Customers and comebacks: Taking care of repeat business takes a clear head and a grasp of psychology

March 1, 2007

We all know this is an important part of the business. But unless you recognize that existing customers are your largest source for new customers, you'll have problems building your business.

"There is no better way to find new customers than working with satisfied customers and getting referrals," says Ed Perry of Dolson Auto & Tire. "They are so important we go over the top to make sure they are satisfied.

"We have a service company that data mines our d-base and mails out service reminders every month. There is no way we would get this job done by ourselves. The service is worth every penny it costs."

All auto repair shops will find themselves dealing with difficult customers at some point. In most cases, they have legitimate or imaginary problems that offer you the opportunity to create a lifetime customer -- or lose one that will tell his or her friends about the bad service received.

Sometimes the problems are caused by poor communication by an employee; other times they are caused by unfulfilled expectations on the customer's part. And, yes, some are caused by customer ignorance. In every case, they must be resolved.

Mike Lofstedt Sr. of Lake Region Discount Tire and Repair told us about one customer who went away and is now back a satisfied and loyal customer.


"This customer wanted us to do a cooling system repair job for $300, the cost of installing a new water pump quoted by another garage. I explained we could do it for the same price, but he would have reliability problems if he didn’t fix the whole system. I told him if he did it any other way he would have problems. He went there and had the job done.

"Three weeks later he was back, complaining about that other shop's poor work. He needed new hoses, serpentine belt, radiator flush and thermostat. I refused to do the work even though he begged.

"I told him to go back and have the other shop do the work. He already knew it would cost $200 more than what we quoted him for the whole thing. I also told him not to come back until after the end of the year. Next year we would be pleased to do his service, but until then he was in the penalty box. (This was October.) Today he is a loyal customer.

"Sometimes letting them get abused by another shop is the best policy, far better than cutting your price or doing a halfway job," he says.

"I always ask customers who want a price break if they ask their doctor for a discount," says Perry. "I understand money can be a difficult issue, but I will not let the shop lose money versus a shop that doesn't have the same caliber of trained professional technicians.

"If a customer has an older car and is tight on money, I'll try to find a lower-cost way to get the job done, but I'll never accept a job that I know is a temporary band-aid that will lead to other problems."

That doesn't mean he doesn't try to work with his customers. "We're in the process of changing an engine for a customer," he says. "The car is about eight years old, rust-free and in decent shape. He just had the transmission replaced, so he was committed to keeping it. He is in construction and winter is a slow time.

"To make it affordable, I bought a low-cost rebuilt long block assembly that comes with a warranty. We are doing the swap and the price is about $1,000 less than he was quoted elsewhere. Yet we are making our profit margin on the job. In February, a slow time for the shop, jobs like this keep expensive people busy."


No-fault assurance

Customer come-backs are a part of the business. If it is because of poor work by one of your techs, it is a matter of re-doing the work right and making sure the customer leaves happy. Typically, successful dealers will perform free services, like oil changes, for example, to pay customers for their lost time.

"It is always important to let the customer get their emotions out of their system before you start discussing the problem," says Perry. "If they had to have their vehicle towed in, we pay for it if we are to blame. I talk to the tech that did the work and listen to his side of the issue also.

"I never let the customer leave with the problem not fixed. That includes when it is not our fault or a different, non-related problem. If it was not our fault, we show them why and give them a solution that is fair to both of us. Our counter people are very professional and know the right way to deal with come-backs, real or imagined."

Lofstedt Jr. agrees. "Before any vehicle leaves here, we make sure the job was done right and the vehicle is operating correctly. Every good shop will do the same. So when a customer comes back complaining, we generally know it is something else. But we listen to their explanation of the problem and ask them to relax with a cup of coffee or a soft drink in the waiting room. This gives them time to unwind and us time to diagnose the real problem.

"Our senior technician, Tom Talamini, looks at the problem and gives us a report on the cause and what it will take to fix it. Ninety-five percent of the time it is something else or a customer-caused issue.

"It is just like a doctor treating pains that are imagined. Real or imagined, they both hurt. Keep this in mind when the customer is in pain. When the problem is a legitimate come-back, we fix it right away on a priority basis and also (offer) free oil and lube service.

"When it isn't our fault, we get all documentation and technical information in hand before we approach the customer," he says. "A clear explanation goes a long way to selling the new repair job. Once a customer is given the truth, they usually do the right thing and allow us to fix it for them."


Yes, equipment required

If you really want to keep your customers happy, invest in the proper equipment to help minimize their comebacks.

There are a great number of choices in automotive service equipment and they vary in price, as the numbers below indicate. (The cost ranges were given to us by the New York tire dealers we interviewed. They stated their purchases were on the high side of the scale in almost every case.)

Electronic engine and code scanners: $2,500 to $4,500

5 gas/5 channel exhaust analyzer: $6,000 to $10,000

Tire mounting equipment, Latest/Greatest*: $7,000 to $14,000

Tire balancing equipment, "Latest/Greatest*: $7,000 to $11,000

Nitrogen generator system: $5,000 to $7,900

Transmission flush system: $2,000 to $3,500

Cooling system flush system: $2,000 to $3,500

Air conditioning recovery and service system: $3,500 to $5,000

Alignment, Latest/Greatest*: $30,000 to $40,000

Alignment lift: $10,000 to $20,000

TOTAL, low/high: $75,000 to $119,400

* "Latest/Greatest" indicates the equipment is designed to make the job faster and less operator-dependent. These systems almost make the jobs "idiot-proof."


Best Practices: Tips -- When the customer is wrong

"I never let the customer leave with the problem not fixed," says Ed Perry of Dolson Auto & Tire. "If it was not our fault, we show them why and give them a solution that is fair to both of us."

These five steps will help you limit giving into an unreasonable customer.

1. Listen to the complaint.

2. Get them to relax.

3. Check the problem.

4. Document your findings.

5. Explain the problem clearly.

"A clear explanation goes a long way to selling the new repair job," says Mike Lofstedt Jr. of Lake Region Discount Tire and Repair. "Once a customer is given the truth, they usually do the right thing and allow us to fix it for them."