Empower your staff to resolve their own issues

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Lately I’ve had a number of service and parts employees asking the same question: “How can I handle customer complaints and unreasonable demands better?” They mention issues like people wanting money back because their vehicle is still performing below their expectations. Or customer who want to return an item damaged from their trying to install it. When dealing with customer complaints and unreasonable demands, keep in mind that while the customer comes first, the dealership is foremost.

Making customers feel as if they come first starts by doing your best to eliminate the word “no” from your vocabulary and replacing it with “Let’s see what we can do to make this better. First, can you tell me more about this situation?” This removes tension and opens up the discussion. And it buys you some time to consider a solution that’s good for everyone.

Positioning the dealership foremost means making adjustments that stick and don’t create a customer culture of gripe a little, get a lot. But it also means that refusing to make an adjustment or refund because the dealership is right and the customer wrong isn’t always the best way to go. Before saying no, think about how that decision affects future business. Saying no may save you money today but hurt business tomorrow. Don’t fail to recognize, for example, when the angry customer has spent thousands at your store and is well connected in the riding community. It takes years to build a good reputation. It only takes a few selfish decisions to ruin it.

Customer first, dealership foremost works best when the store has policies and procedures for handling customer concerns, adjustments and returns. But it seems that only about half of dealers authorize their staff to make adjustments at the counter. The other half force employees to send dissatisfied customers to the GM or owner. The problem with that procedure is that it often results in the GM or owner giving away the store just to calm customers as quickly as possible and get them out of their office. Sorry if this upsets someone, but creating an easy path to upper management is not smart. It undermines the frontline employees’ authority, creates a culture of easy giveaways, ruins the store’s bottom line and doesn’t usually turn a dissatisfied customer into a happy one. In the end, an easy path to upper management usually results in a bunch of spoiled, loudmouthed cry-baby customers. Not ideal.

For GMs and owners reluctant to empower counter staff with dollar amount authority, I recommend imposing a limit to start. Something like $250 to $500 per month per person that can be used for goodwill adjustments. Most of the time employees will use the money wisely. Each month look for problems in both directions: those who routinely use it all and those who use next to nothing. Neither is ideal. You want to be known for your fairness, not for being a pushover or a store that doesn’t appreciate its customers.

My recommendation to staff: Let customers vent awhile before you start making suggestions. As long as they’re not yelling or threatening anyone, I say let them vent. They’ll be exhausted in a few minutes and then you’ll have all the information you need. You can ask, “If you were me, what would you suggest to fix this issue?” You may be able to deliver on the request. You may be able to meet halfway, in which case say, “That’s an interesting idea. What would you think about … ?” Then make your offer. When customers agree to your offer, make sure that:

1. They know you’re working hard to resolve this issue because you value their friendship and business

2. They understand the dealership doesn’t do this for everyone

3. In the situation where you goodwill something that was the customer’s fault, let them know that you can only do something like this one time for each good customer. You may want to ask, “Are you sure you want to use that ticket today?” This sets the boundary for adjustments and can reduce repeat performances where the same customer tries to get something for nothing in the future

4. And then, before parting company, ask the customer, “Are you satisfied with this solution? That’s important to us because we think you’re a great customer and we want to see you here more often. Can I expect you’ll continue to do business with us?” Getting a confirmation is essential to setting things right and making it less likely customers will bad-mouth the dealership. Realize that should customers indicate they’re still not happy it’s best to return to the venting step and say, “It seems that you’re not satisfied. Would you like to talk about it some more? Because we value you as a friend and a customer and I want you to be OK with this.”

Does this process work 100 percent of the time? Nope, and nothing does. But using these questions and phrases and letting customers vent before offering a solution can make it easier to acquire fair, long-term customers more often. Of course, not making the mistake and avoiding customer problems in the first place means fewer situations to deal with. That’s fuel for thought for another column.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews November 2010 issue.