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Five ways service writers fail

Small business owners know that no matter how good their product is, how clean their carpets are, how much money they spent to build their building, that the people in charge of selling their product can blow it all for everyone.

Automotive repair is an odd business, although it is a retail business, it is also a service business, and very few rules of the retail trade will apply. More decisions are made by customers based on things that are hard to measure - such as loyalty, trust, comfort, convenience, and style. The culture of an individual automotive repair shop, and how well it meshes with the culture of the majority of their customers, will win or lose more business for you than the fancy labels on the boxes or the logos on the signs outside.

Customers may feel that for the most part, after they check in at the front counter of an automotive repair shop and surrender their keys, their vehicle will disappear into a big black hole and maybe emerge better than before, or maybe not. Most of what goes on inside that big black hole is not the least bit interesting to them, but they feel very strongly about the results they expect at the other end of the transaction. The point of contact between their vehicle disappearing and re-emerging is the service writer at the front counter, and that is the person expected to make sure the process happens to the expectations of the customer.

We are so dependant on interpersonal relationships at every point in this process. Every step involves communication. Just thinking about it makes me (an owner) twitch and sweat and lose sleep. Every thing that happens depends on your service writer paying attention, taking everything seriously, following up, and completing the needed steps so you can make money.

Sorry, did I let it slip we were in business to make money? Right. That dirty word. Well, just because we are in it to make money, does not mean that bad things need to happen. If bad things kept happening, we would not make money, so for the most part businesses are interested in doing good things, and being rewarded with money.

However, here are five ways the service writer can fail you - you, being either the customer or the owner, and what you can do to watch out for these problems.

#5 - does not take money seriously

THE SYMPTOM - This is a real story that happened at my shop just a few months ago and I am still scarred from the experience. I had a service writer, a friendly guy in his early 40s. He was pleasant and energetic and people seemed to like him.

For a while I would run a test to find out what kind of music our customers mostly liked the best. I tried putting the radio station in the lobby on a classical station, a pop station, a rock station, and a talk radio station. I got the most positive response from a station that plays entirely "classic rock" ... Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd. It's not for everyone, but it's for most everyone in our target audience. Anyone between the ages of 32 and 55 can probably sing "Free bird" or at least know what it means when someone screams "Free bird!", so that's what we settled on.

The nice man at the front counter was in the process of ringing out a customer, a very young lady who was somewhere between the ages of 19 and 22. She was in for an oil change, and during the ringing-out process, we actually go through a series of steps where we explain quite a bit - how many quarts of oil we used, when the next service is due, any special notes about the vehicle like leaks or funny noises, what condition the tires and belts were in, and ask if the customer has any questions before taking their money.

This service writer was so absorbed in listening to the music, he started bopping his head and singing along and kind of sang out the words to the customer, skipping most of the process we normally follow, just asking her for the money, then as she was handing the money to him, a part of the song he really liked came on and he sang pretty loud. The song was a ZZ Topp song, the line was ... I am not joking ... "I know you like it ... YOUUUUUU like it on top!!! Tell me maaaaa maaaa ... is this gonna stooooop!!!" Are you cringing yet?

The poor girl was freaked out and grabbed her change, and ran out of the store, before I could detach myself from the phone conversation I was stuck on at the time and intervene. Can you just imagine how uncomfortable that was? She will never be back, I'm sure of that.

THE PROBLEM - The service writer did not last long at the store, because this was just a SYMPTOM of what his true problem was. The reason he ended up getting fired was because, after a series of mistakes, his real problem was that he did not take money seriously.

He gave the wrong change frequently. He read the wrong total off the screen. He'd cash out the wrong customer. He counted the money in the drawer incorrectly. He would enter the wrong price on the invoice. He would quote the wrong dollar amount on the phone to the customer, then end up in arguements when the customer would come to pick up the car. He would forget what number he entered and sell an item at cost with no profit. On and on and on and on.

He was an utter financial disaster, and I should have seen it coming by how casually he handled that woman's money. Money, at least my money, was not important to him. Whether the store made money or not did not matter, whether the customer lost money or paid the wrong amount or was given the wrong change did not matter, because it was not his money, so he didn't care. You have to notice these things about your counter people. They should focus, count the money exactly right every time. There is no reason, no excuse, to ever give the wrong change or count wrong.

#4 - does not take the customer seriously

THE SYMPTOM - I had another service writer, a very pleasant and personable lady who insisted on calling everyone by their first name, no matter what the situation. This bothered me and I tried to break her of that habit, although there were many things about her work that I liked, so I tried not to jump up her nose about this one little thing. It's just ... it is not a little thing.

No matter where you are, it is simply not appropriate to address a stranger by their first name unless they consent. When we check people in, we do ask for their first and last name, their address, and their phone number. Not so we can become best friends with them, but for identification and clarification purposes in our records, and frankly, so we can better market to them and send them propaganda. After doing this for 15 years, I have a few customers that actually will not give me their first name or their address, they will just give a last name and first initial. Hey, none of my darn business anyway, so I don't care. Not important for fixing their car. Of course, they pay cash only ... I'm not taking a credit card without checking ID and verifying the full name, but if they want to pay cash, they can tell me their name is Howdy Doody or Marilyn Monroe or even Marilyn Manson or Hey You and I won't care.

So anyway, there are also customers that after many years, even though I know their full name and address and will have their ticket filled out with their vehicle information before they even finish walking up to the counter, I still call them "Mr. Wyatt" or "Mrs. Adams." I have many, many customers that are friendly and polite to me, but I have yet to say their first name out loud. Additionally, we are in the rural South, where everyone is either "Ma'am" or "Sir" whether or not they are older or younger than you, but just because their social position demands it since they are the customer and we are serving them. So, after a few weeks of hearing the new lady who worked for me startle total strangers by belting out their first name like they were long-lost twins, I told her for the final time to stop it.

THE PROBLEM - Wasn't anything to do with names. It was that in general, she did not take the customer seriously, and basically did not respect the fact that they were spending money to be with us. It was all about her, and her feeling important, and feeling like all these people were coming in the door to see her, and getting the ego boost when she would learn something personal about someone and tell someone else about it. All the customers were all players in her world, and her ego started to show after a few weeks. She didn't last either.

Bottom line, you need to be sure that when someone new starts, it is fine for them to be confident and outgoing. But since that person is new, and the customers walking in the door are more important and of a higher status than she is, check to be sure the new counter help is respectful and treats people with deference and dignity, at least until they go "Oh, stop that, call me Joan!"

#3 - does not take time seriously

THE SYMPTOM - Our shop is busiest around lunchtime, as a lot of people try to run their errands on their lunch hour, and yet somehow think that they are the only person in the world to have that idea. So, the place bottlenecks between 11:30 am and 1:00 pm daily. We are prepared for that, we try to mitigate the damage. We start taking turns taking lunch at about 11:00, stop taking turns when it fills up, and resume after the rush is over.

Our shop has a large window in the lobby so that a customer can see everything that is happening to his car. Every bay is visible from the lobby window, so customers can see if a tech is in their car, under their car, staring at their car, working on their car, or talking on their cell phone and eating a sandwich while leaning on the hood of their car. The customers can also see, and really get irritated when they see another customer who bypasses the front counter entirely and just walks or drives up to the techs working in the service bays and tries to interrupt them.

Techs that have worked with me a while know this is one of my major freak-out triggers, breaking in line. Get in line. Wait your turn. It's not all about you. Your time does not mean more than anyone else's time. GET IN LINE.

Just a few weeks ago, I was the lone person behind the counter fielding phone calls and ringing people out because every employee I had was working on one or more cars and the place was full. Customers were waiting, several were in the lobby staring impatiently at their vehicles. I was checking in a part that was delivered when I heard a collective groan and general grumbling in the area of the window. I stopped and looked at what was going on.

Outside, in the bay, a customer (well, since he was freeloading and not paying, he was not a customer, I will just call him a rude jerk) had walked into the shop and was getting two employees to help him mount a lawnmower tire on a rim. He had pulled two employees, each of which were working on paying jobs, and more than one each, and each who was working on at least one car that had an owner waiting, and watching! Oh, and did I mention, we are NOT a lawnmower shop? We don't work on lawnmowers or lawnmower tires.

I hurried out the door and addressed the two employees and told them to "Drop that right there and get back to work, NOW, please!" One of the employees had been with us a while and knew what was about to happen, so he went back to the car he was supposed to have been working on and I made a mental note to discuss with him later ways he can keep this from happening again. The second employee was somewhat new, and thought that perhaps I did not have all the information, and maybe he just needed to explain to me what happened and then I would understand and tell him to go about with what he was doing. I interrupted him with "I said, DROP THAT RIGHT THERE and get back to work!" and a little confused, he did.

Then I turned to the person who had interrupted the work, who was starting to sputter at me, "but it was only going to take a minute! I just needed some air in the tire!" and I told him "You need to wait your turn. If you need this done, please check in with me in the front counter, and I will sign you in for the next available technician. Right now we are full for the next hour and half, but you are welcome to make yourself comfortable in the waiting room."

At this point he became angry, which I expected, because rude people who think people should drop everything just because they say so don't understand concepts like "turn", "line", "wait", etc. He said "I'm not waiting an hour and a half for something that will take two minutes! Can't one of them do this right now?"

I said "NO, that's not how it works, look at that window with all those people waiting! They all waited their turn, and their work is being done right now, and you just thought you could break in front of them? Tell you what, either you take that tire out of here, or you follow me in there and we will ask every single person who is waiting if it is okay if you break in front of them. If they all say yes, then we'll have someone stop what they are doing to fix your tire. If you don't want to do that, leave right now and stop taking us away from our WORK!!" I turned around and went back inside, not looking behind me until I was inside. When I turned around, he was nowhere to be found.

THE PROBLEM - The tech who made the mistake of breaking away from paying work to do some nonsense that had nothing to do with his job is still with us. I am hoping he is teachable, but I will let you know. The bigger problem is not understanding the value of people's time, and not taking time seriously.

When you demonstrate to the customer that you do not respect their time, and you don't care that they don't want to spend extra time in the waiting room while you semi-ignore their car, it is a larger problem that has to be addressed. After things calmed down, I spoke with the two technicians involved and gave them the benefit of the doubt. I thought maybe they just didn't have the coping skills to deal with rude people. So I told them if they felt they were unable to do what it took to get rid of someone who was being rude to them, that they just needed to tell that person "I'm sorry, but I can not talk to you right now. Please check in at the front counter. I have to get back to work." or something similar and let me deal with it.

#2 - does not respect the customer’s property

THE SYMPTOM - This is another one that will make you cringe. Brace yourself.

A nice lady came in and checked in at the front counter, she had just bought a new car and was very excited about it. She was bringing the car in for its very first oil change, and had come to our place for years, so she wanted us to look it over. She said it was a car she had wanted since she was a teenager, but after she was married and they had children, they could not afford a new car. Now her kids were grown and she was rewarding herself with that new car she always wanted. She even named the car "Baby" because it was her new baby.

The car was a Volkswagen Beetle. Not my style, but she was excited about it, so I said I was happy for her. There was a technician at the computer next to me, he was looking up a part, and he was not really paying attention to the conversation. He heard someone say "Beetle" and he noisily snorted, rolled his eyes and said "Oh not another one! I hate those cars!" then went back to looking up the part and walked back out to the shop before I could disembowel him with the ball point pen I was holding.

He was totally unaware of what he had just done. If you could have seen the look on this poor woman's face you'd have wrestled me for the ball point pen so you could disembowel him first. She was shocked, hurt, and suddenly doubting her choice, because the automotive shop she had trusted for over a decade had just called her an idiot with a stupid car. What's next, hang Santa Claus in effigy while her grandchildren are visiting at Christmas? So me, being the liar I am, as soon as he was on the other side of the door I quickly laughed and said "Don't mind him. His ex-wife has one of those, and she loves it, and it never breaks down and he's just bitter." She found that funny and we snickered about his frustration and what a cute car she has. I don't really care that I was gossiping about one of the employees, I couldn't think of another way to handle this fast enough, and besides, what a disrespectful thing for him to do!

THE PROBLEM - It may shock you to know he didn't have an ex-wife because he's never had a wife. Really, that smooth-talking devil with the obvious charm with the ladies is single? He demonstrates a lack of respect for someone else's property so easily, casually, and thoroughly, you just know that translates into other parts of his life.

This is the kind of person you have to watch. This is the type that doesn't care when they leave greasy handprints on someone's steering wheel, loses the chrome valve stem caps, and breaks hub caps because he yanks them off and slams them back on. With this tech, his work is near-perfect because he has a personal pride with how he does the job, but he has no respect for what he considers personal items. Your choice in this situation is deal with him and learn to look at everything behind him and run through a little checklist of common problems (grease, broken things, etc.) or replace them with someone who demonstrates a greater respect for someone else's property.

#1 - does not take the customer’s request seriously

THE SYMPTOM - Have you ever heard the saying that customers always want every product "Free, perfect, and now" and that you will never have more than two of the three? In auto repair, that translates into "Cheap, safe and fast."

Think about it with each word taken out, one at a time. You can have your brakes done fast and cheap and they won't be safe. You can have your engine rebuilt safe and fast but it won't be cheap. You can pick through junk yards, the internet, and discount auto parts shops and find every little nut and bolt and bearing and seal needed to rebuild your rear differential cheap and safe but it won't be fast. When I check people in, and I have the conversation with them about what is going on with their vehicle and what is most important to them, we are pretty much just discussing the order of importance of the three main tenets of auto repair.

A customer may say "I don't care what it costs, but I'm leaving to go to the beach this afternoon and my brakes have to be done before 3:00." Or, "I don't care what manner of crap you use to glue it together because I'm getting rid of this car as soon as it rolls out of here, but just stop that oil pan from leaking as cheaply as possible." Or, "This is the car I'm giving to my son to go away to college. It doesn't need anything fancy, but it has to run perfect and be as safe as possible, so just call me when you are done." Here is the crucial point. This is where a service writer will either get it, or they won't.

THE PROBLEM - If they do not understand this, they will fail. If you do not understand that they do not understand, they will drag your business down with you until you realize this is the problem. If you can understand this, and find people who actually listen to the customer, you will avoid a lot of problems.

Figure out what your true mission is with this job with this customer - does time, money or safety matter the most? And adjust accordingly. I can name examples where three different customers came in for a brake job on a Toyota Camry within two days of each other and each of the three paid a different price. Why? Because they each had different goals and priorities, and I listened to them, and each was happy and got what they wanted and paid what they expected.

If you can find counter help that, at the very least, understand time, money and safety, you'll conquer about 70% of your problems. Think back over customer complaints and misunderstandings. Weren't most of them "But it wasn't done when you said it was ..." "But it cost more than I wanted to pay ... " or "I expected better than this ..."

As an owner, recognizing these things early and dealing with them swiftly and mercilessly is key to establishing the kind of culture you want your store to have. Do you all want to be rodeo clowns, or do you want to be a business that is taken seriously?

As a customer, recognizing these flaws in the personnel who are entrusted with your vehicle is key to getting what you want. If you see a problem that leads you to believe you aren't being taken seriously, bring it to the attention of the owner, if at all possible. If that's not possible, it's just going to be a little more of a burden on you to be sure your wishes are followed and your vehicle is returned to you the way you expect. If you suspect the service writer is not paying attention, ask for the details of your conversation in writing before the work begins, and ask to go over the bill before you pay for the vehicle once the work is completed. Oh, and count your change.

—Beth

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