Running a Shop Shop Customers Leadership

Dealing with Customer Complaints

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B.J. Lee remembers exactly what he told an elderly customer who had come into his California shop upset and frustrated with her vehicle leaking fluid:

“Let me take you out to the vehicle. I want to show you.”

Lee brought the customer and her walker out to her vehicle, raised it on the hoist and pointed out exactly what the issues were. She marveled that she had never been shown what was actually going on with her vehicle before and from that point on, she trusted everything Lee said to her. He had effectively turned an upset customer into a lifelong one.

With over 30 years of experience in the automotive business, first as the owner of two successful shops, then as the vice president of the institute for Automotive Business Excellence and a former columnist for Ratchet+Wrench, Lee has seen his fair share of customer complaints—even from some of the most customer-oriented shops.

Since consulting independent shop owners for the Institute, he’s had to come up with a few tips for helping shops gain positive customer experiences, as well as deal with the occasional negative ones.

Lee offers some tips for turning a not-so-pleasant experience into a lifelong customer.


When a customer comes in with a complaint, don’t start taking it personally. First, let the customer vent. It’s very important to let them vent and let it all out. Don’t start interrupting and getting involved until they are finished. I have found that sometimes it’s not necessarily the problem at the moment that’s upsetting. It could be any number of things and you just happen to be the last straw. The longer you let them vent, the more they will eventually feel a relief that someone is finally listening to them.

After the customer has expressed their concern, you can then start reeling them back in and asking them questions. What kind of problems are happening? When did they start happening? Start collecting all that data so you can start deciding where to go from there. Sometimes shop workers will get defensive and make decisions without really finding out what is going on with the customer. The best kind of attack is being very polite and assuring by saying things like, “Hey, no problem, let’s find out what’s going on.” Start telling them the good things and don’t point blame or make any decisions until you fully assess the situation and the vehicle.

Make sure you are walking the customer through what is really going on with their car. With that elderly customer, I got a flashlight and pinpointed everything that was going on in her vehicle. There is nothing better than walking somebody out to their car and physically showing them. If you let them actually see what happened, they will understand.

You should have some sort of process or flow chart to track KPIs, such as customer satisfaction rate. If you have certain complaints coming in, you want to be able to follow that. If you have a complaint, what complaint was it? Who handled the sale of the repair? Who did the repair? From there, you may recognize a pattern over time, if you are finding the same problems. That way, you can track whether it is the same person who tends to handle the inquiries that result in complaints. You want to know at all times what is going on in that flow and where to direct your attention. Direct those energies to whomever you need to if, in fact, it’s a company problem.

We always recommend follow-ups three days after repairs are done to make sure the processes are done correctly. If a customer complains then, get them in right away and fix the problem. If the customer is happy, they’re going to help you grow. You have to do what’s right for everybody. It has to be a win for your staff, your company, the client and their vehicle.

Sometimes you will have people that will never be happy, no matter what you do. You may need to fire clients. We have an idea of the type of clients we want. You want someone who wants that value, who will choose value over price. If you encounter someone who is price conscious and is resisting you, make sure to explain that you are following your business model. You can refer them to a local shop that may have lower prices. That way you are nicely and professionally moving them elsewhere.

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