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Answering the Angry Customer

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Imagine one of those days in your shop where everything is going great. Appointments are showing up on time; your techs are churning out efficient, quality work; your front counter people are killing it with each and every walk-in customer.

These are the days we love … until that moment: Your service advisor steps out for a break, and you’re watching the phones and front counter. The phone rings, just as a customer walks in the door. No problem, right? You can multitask and stay on point. You know what you’re doing.

But that customer on the phone? He’s mad. Really mad. That radiator your team fixed yesterday? It’s leaking fluid everywhere.

He keeps yelling. You weren’t ready for that call. You were in a great mood. Now, you’re just frozen as you look at the customer waiting at the counter, and another customer who just walked in. You can feel your blood pressure spike. You can tell your face is turning red. You tell yourself to stay calm. Don’t get mad. Don’t make a scene with these customers watching you.

These are the moments we fall on our highest level of preparation. The wrong decision can cost you that customer—likely forever—and cause you to offer a big refund. The right decision can land you that job and a customer for life.

What do you do?

At every moment like this, we have multiple groups of decisions we can and need to make, and they all have to be correct. And every single person in the shop has to understand what the right decision is given the specific scenario and situation is with a customer.

You can’t approach every upset customer the same way, but there are some simple rules to follow—and master. You do this by having situations mapped out and then you practice, train and coach with your staff. Think of scenarios you face, and build a plan around each one. Make sure everyone understands the plan. Make sure everyone can execute the plan. Make sure everyone follows the plan. Make sure your “highest level of preparation” that you inevitably fall back on in those situations is actually a very high level.

So, how do you get there? How do you handle those situations?

Here’s the first, universal step with every angry customer: Say you’re sorry; that’s step No. 1, every time, no matter what. A lot of people are afraid to do that because they think it implies guilt, but that’s not the case. (Plus, customers are often calling for someone or something to blame, and simply hearing the words “sorry” often softens the conversation from the get-go.) Keep in mind that at the very least, you do have something to apologize for—this customer had a bad experience (or perception of the experience) with your shop. You need to say you’re sorry and ask them to come into the shop so that you can do everything you can to make this right.

I’ll explain why in a moment, but you want to make the phone call short and to the point, so that you can handle the rest of the situation in person.  

Now, here’s where it starts to split between the angry customer who has an immediate repair need (like our friend with the leaking radiator) and someone who simply had a check engine light come on following a repair. The customers with the immediate repair needs must get their vehicles to your shop right away—and you need to tell them that and offer to tow it in, if necessary. Get them off the road so that future damage can’t occur, and get them to your facility as soon as possible so you can be the one to correct the issue. For the customers who can still drive their vehicles, they’re looking for some hope that it’s nothing major; most often, the last thing they want to do is immediately come back to your shop. You disarm that worry and set up a time for them to bring it in.

Once the customers arrive, don’t let them get into your facility without having greeted them first. Meet them in the parking lot. Don’t have them walk into the shop alone. Depending on the layout of your shop and how you approach service, either greet them as they pull up and check out the problem yourself right then and there, or pull the car instantly into a bay and get a technician on it. Stay with the customer in that bay while the tech looks it over. You want to avoid any confrontation with the customer inside your waiting area where other customers may be sitting. No matter your approach, you can’t handle that customer correctly if you have an audience. It turns it from a conversation into a performance, as you’re likely going to pay more attention to the reactions of the people sitting around watching than to the customer. It can’t turn into a performance.

Once you or your tech has figured out the cause of the problem, now comes the easy part: Make it right. If it was your fault, fix it. If it wasn’t your fault, find a solution that is fair.

This is a simple process; there’s nothing complicated to what I explained and every shop everywhere should be able to replicate it very easily. The bigger takeaway from this is that we need to be prepared for the situations we deal with each day in the shop. We need to understand what we will face and what our staff will face, and have specific strategies to deal with those scenarios. We can’t let an angry customer beat up our morale; you can’t take that negative energy home with you each day and have it affect your home life. You just can’t.

Find solutions. Train on those solutions. Up your level of preparation. Don’t lose any more of your days to angry customers.

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