Her brakes had stopped working and she was still driving, unable to slow down or stop. I asked if she had called the police and she said no — she had called us first. I talked her through downshifting and using hills and turns to slow down.
I’ll never forget that red and white pickup truck pulling into our shop. It was 7 p.m. on a Friday — long after the shop had closed. She was in tattered clothes carrying a crying infant and completely broken.
We got the car diagnosed and told the woman she needed a new brake master cylinder and reservoir, and she broke down again, unable to pay. She wanted to get back in the car and drive off. I asked her to wait a moment and went into the office to call Terry.
I offered to buy the parts and told Terry that the tech was willing to donate his time. We knew she needed our help, but Terry would have to okay using the bay to fix the car.
Terry said no.
He said that when somebody trusts us so completely, it’s a relationship the entire shop needed to protect. He purchased the parts for her and paid the tech time-and-a-half that night for sticking around to fix her car.
She cried again when I told her what Terry was doing for her. Being able to help this woman, who was at the absolute end of her rope, is still one of my favorite memories.
I admire Terry, and this story is a good example of why. He treats every customer as family and it was never something that he had to be taught or needed to practice. For him, it’s a natural instinct. When a customer speaks to Terry they know how much he genuinely cares.
It isn’t always easy for shop owners to build such personal connections with their customers. When shop owners also have to manage technicians, train service advisors, watch the bottom line and protect their business, taking the time to foster deep relationships with every customer often slips off the priority list.
In my experience, building those relationships is the most critical part of running a shop. Creating lasting relationships allows you to get more done!
It’s a principle I call “Getting Results from Relationships,” and the first step in building strong, lasting relationships is by cultivating a team of loyal, caring, committed people.
Customer relationships are a lot like the other relationships in your life — friends, family, even romantic relationships. The same principles that apply when you are forming a new personal relationship apply with the customers in your shop. Acknowledging this similarity is the first step to getting results from customer relationships.
What kind of impression does your shop make when a new customer visits? It’s not just what you say and do at the front counter. Your uniforms, your waiting room, your parking lot, your sign, the way you answer the phone — all of the messages you send are a part of your marketing, and they tell your customer what to expect from a relationship with you.
When you go on a first date, you put a little extra care and effort into your appearance because you want to make a good impression. Every day that you welcome a new customer, your shop is going on a first date. Put your best foot forward.
Courting your customers
Not all customers are great customers. Not everyone who drives by is somebody you want in your shop. It’s important to ask yourself, “Is this a good relationship? Am I attracting the right kind of customers with my marketing?”
If the customer will be a good long-term match and you want to pursue a relationship with that customer, you must earn that relationship. The minute you take a relationship for granted, it is over, which is why follow up is so important. It gives you the opportunity to check in and make sure the customer is doing okay. If the customer is unhappy, follow up is your opportunity to make it right.
Without follow up, a customer may simply disappear, and you’ll never know they were unhappy.
Whether it’s a first date or a life-long friend, you must continually nurture the relationships in your life. If you treat your customers with the same respect, dignity and goodwill that you treat the people you care about outside of the shop, superior service advising will happen naturally.
Treat customers like family
In our shop, we have taught every person on the team one principle that has virtually eliminated mistakes. In fact, when mistakes are made, they are typically so small it barely registers.
We teach our employees to take a moment before taking any action to ask themselves a question: “Is that what I would want somebody to do for my mother or grandmother?”
When a technician is tempted to pencil whip an inspection form, this question forces them to stop and remember their values. If a service advisor is busy and starts to rush through the advising process, they must take a breath and give every customer the same advice they would want somebody to give the people they care about most.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when you create these relationships, service writers can’t act like sales people. Doing hard closes won’t build trust. Tricking them into coming to your shop through false hope won’t build trust. Taking away their options so they feel pushed into an expensive repair won’t build trust either.
So how does a shop get results from relationships? Stop selling. It is very hard to trust a salesman. When the sale is front and center, the relationship is pushed to the back.
When you bring the relationship forward, you empower the customer and educate them to make the right decision. You become their teacher, protector and defender. When you help them understand the services you are recommending — not only the “what” but also the “why” — you remove the regret and remorse and build value instead.
I have seen too many relationships fall apart because one person forgot to check in with the other. They think they understand what their partner wants, but they never bother to check in and ask if they are right. Do not make that mistake with your customers.
Ask your customers if they have any questions about their vehicle. They may be holding onto a question, thinking it’s silly.
Ask them if they need a ride while you’re working on their vehicle. They may not know you can drive them to work. They may be embarrassed to ask.
Ask them if they’d like to come back in the shop to look under the hood of their car as you explain the results of the inspection. Just because they didn’t ask doesn’t mean it won’t build trust to see the car in the air or touch the problem.
In other words, never assume you understand a customer’s thinking. They may not know the questions to ask. They may have a personal situation you don’t know about. Only when you step to the other side of the counter, both literally and figuratively, can you begin to understand your customer and build that relationship.
It doesn’t end here. Getting results from relationships is an ongoing process your entire team must commit to and work towards every day. Building a relationship starts before a customer even comes into the shop and lasts long beyond the repair.
About three years after that red and white pickup drove off, a woman walked into Keller Bros. She was confident and dressed in an expensive suit. She asked if I recognized her, and I said she seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place her exactly.
The second she told me her name, the memories of that night flooded over me. Her broken truck, her ragged appearance, her tears of joy.
She told me how that night had changed her. Knowing there were good people in the world had led her to change direction in her life. She had gone back to school, gotten licensed and was now the manager for an insurance agency. She said they had a fleet of 30 cars, and there was nobody else she would trust to take care of them.
This story is one of my most cherished memories and a continual reminder that when we stop selling and start treating our customers like family, we create genuine relationships with every customer that leads to valuable, lasting results.
Click HERE to read David Rogers’ article for Motor Age in which he discusses the unique dynamics of relationship marketing.