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Automotive Service Management Newsletter
Vol 4, No 1, February 2012

Generating a Quality Repair Order and
Setting Customer Expectations

The most important job you have as a Service Advisor is to generate a Quality Repair Order representing these objectives:
  • Respecting the customer's time by using an appointment system to expedite an accurate, yet speedy, write-up process.
  • Properly document the customer's vehicle symptoms and service needs to the technician.
  • Set customer expectations about the time needed for tech to complete vehicle diagnosis.
  • Discuss how the customer will be contacted for status updates.
  • Describe what will be happening to the vehicle while it is being serviced.
  • Review the conditions of the warranty, vehicle service contract and any financial liabilities for diagnosis and repair.

Setting the Appointment

Generating a quality repair order can start when a customer calls the service department to discuss bringing the vehicle in for service. The goal of the service advisor is to set an appointment for the customer to meet with the service advisor at the customer's convenience so the service advisor can spend quality time gathering symptom information and to arrange for the vehicle to be dropped off for the day so it can be properly cycled through the shop for a quality repair.

While setting the appointment, the service advisor needs to first understand the symptoms and/or service needs of the customer's vehicle so that he may present two choices for date and time to offer to the customer for vehicle write-up and drop-off. It should be described to the customer that this is an appointment with the service advisor for write-up only and they will need to leave the vehicle for the day. This will also let the advisor discover if the customer needs to be a Waiter, which is important because the advisor does not want a lot of Waiters on any given day.

Understanding the symptom information will also allow the advisor to plan the drop-off time of the customer's visit in case the symptoms require the advisor to plan for a test drive possibly involving the technician. For instance, if a test drive involving a technician is needed to verify the symptom, the advisor would not want the customer coming in at 7:30 am, as soon as the service department opens when it is very crowded. You want the customer to come maybe an hour and a half after you open when it's not quite so crowded and you can spend the time you need with the customer for the test drive.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a repair order is going to take 5 to 15 minutes to complete. It could even be a little longer if a test drive is required. The customer needs to know approximately how long the drop-off time will take with the advisor.

The service advisor will also need the customer's name, their vehicle type to see if they're in the dealership's service history file, otherwise the advisor may want to start a new customer file. A couple of good open-ended questions should be asked to get a basic understanding of the vehicle symptoms to set approximately how much shop time the technician may need for the diagnosis.

The goal of appointments is customer convenience that allows the customer to choose the best date and time for the service visit. The service advisor will need to sell the importance of the appointment as a customer convenience offered by the dealership service department and encourage the customer to not how up early. Once there has been an agreement upon the time and date, the service advisor should document the appointment in the computer's appointment log. The final step is to call the customer the day before the appointment to remind her of her appointment and to let her know what to do when she arrives, which will minimize appointment no-shows.

Proper Questions and Documentation

Once the customer arrives, keep in mind that it is frustrating for her to go to a service advisor to have her vehicle serviced. She would rather talk directly to the technician working on her vehicle. So the advisor's main tool box is his communication skills and his ability to get the customer to open up to him and trust him during the repair process.

The first impression of the service advisor by the customer is the greeting. It will set the mood for the whole service experience. However, the customer's first impression of the service experience is when she drives up, see how crowded it is, try to figure out where to park and what to do next. This can be a little intimidating unless she has been there before. So a strong greeting is critical to distract the customer from any worries she may have about leaving her vehicle.

It has been proven by research that customers will determine what to expect in their sales and service experience in the first three minutes after arrival. The customer is trying to find someone she can trust in a short period of time. So the service advisor must greet the customer and start write-up as quickly as possible, within less than three to four minutes to help gain the customer's trust quickly.

A good greeting starts first with eye contact and a smile. This relaxes the customer because she feels she is being approached by someone who cares and is interested in her needs. The customer will usually smile back as the advisor verbally greets her in this manner.

Make the greeting fun and sincere because customers can tell insincerity instantly, plus it makes the service advisor focus on the person in front of them. Get and use her name frequently during the write-up. It is even more impressive if she is a customer who is in your service history files and you can greet her by name. Another element of a good greeting with some customers is visiting for a moment about common interests like kids, sports or hobbies. If the advisor is not able to greet someone immediately, it is a good idea between customer write-up to quickly greet the new arrival and let that person know approximately how long it will be until she will be written up or how many customers are in front of her and invite her to grab a cup of coffee while she waits.

This leads into establishing why the customer has brought her vehicle in today. If she set an appointment for write-up, then you can reference the initial information gotten over the phone. This will show the customer the time over the phone was a good investment for her service visit.

The main tool used in understanding the service visit needs is using good open-ended questions. The idea of open-ended questions is to get the customer talking about what she know the most about - her car, while the advisor listens. Good listening skills include eye contact while the customer is talking and not interrupting the customer while she is describing vehicle symptoms or service needs.

Good open-ended questions start with the words - who, what, where, when, why and how - they do not contain any suggestive symptoms, no multiple-choice symptoms or any diagnosis information from the advisor. Sometimes when the advisor uses suggestive symptoms it can intimidate the customer and make her not want to talk or just agree because she feels the advisor is the expert and she does not want to look foolish.

For instance, let's say a customer states that, "I think my vehicle is overheating." Several good open-ended questions would be:
  • What does the temperature gauge read? This is helpful to establish what they mean by overheating.
  • Where are you driving the vehicle when it happens?
  • How long do you have to drive before it happens?
Now the advisor is getting the customer mentally back in the car driving it and noticing key details that will be helpful to the technician for diagnosis and repair.

During the process of questioning, it is not a good idea to try to write while the customer is talking. The advisor will usually ask the customer to repeat their last statement. It is recommended that the advisor listen to all the concerns picking out key points that should go on the repair order. Then review those key points with the customer for confirmation as they are being put on the repair order. This could include using close-ended questions which require a yes or no response as a verification tool.

As an example: "As I understand it, your vehicle seems to overheat when you have driven over thirty minutes in heavy traffic at speeds less than 30 mph with the air conditioning running. Is that correct?"

Now you have some detailed information that you can record on the repair order and pass along to the technician. In the process you have verified with the customer their symptoms which lets her see that the advisor was listening and her concerns will be properly presented to the tech. And don't worry about putting down too much information for the technician, the more detailed the symptom information, the faster and more accurate the diagnosis and repair.

When you are gathering symptom information from the customer, keep theses guidelines in mind:
  • What happens
  • When it happens
  • Where it happens
  • How often it happens
  • Circumstances before and after the symptom started
  • Under what circumstances it happens
  • How it sounds/feels/looks/smells
  • What customer said in her own words
Symptom descriptions are not:
  • A description by the Service Advisor of repairs needed to correct the vehicle problem
  • The Service Advisor's rephrasing of what the customer said in "better" terms
  • Special phrases or acronyms - inop, NPF, etc., as these can confuse and intimidate the customer
  • Necessary for routine maintenance
Don't forget, the advisor may have a customer that is having a hard time describing the symptom because it is a noise or a feeling in the vehicle when driving. It is times like this when a test drive, possibly involving a tech is critical.

Setting Customer Expectations for the Service Visit

Once the main reason for the customer's service needs have been established, the next activity is a vehicle walk around. The walk around can be accomplished in 1-2 minutes, yet can reveal a major amount of information about the condition of the vehicle and any unknown service needs. This can be done with or without the customer, but it can be more fun and informative when the customer is involved.

Start the walk around by inspecting the interior for damage, personal belongings that need to be taken, look at the oil change sticker for miles and where the last oil change was completed and then record the vehicle mileage.

Outside the vehicle, record the VIN, check the windshield for damage, the wipers blades for dryness, then walk down the left side, around the back and up to the front of the vehicle inspecting the body and windows for damage and noticing any tire wear concerns. As an option, the advisor can pop the hood to visually inspect the brake fluid level and condition, the coolant level and condition, washer fluid level which you may want to top off as a courtesy, inspect the belts and hoses for cracks, and look at the battery terminals for any corrosion buildup.

If the customer goes on the walk around with you, there are several things that the advisor can do. Visit with her about the car, how she uses it, or why she chose that type of vehicle. This can lead to possible services and accessories related to vehicle use or to enhance the ownership of the vehicle. Show her how to check the vehicle's fluids, this helps build a good relationship with the customer. If the wipers are dry, have her touch them to see they need to be replaced. With the tires, again have her touch or see wear patterns which may lead to extra service sales later.

Many manufacturers and dealerships have a custom inspection sheet that the advisor can use. Review the findings with the customer, especially vehicle damage, then note it on the repair order or attach the inspection sheet to the repair order. Let the customer know that any vehicle concerns, such as low brake fluid, will be inspected by the technician and a report will be given during the status call about what is needed, if anything.

Finally, we need to address the customer's expectations as to her financial liabilities and what is going to happen after she leaves the vehicle. This is important because in a few minutes her vehicle is going to disappear into the hidden depths of a black hole called the service repair area. The more information you can give her about what to expect and what is going to happens will make her feel more comfortable with the service process, but most importantly with the service advisor.

The first area to review is what is covered if the vehicle is under warranty or service contract, maybe even using the owner's manual. One of the oddest things I have experienced in this industry is that a person will buy a vehicle costing tens of thousands of dollars, yet not read one page about what is covered in their warranty or service contract, or the maintenance needs of the vehicle. Then that person will get upset and blame the dealership for not telling them. In reality, she won't remember items covered during a new vehicle walk around because she was distracted by the new vehicle and can't wait to drive it off the lot. So this is a key issue that can minimize a lot of frustration for the service advisor and the customer down the line.

Another key issue is reviewing the maintenance requirements of the vehicle. Most manufacturers now specify in the owner's manual what required maintenance services need be done and the required mileage and/or time intervals for the maintenance services to keep the vehicle warranty and service contract in tact. This becomes even more important with vehicles that have power train warranties that can go up to ten years.

Financial liabilities must be established. Even if the vehicle is under a warranty or service contract that does not mean it is a covered item. The customer must be aware of any diagnosis fees that could be incurred if it is not a covered component. Also when discussing diagnostic fees, especially on major repairs that require opening the engine, inspecting a transmission or other similar types of major repairs make sure the customer understands that there can be hidden damage that is not known until the parts are completely removed. One of the worst things that can happen to a service advisor is calling the customer back to resell the job. A lot of trust is lost when an incomplete diagnosis is done. Better, let the customer know that you need her permission to proceed with opening an engine area to verify all needed parts before a final price can be established for a repair.

If a diagnostic fee is needed for diagnosis, clarify with the customer that she will only pay the fee if the repair is not completed.

One last area concerning diagnostic fees, some states require that if you take something apart and the customer does not want the repair completed, it still must be returned to its original condition. In quoting diagnostic fees for large engine or transmission jobs, always quote the total labor for tear down and repair. Then if the customer does not want the job completed, a price can be quoted for the labor completed at this time.

Two other areas than can be confusing are towing allowances and loaner or rental cars. All manufacturers and service contract providers have towing allowances that require the vehicle to be towed to the nearest service facility. Loaner and rental cars are usually not given until a vehicle is kept overnight. Many new service contract providers are creating options for a first day rental car in their plans. So carefully check the conditions of the service contract before making any promises.

Finally, the customer will want to know when her vehicle will be ready. A smart service advisor will explain to the customer that until a diagnosis is completed, the completion time for the repair will not be known. However, if the customer's vehicle is in for some type of maintenance or recall, those completion times can be established easier. Regardless, let the customer know that quickly following the diagnosis she will be called with all the final information.

The next thing a service advisor needs to clarify is when and how the customer will be contacted for the status update. A critical rule of thumb is to always have the service advisor initiate the status update call. Many advisors foolishly tell the customer, "If you have not heard from me by 1:00 pm, just call." Unfortunately, they have just given the customer the choice to call whenever she wants. This is very disruptive to the advisor's work cycle. When a customer calls, wanting a status report, the advisor must stop what he is doing to get the needed information. Besides, the advisor has enough phone calls coming in already without having to be interrupted by handling an unplanned status update for a customer.

Make sure that a reasonable call back time is established with the customer, including the best phone number to reach her. Now, if you set the call back time at 1:00 pm and call early, say 10:30 am, you are exceeding their expectations. The main thing is to make sure you call no later than the agreed upon time.

For contacting the customer, explore other options. Many people now keep a cell phone with them which is a quick and easy way to keep in touch. More and more folks like using their email address because they leave their email program open while they are at work. When a new email arrives, there is usually a beep or some other type of alert. A message telling the customer to contact the service drive can be left plus now there is a new email address for the service department database.

An important technique to assure that the advisor does not forget the agreed callback time is to use a Customer Tracking Sheet. The Customer Tracking Sheet is a simple tool that the advisor uses and leaves out on his desk. The sheet should include the customer's name, main phone number, time promised for callback, time call completed, delivery time established and a notes section that can be used for such things as recording an email address. As soon as the repair order is finished with the customer and before turning it over to dispatch, the advisor quickly records the pertinent information on the sheet.

There are several uses of this sheet. First it is for the service advisor to easily keep track of the vehicles they have in the shop. Many computer systems come with a tracking system, but it requires accessing the computer to get the needed information. Instead, this sheet has all the customers organized with their phone numbers and callback times in one easy to see area.

It has been recommended that the Customer Tracking Sheet is checked at 10-2-4, also called the Dr Pepper technique. However, there are just too many things that can get lost in the shuffle during those 2 hour breaks. Since it is left out on the advisor's desk for easy view, scan it a few times an hour. It is amazing how much more control the advisor has over tracking the jobs as they move in and out of the shop.

The last reason for keeping it on the advisor's desk is so that anyone can see the status of any advisor's job. This is helpful if a customer calls wanting vehicle information. The person who takes the call can check to see which advisor is working with that customer and easily leave them a message or give them some quick information.

The final step in a good service write-up is to let the customer review everything on the repair, ask any final questions, then have them sign it.

A quality repair order will show the customer that the service advisor is interested in servicing their vehicle's needs, it allows the technician to have symptom information needed for a good diagnosis and repair, helps the dispatcher choose the best tech for the repair and ensures that the quality checking of the vehicle will be more accurate.

The bottom line is customer satisfaction through the ability of the service department to fix the vehicle right on that service visit.

Copyright, 2007, J. Daniel Emmanuel


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