Now that the world has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for a couple months, things are slowly starting to reopen, leading people to talk about the new normal and what life will be like post-corona.
Bogi Lateiner, of All Girls Garage, dove into the topic of “Post Corona Customer Care and Communication” during a recent installment of a collaborative series of technical and management classes focused on necessary topics for navigating business operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The series is hosted by the Carquest Technical Institute and Worldpac Training Institute (CTI+WTI.)
Charlie Sanville, most commonly known as the Humble Mechanic from YouTube, introduced Lateiner, who began by posing several questions: “How much has changed, will these changes be permanent and, if not, how long will they last?
“We’ve all been forced to find ways to carry on with many aspects of our lives, including auto repair,” Lateiner said. “Here’s my suggestion: What if corona isn’t really a game changer at all? What if it’s a game elevator? Maybe, the pandemic is giving us a clearer view of what has to change within our world and within our industry and challenging us to change our perception of things.
“Very little has changed on a deep and fundamental level,” Lateiner insisted. “But this affords us a unique opportunity to examine what we, as an industry, are doing to care for our teams and our customers. Do we have the things in place that it’ll take to move into the future?
“The automotive and collision industries have been in the process of revamping how we serve customers and compete for some time. We don’t know the outcome of COVID-19 since it’s still happening, but this is the time to ask ourselves the hard questions and hopefully come up with new innovations.”
Although the outbreak has devastated countless businesses, that is the case with any other major disruption as well, so shop owners should focus on what it means to run a successful shop in a turbulent world, regardless of the current disruption.
“How you handle it will determine whether you succeed or not; disruptions are weathered by businesses that are willing to question, adapt and grow,” Lateiner said. “We’ve seen shops go out of business, but other shops are thriving because they are embracing change. If you’re not in a state of growth, you’re in a state of decay. This is a natural process, but right now, it’s moving as an unprecedented rate.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is a huge disrupter, but Lateiner believes the bigger issue is not being customer-centric.
“Not focusing on your customers will be more detrimental than the pandemic itself. We’re in the business of customer service, and we need to re-evaluate what being ‘of service’ looks like,” she said. “The most dangerous phrase you can utter is ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ because the same thinking leads to the same results. If we dig in our heels, we’re not going to survive—being self-righteous isn’t going to serve us, but being customer-focused will.”
Lateiner pointed out that customers’ increased concern for cleanliness, desire for digital appointments and tendency to drive fewer miles are all things that have been trending in that direction.
“Coronavirus isn’t changing anything—it’s just exacerbating and accelerating things,” she stressed. “How we do things might change, but the why shouldn’t change. If you’re just in business to make money, that’s not going to cut it, but that was never enough.
“We’re in this business because we want to be people’s heroes,” Lateiner continued. “We keep them safe and treat them respectfully. That’s how we compete with dealerships; we care so much about our customers, and that shouldn’t have changed even though COVID has raised the stakes and the stress level.”
Because most people are under increased stress, Lateiner emphasized the importance of ensuring service skills are well-honed. She reminded attendees customers have never been excited to come to the shop.
“People are scared of being taken advantage of. They come to you with baggage from past experiences and stereotypes about the industry, but with less financial security in the current crisis, people are even more stressed, so you need to approach them with empathy and realize they are experiencing a whole range of emotions that you can’t predict,” she said. “We never knew what was going on for our customers, but now, everything is exaggerated.”
Lateiner said the only opinion that matters is that of the customers. People are divided on believing the pandemic is real or a hoax, but a shop owner’s job is to recognize this divide and adapt their business practices to accommodate those customers who are terrified for their lives.
“Your opinion doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s not about you, it’s about your customer. Your customer’s perception is your reality.”
Despite the changes caused by the pandemic, the essentials of communication haven’t changed. It’s important to carefully choose words and monitor tone to build trust.
“During high stress, listening skills are non-existent,” Lateiner explained. “A stressed customer isn’t thinking clearly, which increases the chance for missed communication, which is the cause of 99% of customer problems.
“All customers have one thing in common: their humanity. They need help solving a problem, but they come to you with thoughts and feelings of their own. People want respect and appreciation, to be valued and heard, so it’s more important than ever that you are present, listening actively and suspending judgment.”
Communication begins being 100% present to completely hear what the customer is saying and pick up on any non-verbal cues. Next, practice active listening, encouraging customers to fully express their needs. Finally, suspect judgement.
“Judging a person doesn’t define who they are; it defines who you are. People don’t feel heard when they feel judged,” Lateiner said. “You don’t know what’s motivating their decisions, but you need to respect them.”
Shops should get creative in their communication, employing ways to make customers feel comfortable. Adopt new policies as needed, then communicate how the shop is taking care of its customers. Communicate alternatives to avoid person-to-person contact, but with fewer customer interactions, it’s important to make each one count.
Social media is a great way to demonstrate all of these items.
Dealerships have the advantage because they’ve had processes in place to meet customers’ current needs for a long time, but independent shops can compete by playing on their own strengths, which is building relationships.
“If you don’t get creative in how we do that, the advantages of going to a small shop gets eroded. We’ve got to step up our game to keep from becoming a commodity,” Lateiner urged.
Addressing how to deal with challenging customers, Lateiner reminded everyone of customers’ stress levels in the current situation and pointed out that an upset customer wants to feel heard, be acknowledged and know the perceived wrong will not happen again.
“Remember it’s not about you. It’s not a personal attack, even though it often feels that way—unless you’re being intentionally obnoxious and awful, this just isn’t about you. You have to be kind and empathetic, even when they’re not being kind to you.
“You cannot argue with feelings,” Lateiner added. “The accuracy of the complaint is 100% irrelevant because you can’t control their perception. The reality is they’re upset, and we’re not dealing with the complaint, we’re dealing with their feelings. You can’t tell them what they’re allowed to feel, and feelings of lost power, fear, sadness and more often comes out as anger because anger is more socially acceptable. You can’t meet anger with anger, though. You have to meet them where they’re at and work together to resolve the problem.”
Lateiner also advised it’s best to let an angry customer get their feelings off their chest since they are physically unable to listen to you until they’ve released their anger.
“When they’re done, you can start the rest of the process, but if you start talking before they’re done, you aren’t going to get anywhere. You just have to shut up.”
Mistakes made should be owned, using the five-part apology. Thank the customer for bringing the issue to your attention, use empathy, acknowledge them, offer a genuine apology and then work with them to come up with a solution.
Lateiner also recommended practicing self-care.
“It’s a priority and a necessity, not a luxury. If you have a really rough customer, take a walk or watch a video to make your heart happy and fill you back up. Otherwise, you’ll take that bad experience to your next customer and wind up with a whole days’ worth of unhappy customers.
“Don’t get stuck, get excited about this and make it an opportunity,” Lateiner encouraged attendees. “Get excited about growth and challenge. Use it as inspiration to innovate and ensure that, in the thinning of the herd, your shop is one that not only survives but thrives because many shops are truly thriving right now, despite the challenges and obstacles.
“We don’t know what the world looks like after COVID-19, but we know that what comes next, the future of our industry, is up to us. Let’s choose collectively to make this be the thing that launches our industry into positive growth. Let’s leverage this to show the world how great this opportunity is, and let’s see it as an opportunity to better ourselves and our industry, and to take better care of our customers in the future.”
A complete webinar schedule for this series is available here or here.