Pulling Customers In or Driving Them Away? It All Starts With How You Use the Phone

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Pulling Customers In or Driving Them Away? It All Starts With How You Use the Phone

There are so many great tools for marketing yourself to new customers: digital and print ads, social media, websites and more.  When used well, these channels can certainly get new customers to consider you for their tire and service needs.  And often, they will drive customers to your door.  However, in most cases, before customers flock to your store, they will still pick up that old communication device called the phone. 

What kind of experience are your employees creating for customers when they call? Do they make the customer feel welcome? Do they inspire the customer to visit your store?

If your people are not using the phone properly, all of the great marketing campaigns you have launched and all of the other communication tools you are using will be rendered meaningless. 

It starts with the very first moment the phone rings. Is it a priority for everyone at your dealership to ensure that phone is answered quickly? In today’s world, if a phone is not answered within the first few rings, customers will move on. 

Once an employee answers the phone, what does the customer hear? Have you ever called a business, only to hear someone speak so fast that you cannot understand what they are saying and you must ask them to repeat what they have just said?

Perhaps you called a business only to hear a very unfriendly, unenthusiastic voice on the other end? How did that make you feel? What was your immediate perception of that business? This is the same response that your customers will have if they experience the same things when calling your store. 

It is important that your entire staff knows that when they answer the phone — regardless of how rushed, aggravated, or apathetic they may feel at the moment — they must step into the utopian world of the telephone with a smile on their face. Putting a smile on your face puts a smile into your voice. Try it! You might be amazed at how different you sound when you are physically smiling.

Another common mistake is the use of the hold button. First, do not do what I like to refer to as “insta-hold.” You know you have experienced it: “Thank you for calling. Can you please hold?” Before you even have a chance to ask your question, you are already “on hold!” This is very aggravating. And for many customers, this gesture implies that they and their needs are not that important to you. 

This is made even worse if a customer is left on hold for a long time or is put on hold again after you finally pick the call back up. When answering the phone, let your customer at least express the reason for his or her call. 

Often, the hold button is used out of habit or for personal convenience, as opposed to true necessity. A customer should only be put on hold for one of two reasons:

1) So the employee answering the phone can move to a different phone for access to privacy or extra information, or;

 2) To transfer the caller to another employee who is better-equipped to assist.

I realize that many of you are thinking that if you have another customer in front of you at the sales counter, this is a good reason to use the hold mechanism. While this may be a reason, it is not optimal.

Let me explain. Most calls made to tire dealerships are completed within one to two minutes. That is not too much time to excuse yourself. In most cases, the customer in front of you will understand. After all, you have to run a business.

Do not just wait for the customer to ask for an appointment. Make sure you proactively offer one.

Additionally, if you have a culture where everyone is empowered to answer the phone, odds are that someone else will pick it up. And finally, if the customer on the phone is inquiring about a complex estimate, it is absolutely acceptable to collect the information you need, explain that it will take you a bit of time to pull the estimate together, and offer to call the customer right back. This will give you time to finish with the customer in front of you. The key is as soon as you have completed the in-person transaction, you follow through immediately with what you promised the phone customer, calling back with the estimate in a timely manner. You will find that most callers much prefer that option to sitting on hold for what seems like ages.

But perhaps the biggest opportunity your business has when it comes to phone etiquette revolves around selling. I am not talking about selling tires or service. There is only one thing that you are trying to sell over the phone: a visit to your location! 

The goal is to give the customer a compelling reason to walk in the door and you should make sure that everyone who works for you is aligned to this objective. You can be very friendly, informative, and responsive over the phone, but if you do not proactively invite the customer to visit, you can miss out on an opportunity.  “Just bring your car on down” is not good enough.  You must be very deliberate when you invite them in.

Let me give you an example. A customer wants to get a price on tires for his car. Maybe he wants to know what’s the cheapest option or what will be his “best value?” The reason doesn’t matter. When you provide the requested information, do you stop there?  If so, the customer may ask when they can come in or they can simply thank you and move on. Do not leave that visit to chance.  Make sure to mention other reasons that the customer should do business with you – things like quick mounting and balancing, value-added services, specials, rebates and more.

Then sell the visit by sincerely saying something like, “We actually have several different tires that could work for your car. When would be a good time for you to stop by so I can show you your options? Is this afternoon or tomorrow morning better for you?” 

Notice I did not ask, “Would you like to come in and look around?” That is a simple yes-or-no choice. Give the customer a yes-and-yes choice. While this may not seem like a big difference, it certainly increases the odds of the customer coming in, as well as demonstrating your desire and willingness to help him.

Leveraging appointments is also a great tool. Do not just wait for the customer to ask for an appointment. Make sure you proactively offer one. In today’s busy world, people want to know that they can get serviced and not leave it to chance. 

Again, how you ask for the appointment can make a difference.  Do not just ask, “Would you like an appointment?’ Think yes/yes and say, “I have morning and afternoon appointments available. Which works best for you?” The customer will pick one or the other. Then you can nail down a time.

You’ve heard the old saying that you have one chance to make a first impression. That initial phone call might be your one chance.  If you want to experience this for yourself, call your nearest competitor — or better yet, call several of them. Ask about tires for your personal car or some other vehicle. Just be consistent and ask about the same thing at every location you call. Take some notes. What was the phone experience like? When you are all done, put yourself in the shoes of the customer. Which of those dealerships would you do business with and why? I think you will find that the things that we discussed here weighed into that decision. 

Then ask yourself the more difficult question: How does your business compare on the phone? Could you have lost a customer to that competitor? Think about how your business comes across to a potential customer on the phone. 

If you do not have the ability to listen to the calls that come into your store, have someone call your store with the same inquiry that you called the competition with. Again, imagine that you are a customer looking for somewhere to do business. How did your location measure up to the competition? You might realize that you have a huge opportunity for improvement.

The good news is that phone etiquette is a skill that can be improved with strong follow-up.  Make sure your team is leveraging all the keys to create a positive phone experience and invite the customer to come to you. 

This is an easy skill to hone through role play as well. Have two employees stand back-to-back so they cannot see each other. Choose one to portray a customer and then role-play a phone call. Listen in and provide feedback after the exercise ends. Do this regularly and you will build a culture of maximizing the phone as a customer-increasing tool.  I know you will see positive results if you do!   ■

Tire industry veteran Jeff Morgan is the executive director of Dealer Strategic Planning, the DSP Group. He can be reached at or (310-533-2576) See the website

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