Take Control or Customers Will

Service advisors, dealerships' back-end contact point people to customers bringing vehicles in for repairs and maintenance, need to take control not as know-it-alls, but as pros who know their stuff. Doing that creates greater profits and higher customer satisfaction scores. So says automotive consultant Jeff Cowan, president of Indianapolis-based ProTalk and a 16-year veteran of both dealership showrooms

Service advisors, dealerships' back-end contact point people to customers bringing vehicles in for repairs and maintenance, need to take control — not as know-it-alls, but as pros who know their stuff.

Doing that creates greater profits and higher customer satisfaction scores. So says automotive consultant Jeff Cowan, president of Indianapolis-based ProTalk and a 16-year veteran of both dealership showrooms and service departments.

“The whole process is about the service advisor taking control,” says Cowan. “Most service advisors don't. If they don't, the customer does, then base their customer satisfaction survey responses on their process, which can be risky because you don't know what that is.”

During the short but vital customer-advisor contact, Cowan recommends a complete walk-around, pointing out everything a vehicle might need serviced, whether it's one thing or 15.

“Don't be pushy. Don't sell what the customer doesn't need,” he says. “But you can't sell it if you don't point it out and ask them to buy it. If they say ‘no,’ at least they now know what's wrong.”

Pointing out service needs early on also avoids the potential scenario of a customer indeed experiencing car trouble later, then complaining to the dealership: “Why didn't you point that out when I was in earlier?”

Says Cowan: “I see that happen all the time.”

It's important to tell customers what is going to happen or what might happen before it happens. “Do that and they will be satisfied,” he says. “Eighty percent of CSI (customer satisfaction index) scores will focus on that, whether the car took longer to fix or cost more or whatever.”

One of the most important steps in the process, perhaps the most important is building rapport, he says. “If you can't master that, you'll be nothing more than average on your best day.”

Building rapport means being an active listener, focusing on what customers are saying and acting as if you have blinder on, “so it's just you and them.”

Look for cues or “badges,” both physical and verbal. Those can help advisors conversationally connect with customers during their interchange.

“Physical badges include a hat or T-shirt with a logo or message on them, bumper stickers, CDs in the car, a baby seat,” says Cowan. “A verbal badge would include a customer saying he wants an oil change because he and his wife are going on a trip with the new baby. He wants to talk about the trip and the baby.

“Be sincere and friendly. But don't engage in endless small talk. And never bring up three topics: sex, religion and politics.”

Qualifying questions to ask of a customer bringing a vehicle in for repairs include:

  • Who's the primary driver?
  • Who's the primary decision maker? (“Never ask that directly, but it's important to know who it is and to talk to that person.”)
  • What's the primary concern?
  • When was the problem first noticed? (“That's not asked a lot, but should be.”)
  • What type of weather does the problem show up in? What time of day? What type of driving conditions? (i.e. 25 mph? 70 mph? Highway driving? Rush hour?)
  • What do you think it is and why do you think that? (“A lot of service advisors don't like asking those two questions but, boy, do they get results. You don't need to ask directly. Try: ‘Any thoughts or ideas.’”)

First, Get Off Your Butt

Here's what consultant Jeff Cowan says is the professional way for service advisors to greet customers in dealership service lanes:

  • Walk over to them rather than sit on a stool and motion them over, which says “I'm lazy.”
  • Smile.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Be enthusiastic, confident and relaxed. “It doesn't matter if the last customer chewed you out or the technicians are there with too many repair orders.”
  • Offer your first name.
  • Follow the military rule. “Always address the customer as Mr. or Miss. New hires and everyone else needs to know that getting on a first-name basis with a customer doesn't apply to a 7-minute write-up.”
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