Computers Can't Smile

I'm writing this on my first day back from the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention in San Francisco. It was great to see those who attended my workshop, Performance Pay Plans for Fixed Operations. I was humbled by the attendance at the sessions. All three were standing room only. Thanks for the support. I walked the convention floor looking for new ideas I could share with clients. I didn't

I'm writing this on my first day back from the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention in San Francisco. It was great to see those who attended my workshop, “Performance Pay Plans for Fixed Operations.”

I was humbled by the attendance at the sessions. All three were standing room only. Thanks for the support.

I walked the convention floor looking for new ideas I could share with clients. I didn't find many. Yes, I liked the fender covers that would not pull off and attached to the fender with magnets.

I loved the tire storage bin that rotated upward and maximized storage space. I thought the lift that saved 12 inches on both sides was a good idea.

But I never really found anything that “wowed” me. I asked several clients what they found new and unique. They didn't see anything either, other than technology.

The main theme I took from this convention is that technology is hot. I stopped at several booths and was impressed with advancement in this area.

But it also made me realize how important the human factor is. Technology will never replace a smile. Computers can't shake hands and are not the greatest tools for saying, “I'm sorry.”

It is still up to people to complete transactions in a customer-friendly fashion that can earn consideration for future opportunities to serve.

My concern with technological advancements is this: Are we forgetting the basics? Are we diminishing the importance of the personal touch?

It starts with pressing the flesh. Your service advisors' personalities are critical. They are the face of your dealership.

They must come across as caring and memorable people. Your customer must be comfortable in transacting business with them. If customers don't understand what is happening to their cars, they still require someone to talk them though their concerns — not point them to the Internet for solutions or watch a dummy screen set up to show them a video on the way a chemical will fix all their service issues.

I have been in stores where the service advisor is hypnotized by the computer. Before they can talk with the customer, they must run to the computer and make sure the vehicle and administrative information is correct.

When the advisor should be listening to customers, looking them in the eye and showing an interest, he is looking at a computer screen. In this case, I'm anti computer!

Technology should support the interaction, not replace it. With technology, we can easily guide the advisors through the process and make them check off each step as they complete them.

It has allowed dealerships to hire people with good personalities who enjoy helping customers, even if the advisor had no previous service experience. It's a godsend for this. If we can train them to use computers as a tool to building customer relationships and showing an interest in the customer, I'm all over it.

Some of the best advisors I have worked with do extra things for the customer. I refer to these extra things as “wow factors.”

I worked with one advisor who every day set aside a few minutes to write hand written “thank you” notes to select customers from the previous week. There is no technology to replace this special touch. Greeting a customer by name is something a computer can assist us with, not replace.

Or how about the unsolicited phone call to the customer from the advisor to say he was just thinking about you and was wondering how you are doing? An e-mail has no personality; the meaning is left up to the recipient's interpretation. But a voice on the phone needs no interpretation, and you can hear the smile.

The basics never change. It is still comes down to enthusiastic people with a passion to help other people. It's about building relationships with your clients. All the technology in the world will never replace people taking care of other people.

Lee Harkins, president of ATcon in Birmingham, AL, is a dealership management consultant and industry speaker. He is at 800-692-2719 and [email protected]

Questions or comments about this column? Send us an e-mail at [email protected].

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