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Automotive Service Management Newsletter
Vol 1, No 12, December 2007

Managing the Points of Customer Contact

I have worked in or supported the retail environment for almost 30 years. One of the things I noticed very early is how fragile the relationship is between the customer and the people with whom they have direct contact. I use the term, "Points of Customer Contact" to describe this relationship.

When a customer comes to any store to do business, the customer will interact with a number of people in that store. In the case of the automotive service department, it could include a parts/service advisor, parts/service manager, porter, shuttle driver and cashier, not to mention people in other departments if the service department is part of a bigger operation.

Each time a customer interacts with any of these folks the customer unconsciously judges the interaction. At the end of the service experience the customer is left with an overall feeling for doing business with that company. There are three possible feelings that can be generated at each "Point of Contact" that result in the overall feeling as shown in this diagram:
Managing Customer Points of Contact

They can really like how they are being treated (+), not like the treatment (-) or won't notice the treatment because customers don't notice a regular service experience since there are no distractions, good or bad. Remember, these are unconscious decisions resulting in the final feeling of that was better than I expected, everything went fine or "I hope I never have to return to this place again."

This gets complicated when we consider the number of different contacts with different people that will create the final overall feeling of their service visit. When a customer comes to your operation, the customer goes through a linear chain of events that can start as early as on the phone, which is dangerous since it can also end there if the customer does not like the treatment on the phone, and continues when the customer shows up through the final interaction at vehicle delivery.

It is during this linear chain of events that things can really fall apart if each person on the staff does not understand their role in the show because the interaction does not have to be direct. It could also be something the customer observes between staff members or something happens to another customer. The worst part is that customers remember the bad events easier than the good.

When I worked for JD Power, one of the video segments we used during some of our workshops was about Disneyland from the "In Search of Excellence" video. There were several examples I liked to use. The first one was the idea of being "onstage" and "offstage."

Walt Disney created the Disneyland Park as a total interactive event. Each person that worked in the park was cast a role in the park's show. It did not matter if you played Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, a street sweeper or you sold hot dogs, each person was specifically trained to be that role when they were "onstage." Each person would enter and exit the park/stage through doors hidden in the park's buildings. Once "onstage" that person would totally be in character and could not leave that character until they exited through a secret door to go "offstage."

Once "offstage" they could act however they wanted. Imagine ol' Mickey Mouse exiting the park, pulling off his Mickey head, turning to another actor saying, "Did you see that lady give me her baby. The diaper was wet and nasty. I can't believe she did that. Now I have to go change my damn coat!" But while he was out there, he had to act like he loved her little baby with the wet diaper because that is what the customer expected. Everyone gets a tough audience sometimes.

The same thing happens when our customers come to see us. Every person they interact with will leave an impression in them that will create their final overall impression about the company. Most companies train their key, front-line folks who the customer will interact with most during a service visit, the service or parts advisors and their managers. Yet we forget that the minor players, like the hot dog vendors and street sweepers at Disneyland, need an equal amount of training in customer service. Every person the customer sees or interacts with during their service experience creates an equal impression on the customer, even if it is in another department.

So who are the street sweepers and hot dog vendors in service? The porters, shuttle driver and cashier to name a few, not to forget folks in other departments. The type of things they will deal with are usually a lot of stupid, redundant questions, like where is another department, how do I get to the bathroom, when does the shuttle leave, etc. These folks have to have the same great attitude and good eye contact each time they answer the same questions for the thousandth time because it is a different customer asking the question each time.

So I ask you, are these folks involved in your team meetings to discuss customer issues and their role in handling the customer? When I ask this to a group of service managers, their usual reply is rarely, if ever.

Let me give you an example of how critical this can be. Let's say I am a service advisor with a customer who needed to have her car ready for pickup at 3 pm because she is one of the coaches for her daughter's soccer team. She needs to be at the game no later than 3:30 pm. So I go to a lot of trouble to make sure we have her vehicle ready for delivery before 3 pm so she can take the shuttle back to the dealership for a quick service vehicle delivery and be on her way. At 2:50 pm, I get a call from her, she is fuming, and the shuttle driver just picked her up. Now she won't be able to pick up her car until around 3:20 and will be late for the game.

She arrives at the game 25 minutes late. What do you think she tells everyone when she arrives? "The stupid (maybe more intense terms) service department was late picking me up. "

Another person says in response, "I know, that just happened to me at the same service department, all they want is your money!"

Later I ask the shuttle driver what happened. He apologizes and says he didn't know he was going to be that late, he only stopped to get some food for him and another employee then got stuck in traffic. If the shuttle driver truly understood his role in the show, do you think this would have happened? The food could have easily waited until after his shuttle run.

Yet I could also accept some blame as maybe I did not stress the importance of picking this lady up on time. I just set it up as a regular run because most of our shuttle runs are on time.

Regardless, the vehicle was repaired correctly and ready on time, yet the only thing the customer will remember is how it ended for her. Hopefully, she has been to this service department for a number of successful visits, customer can be forgiving on the first mistake. But if this was her first visit, this service department probably lost a customer, not to mention everyone else she tells.

Another important aspect of these "Points of Contact" is to make sure your staff understands that their attitude and body language when with the customer, or in front of the customer, has to be upbeat and positive. Many times these are "blind spots," ie, things the employee is presenting in their attitude and body language that makes the customer feel like the employee doesn't care.

To help minimize this problem, I encourage service and parts advisors to use a lot of eye contact, supported by a smile, when interacting with the customers. Of course, if the customer is upset, the advisor would use good eye contact with a concerned look on their face to give empathy. v This is especially important during the greeting and when using the computer. I think one of the rudest things an advisor does is stare at the computer screen inputting information while the customer is talking. Why, because the advisor is writing down old information while the customer is giving them new information. The advisor will usually ask the customer to repeat what they just said. After a few times, this can start to irritate the customer. Basic rule, talk to the customer then input the info into the computer, the transaction will actually go faster. One last "Point of Contact" to notice is if the customer is not happy with the service experience. Many customers will not directly complain but will present what I call "angry tells" that they are upset by presenting their dissatisfaction by negative body language and an angry tone of voice. It is easy for the advisor to notice these actions by the customers and choose to handle them, or not.

There are many reason advisors don't try to handle an upset customer - don't like confrontation, don't know how, don't feel it will matter or just don't want to mess with it, to name a few. Yet, the only reason a customer gets upset is because they see or feel that things are not going as expected and are afraid they are getting ripped off. So they get upset, or angry, as a way to get the advisor's attention, or the attention of any staff member who is around at the time.

This is where empowerment is critical. I don't believe in empowering everyone to handle problems because some folks are not good at it or just don't want the responsibility. Yet I do believe everyone is empowered to assist the customer first noticing the upset and directing them to the appropriate person who can make decisions about the situation and handle it quickly.

One of the hardest things I have to remind people of is to not multi-task when working with a customer. In reality, an employee can only effectively take care of one customer at time by giving them the proper attention and focus. When the employee tries to multi-task, customers feel a lack of caring and the advisors can make mistakes in setting up the proper servicing of their vehicle.

In closing, I do not believe it is anyone's job to satisfy the customer because satisfaction is a perception and judgment based on treatment during the service and parts experience. However, I do believe that it is everyone's job to provide the finest service and parts experience possible so hopefully the customer will like what is happening and reward the company by returning again to spend more money.

Next Month: The Difference Between Training and Education

Copyright, 2007, J. Daniel Emmanuel

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