says owner Chris Shamis, and with steady growth each year, he says it never occurred to him that it needed to change.
But as he started to attend meetings with his Bottom-Line Impact Group, he says it became more and more apparent that something was missing from the shop’s customer service approach, and that missing piece was consistency.
“When you have people calling in and asking questions that you don’t give a consistent answer to or that you don’t answer in a fashion that gives them confidence, they might say, ‘OK, I’ll call you back,’” Shamis says. “And next thing you know, you’ve lost that opportunity with that customer.”
That inconsistency was also partly responsible for the shop’s low average repair order, which Shamis says indicated to him that his staff wasn’t building enough trust or wasn’t confident in making the final sale. “You have to start at the beginning. You have to work on getting customers in the door before you can work on anything else,” he says. “It’s kind of the beginning of building the higher ARO. Until you get the right customers in the door, you don’t have the opportunities to prove to them that you have the above and beyond customer service and the skillsets with the technicians to get their car fixed.”
And the more he heard how the service advisors at his shop were answering and dealing with customers over the phone, the more he realized that what he refers to as the “60s gas station” method wasn’t cutting it anymore. “Answering a phone correctly should be the easiest way to gain new customers,” Shamis says. “People buy from people they trust. If they don’t trust you, they’re not going to agree to a $500 repair.”
Brothers Chris and Mark Shamis opened Dakota Ridge Auto in October of 2008 with the intention of creating a small-town shop—everyone who works in the business lives within a few miles of the facility. “We wanted to open a shop that strives to be friendly to customers, employees and the environment. We wanted the old-fashioned automotive repair shop that you grew up with,” Shamis says.
From the beginning, Shamis—who has a background in advertising—embraced training and became a member of RLO Training’s Bottom-Line Impact Groups. And the shop saw early success: The business did $600,000 in total sales its first year and grew steadily moving forward.
The shop has also made hiring a focus and boasts three A-techs and one lube tech.
“We’ve got a great staff here and they do a really good job,” Shamis says.
Shamis says that the problem wasn’t immediately evident. The shop was doing well and growing, but he couldn’t get rid of the feeling that the shop wasn’t giving the kind of customer service it ultimately aspired to provide. As he would walk through the shop, he noticed that each service advisor had a different way of answering the phone and the conversations didn’t always follow a similar format, ask strong follow-up questions or know how to answer certain questions.
“We wanted to be a shop that was known as a shop that people could trust and that they felt good about the repairs and they were getting that above and beyond customer service,” he says.
And when Shamis went to the meetings for his Bottom-Line Impact group, he says it became more and more obvious that the shops with higher ARO didn’t necessarily have better technicians, it was that their service advisors gave the customer a better feel for what the shop could do for them.
“They were really big on consistency and processes,” he says. “I could tell that we weren’t giving every customer the same experience every time.”
And that began with conversations that were had over the phone.
“The old way of just answering the phone with, ‘Dakota Ridge Auto,’” he says, “versus the way we would answer it now, which is, ‘Thank you for calling Dakota Ridge Auto, my name is Chris. How may I help you?’ Just from the opening few words, it gives the customer the idea that they are calling a quality shop. That’s versus the old-fashioned way from back in the 60s. We wanted to give [our phone calls] a more professional feeling.”
Shamis knew that he needed to overhaul the broken phone-answering process, but he also knew he didn’t have the time or the knowledge to record and monitor the calls, and then subsequently train his service advisors. He had tried that in the past, with little consistency.
“This week we’re busy, this week we aren’t. This week we’ll do training, next week we won’t,” he says. “As far as the script goes, there wasn’t a written script. The guys were told to answer the phone a certain way and make sure you say the name of the business, but that was about it.”
So, four years ago, he decided to hire sales advisor trainer Jonnie Wright of The Buyosphere. From there, Wright came to the shop for onsite training and met with all the service advisors individually and as a group. He then sat in the office and observed all the phone calls.
“He would give feedback to the guys and once that was done as an onsite, he would give them homework,” Shamis says.
That homework involved using a script that the service advisors developed with Wright. The service advisors learned the scripts one process at a time, beginning with the incoming phone call. Now when a customer calls, service advisors are trained to answer it the same way each time, “Thank you for calling Dakota Ridge Auto, my name is Chris. How may I help you?” Shamis says that from there, the service advisors are taught to ask for the person’s name and then continue to refer to them by name, which gives an additional level of comfort. By getting the customer’s name, the service advisors can also see if they have visited the shop before, and if so, pull up the vehicle history and engage or interact with the customer.
“They have a very specific way of answering the phone, getting the details from the customer, making customers feel welcome and inviting them into our shop,” he says.
After they mastered the incoming phone call, the shop then turned its focus to return phone calls. When making a phone call after the vehicle has been inspected, the service advisors are now trained to mention all the good things going on with the vehicle first before moving on to the issues that need to be addressed.
“They don’t just call up and say, ‘Hi, Mr. Jones. Your car is a piece of junk and we need to do all these things,’” Shamis says. “We call up and say, ‘We’ve done the inspection and there are a lot of good things going on. Your fluids look good, your brake pads look good but we’ve noticed you have a leak in one of your CV boots.’ There’s a way to address a customer that makes them feel good about what they’ve done with their car and there’s a way that makes them feel bad. We want to make them feel good.”
Shamis also switched phone companies, and when he did, he was able to install computer software that records all of the phone calls, giving Wright’s staff access to them (Colorado is a one-party state, meaning the shop does not have to notify customers that a phone call may be recorded). Each day, a member of Wright’s team will look for incoming phone calls in the morning and outbound phone calls in the afternoon. He’ll pull those recordings at random, listen to them to ensure that the service advisors are following the training process and pass them on to the coaches. Shamis will then play back some of those recordings during service advisor meetings and use them as learning opportunities, whether the call went well or poorly.
“It was really eye-opening for them,” he says. “I think every one of them could instantly see the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Shamis says it was incredible how quickly the changes took hold, and he credits that to the ability to listen back to the recorded phone calls.
“You go through a few weeks of listening to yourself talk and all of a sudden, you start changing,” he says. “The changes we made were night and day. Every guy that we’ve had through here and has gone through the process, it’s incredible how quickly they learn from it and realize what they were doing.”
The shop saw ARO go from the low $200s to the high $300s in a year, and now, four years later, the ARO is over $500. Consequently, the shop has had revenue growth of $100,000 each of the last three years, with a record $1.77 million in total sales for 2015.
“If your ARO is going up and your overall sales are going up, that’s the main way we gauge it,” he says. “Customer count is part of it, but as you go up in ARO, you don’t need to work on as many cars. Therefore, you don’t want to have 30 cars a day in an eight-bay shop. ARO is the biggest thing we look at with our service advisors.”
In addition, Shamis says he’s seen a huge difference in the way the service advisors engage with customers over the phone.
“They can really interact with them and give them the feel that they’re part of our family,” he says. “The customers aren’t going to say, ‘These guys are trying to take advantage of me.’ It goes back to the old rules of treating people they way you want to be treated. Then they’re willing to spend that money with you.”
Shamis says that consistency is key when it comes to answering the phone, and call monitoring allows him to ensure that the consistency is there. He says he’s not only more confident than ever in his service advisors, but he’s also more confident that the shop is living out its mission statement and providing the customer service it aspires to.
“No matter what—if you’re having a fire in the building—you still answer the phone calmly and speak slow enough so that the customer can hear you and know who they’re talking to and they have no idea what’s going on on the other end of the line,” he says.
Call monitoring also has other benefits that Shamis says have surprised him. For one, he’s used it a number of times with customers who either claim to not have authorized repairs or who say the shop didn’t explain things properly.
“It’s been a benefit to us when we’ve had customer complaints where they said, ‘I didn’t tell you to do that’ and we can play the phone call back,” he says. “When push comes to shove and we feel like this is the time to stand our ground, we’ll play a phone conversation back.”
It’s also another way for Shamis to use the phone calls as a teaching method. After one particularly furious customer last summer, Shamis pulled the phone call and used it to show the service advisors how the shop’s manager took an angry customer and eventually turned the phone call around to where the customer saw that the repairs were necessary and beneficial.