How to Handle Customer Apologies

April 15, 2024
Everyone makes mistakes. How you make it up to your customers can go a long way in keeping your shop's credibility.

Brittany Schindler, owner of Rod’s Japanese Auto Care in Bellingham, Washington, started in the shop more than a decade ago working as a service advisor for her dad. Though there have been mistakes with customers made along the way, Schindler says the most important thing she learned from her dad was how to respond to those mistakes.  

“Being open, honest, and transparent was always the No. 1 goal of my dad's,” she says, “and reassuring customers in their decision-making about their vehicles. It's our No. 1 goal now, too.” 

Every single person working in auto repair is going to make a mistake at some point, and every single person is going to have to deal with an upset customer. Acknowledging the mistake, listening to the customer, and working with them to make it better can go a long way in smoothing over a rough situation before it begins.  


Diffusing the Situation 

In most instances, no matter how mad a customer is or what the mistake is, Schindler says she’s found a lot of people are looking for one simple thing. 

“If you listen to them, most of the time that's all they want,” she says. “Seriously.”  

When people are mad, they just want someone to listen to them. Jeremy Hossler, shop foreman for Complete Auto Repair in Hammond, Indiana, says that it’s important to not take a customer being upset personally.  

“What they're mad about is extremely important to them,” Hossler says. “They might not understand everything about the situation, but in their eyes, they're right, and they're mad.”  

In this instance, being right or winning the argument should never be the goal. Instead, your priority should be to help the customer calm down. Schindler and Hossler say being a listening ear helps a lot, and moving the conversation to a neutral location away from other customers can also help ease tensions. 

Hossler also recommends grabbing a piece of paper and writing down what the customer says. This not only shows that you’re actively listening to the customer, but it also forces them to slow down and think through what they’re saying, which helps them calm down oftentimes.  

“You have to stay calm,” Hossler says. “Most of the time we can get it turned around in three to five minutes with a civil conversation.” 

Still, every once in a while, someone will be unreasonably mad. If a conversation leaves the realm of civility and threats or other forms of harassment start to crop up, Hossler and Schindler say it’s more than acceptable to end the conversation right then and there. 

“That's my last resort. I'll tell them this conversation is over and that we'll continue later, usually sometime the next week,” Schindler says. “It doesn't happen very often at my shop, thankfully, and after that cool-off period when they've had time to reflect and go over some things with friends or family, they're usually more calm.” 


Offering Substance 

Once a customer has calmed down, they still might be frustrated or disappointed with the service provided. Schindler says this is where transparency is crucial. Having documentation of how a repair went and being able to walk through a procedure with a customer can help them understand why your technician did certain things to their vehicles. 

If the customer has a complaint about one of your employees or believes they did something wrong, Schindler says it’s best to do as much first-hand information gathering as possible before making judgment calls. 

“Get everyone's story. I want to get the advisor's story, I want to get the technician's story,” she says. “I'm always going to back up my team, but if I feel like they did something wrong, then I'm going to address it with them in private first. I'm definitely not going to bad talk them to the customer even if they did.” 

Most of the time, Schindler and Hossler say this system works well. If a customer was wrong and their complaint wasn’t valid, your explanation should help smooth things over. If their complaint was valid, and your shop did make a mistake, you taking time to listen to them and make things right goes a long way. 

“People really appreciate it when you completely hear them out,” Schindler says. “I try my hardest to complement each customer's personality and tailor my explanations to them so I can get through to them and help them understand our point of view.” 

Once tempers have cooled and emotions are taken out of the equation, Schindler says she believes most people are reasonable. Most people don’t have anything against you or your staff, and most likely they’re just stressed about their car being out of commission or having a big, unexpected expense come up due to an unforeseen issue with their car.  

Understanding this, being an empathetic listener, and being transparent in your communication will be able to resolve most situations before they get out of hand.  

“Seeing how you can make it better, seeing what they think is fair is the best way to approach an upset customer,” Schindler says. “Transparency is crucial, and it's a standard that everyone knows that we do here.” 

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