Coffee with Customers

Jan. 1, 2016
Four key lessons I learned while interacting with my shop’s clients

I love listening to drivers at my shop. Casual conversations with customers have taught me more about what people expect from an auto repair business than market research ever could.

My policy: “Listen first.” Pretend to be your favorite bartender. Keep your mouth shut. Ask questions—lots of them! Let your customer talk 90 percent of the time. They will probably tell you about their fears, frustrations, or future plans. In the process, you will earn trust and learn how to keep their business.

Everybody has a need for connection. I think that’s why people are so captivated by social media. It’s much different today than when I was a kid. These days, you don’t have to visit a friend’s house to speak with them. You can whip out your smart phone and start a video chat, just like in the “Jetsons” cartoon.

We are virtually connected all the t ime, but people need to feel connected on a physical level, too. That’s why the person-to-person approach works so well. Providing snacks in the lobby is a good casual way to get drivers talking. Here are four important things I learned while drinking coffee with drivers:

1. Cost isn’t always most important.

If a driver can’t afford rent and needs a new engine, that’s not good considering their financial situation. My suggestion? Offer payment installment plans. Many credit companies and parts distributors offer basic credit cards, instantly approved.

That said, money isn’t the top concern of drivers. What I hear most of the time are questions about safety, expertise, and qualifications. Charge what you’re worth and stand behind your work. Competing on price is a losing battle. Do you want to be known as the cheapest shop in town? I don’t.

2. Giveaways always get attention.

Who isn’t glad to receive a free coffee and cookie, compliments of a courteous auto repair business? Nobody I know. Obviously I like caffeine and candy, but please do offer water and nuts or fruit for more health-conscious folks, too.

People can be shy about meeting new people, especially if they feel uncomfortable in the environment. Providing snacks and refreshments makes people feel welcome to stay a while. Satisfy a hungry driver’s appetite on a hectic day and you better believe they will remember your auto shop fondly.

3. People love it when you remember their names (and their cars’ names). 

Watch a person’s expression when you use their name. I bet you will see a smile or twinkle in their eye. Observe your reaction when people use your name in conversation. I bet the same thing will happen.

Don’t take my word for it. The next time you meet a new customer, end the conversation with a positive statement like: “Hey, (name), it was so awesome to meet you today. Come see us again soon, okay?” Treat every driver in this manner and you’ll end up with so many customers you’ll have to hire help.

Here’s another fun tip: Ask people for their cars’ names. If they’re not sure, encourage them to choose a name right now. If they struggle, suggest naming it after a pet or person or inspirational figure who has made a positive difference in their lives. The next time they come to your shop, ask, “How is Sal doing?” (By the way, Sal is my car’s name.)

4. Drivers support auto shops that treat them as equals. 

I’m not suggesting this is true in your auto business, but statistics say female drivers often feel judged or stereotyped by male technicians.

Understand this fact and never make crude comments or jokes about how women are “bad drivers” or “don’t understand cars.” It will not end well for your business.

For one thing, research confirms men have more traffic accidents and worse driving habits than women. For another, you will offend a huge portion of your target market with that sort of talk. She chose to bring her car into your shop. You should be thanking her (not insulting her).

In case you don’t understand why relating with women is a big deal, let me spell it out for you. Females influence 80 percent of purchasing decisions in the U.S. Ignore that statistic at your own peril.

Given the importance of communication, I’d like to close with some notes about how to relate with women.

Men and women do not have the exact same preferences when it comes to hiring a service professional. Men usually want to skip the small talk, investigate the problem, identify a solution, and be done with it. Women are wired differently. We want to explore alternatives, meet the human behind the business, and make sure we can feel good about our investments.

If you provide all the necessary information and yet are met with indecision, please don’t be pushy. Hand her a business card and say, “Price isn’t the most important thing, but do feel free to shop around. My name is (your name). Call me at this number if you have any questions. I look forward to doing business with you.” For bonus points, open a web browser and help them “price shop” right there. Talk about transparency!

What have you learned while getting to know the drivers who support your auto business? Feel free to reach out and let me know.

About the Author

Audra Fordin

Audra Fordin is the fourth-generation owner of Great Bear Auto Repair in Flushing, N.Y., founder of consumer advocacy initiative Women Auto Know/Drivers Auto Know (, and author of “End Auto Anxiety: No Fear Car Repair and Maintenance for Busy Women.” Reach Fordin at [email protected].

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