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Customer Service: Good, Bad or Ugly, It

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Normally in this space, we talk about high performance and ways you can expand into the performance market in an effort to continue your company’s success. Well, I’m going to change gears just a little bit and talk about customer service.

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I originally intended to cover another subject, but recent experiences have led to me thinking about customer service, and the difference it can mean to success or failure.

Automotive-related issues continue to rank in the top ten of consumer complaints received by the Better Business Bureau and even if you don’t deal directly with the retail customers, the way you handle ANY customer complaints can go a long way in determining your success or failure.

Particularly these days, in the economy we are facing, you need every customer you can get. Treat a customer well and he or she will continue to use your services; treat them badly and they will find someone else to give their money to. And they’ll tell a lot of others about it, too!

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Think about it. We have all run into instances that we felt we were not treated properly. When it happened to you, what did you do? I bet you told yourself (and maybe your companions and other people you met) that you would never be back! Well guess what: you have customers that think that way too, maybe with good reason – maybe without. But I was always taught that the customer is always right.

Okay, okay; before you all start sending emails about that statement, yes, I know that the customer isn’t ALWAYS right – in fact, usually not. But when you are dealing with your customers, you need to make them “feel” that they are right, and that they are the most important customers you will ever have. In fact, we all like to feel that way don’t we? Isn’t that the reason one waitress gets a generous tip, while another gets a less than generous tip, or no tip at all? It’s easy to get this customer service thing right, just look at your reactions and feelings when YOU’RE the customer!

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I want to relate a little story about several recent, related incidents that I went through.

As a journalist, I tend to travel quite a bit, particularly during the spring and summer, following various motorsport organizations from event to event. Many times I tow a fifth-wheel trailer. Needless to say, I put a lot of miles on and cannot afford to be without my truck for any length of time. This story all started last spring and three distinct incidents with three different dealerships was the impetus for this month’s column.

We can identify these incidents as “the good, the bad and the ugly” and it proves that customer service is a fleeting thing, even among a group of automobile dealers representing the same brand.

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I won’t mention brands, I’ll leave that to your imagination; but suffice it to say that the last 3 trucks I have owned are of this brand, the last two being somewhat expensive diesel models.

The first incident occurred on a return trip from Colorado. Driving through the Davenport, IA area, I lost oil pressure and pulled over to check it out. I found oil running all over the place and, of course, it’s Sunday afternoon. Anyway, I had it towed to a dealership for service and finally got the repaired truck back – the following Saturday. That’s no typo. I had a full week spent in a motel waiting on repairs. They did at least give me a car to use.

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As it turned out, it wasn’t even a major repair, just a broken elbow on the high-pressure pump. The problem here was that they were very busy and somewhat shorthanded, hence the long wait. They found a few other problems too, so I had them make some additional repairs while they had it in. This incident is the one I consider “the bad” because I believe they could have made a much better effort to get me repaired and back on the road.

I understand that these things happen, and they didn’t want to upset any regular customers, but how would you have handled it? I was already upset because of the simple part failure on a so-called “super-duty” truck that was over the 100,000-mile engine warranty by about 6,000 miles. Just getting me on my way a few days sooner would have taken some of the sting out.

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While this particular dealer had the truck, they also advised me of some additional problems that needed attention, most of which I had them take care of. The one I didn’t have them fix led to incident number 2.

That first dealer told me that I should get the oil pan replaced soon, because it was rusted out and would soon start leaking. Now I don’t know about you, but I have never, ever replaced an oil pan due to rust out. Heck, my wife’s minivan, albeit a little newer and with not quite as many miles, still has an oil pan and transmission pan that look nearly like the day they came out of the factory. Another strike against my truck’s manufacturer.

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I should add here that my brother is a dealership mechanic. When I returned from the first incident, I knew I wouldn’t need my truck for a few weeks, but that in less than a month it was going to be on the road constantly.

I took it into my brother’s dealership and told the service writer what the other dealer had told me about the oil pan and asked him to replace it. They could have it for a couple weeks, I just wanted to get the job done right. I also had them replace some other parts like the water pump while they had it apart.

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The dealership had only one diesel tech (not my brother) so I knew it would take them awhile; besides it is a big job to replace the oil pan; removal of the cab is necessary.

Three weeks later I got the truck back. When I went to leave the dealership I found that the steering wheel was about 90 degrees off. That should have been my first clue. About a week or so later I discovered that it was again leaking oil. At the time I was getting ready to hit the road, so I called the dealership and talked to the service advisor that had taken care of me.  I told him about the leak, but that I would not be able to bring it back for a while. (My first mistake) He said that was fine; just bring it in when I could. I also told my brother about it and I know he also discussed it with the service manager.

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While nothing was ever said about a warranty on the repairs, nor was there anything on the repair order, when I finally got it back to them a month or so later, I was told that it was out of warranty and that I would have to pay to have the oil leak fixed. They did tell me that the problem was that the silicone seal had failed.

Now, despite this truck having more than 100,000 miles on it without an oil leak until I had the oil pan replaced. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what kind of mood I was in now, but to top it off, they wanted more to fix their screw-up this time around, than it cost me the first time, and this time I wasn’t buying an oil pan, water pump, or right side exhaust manifold. WHAT!

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Also at that time I found out that the technician that had worked on my truck had been fired because he had too many callbacks. It turned out that this was the second time this tech had been fired for that reason by this same dealership. My brother was unaware of all this until now.

I also found out that there was a service bulletin for the oil pan issue that had been issued a couple of years earlier. It included a repair to the oil pan rust issue that didn’t involve a new oil pan.

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If you haven’t guessed by now, this is the “ugly” dealership and will be the reason I never buy another truck from that manufacturer. Ironically, I had planned on buying a new one this spring from that dealership.

How would you have handled this customer service issue? This incident is a perfect example of what could be good or bad customer service. Was the repair out of warranty? Yes, according to them. But what would it cost them to make it right compared to the way it was handled?

If I remember right, the book rate was 13 hours for replacing the oil pan. So if they paid the technician $30 per flat rate hour, that works out to $390. Add in some materials, say another $110, and we have a cost to the dealership of $500. Yes, I know they have other overhead, but they have that overhead whether I have them repair the truck or not.

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Keep in mind that I had just spent more than three times that much for the original repairs. I was also a fairly regular customer at that dealership, spending more than that each year on repairs and maintenance. And, I probably would have been willing to pay part of the charge, but I sure as heck wasn’t about to pay more than I paid the first time around.

I know some of you will disagree, but I would have repaired this for the customer at no charge. After all, the dealer acknowledged that the sealant had failed. And in the long run, it will cost them much more than that. They will no longer have me as a customer, they won’t be selling me a new truck and worst of all, I’ll be telling everyone I know about it.

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The “good.” I saved the best for last and this incident happened in between the other two. I was in Buffalo, NY and had spent the night before at a friend’s house just west of Buffalo. I was heading just over the border into Canada, but before I could get to the border, the steering started feeling funny.

I had been hearing a weird noise, but thought it would hold till I got back home. It turned out that a wheel bearing (sealed hub) was going out. I had the truck towed to a dealership and found out they were extremely busy. They would try to get at it as soon as possible. In the meantime, they gave me a car to drive and I went and checked into a motel, figuring I was going to be there for a day or two.

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However, early in the afternoon, they gave me a call with an estimate and said it would be done sometime that afternoon. It turned out that this dealership ran two shifts in its service department. Even so, I had my truck repaired and back by about 5 pm. I wish I had known that – I wouldn’t have paid for a room!

They handled their customer (me) the way all businesses should handle customers. They let me know up front that they were extremely busy, but they would get my truck in sometime that afternoon. They gave me a vehicle so I could get away from the dealership, and they kept me posted several times that day. And, they charged me what they said they would.

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I wish I had had both bearing hubs replaced at that time. Though they did check the other one per my request and said it seemed to be fine, I also know that when one goes, the other isn’t far behind; about 6,000 miles later, the other one went out.

I would not hesitate to do business with this last dealership again; perhaps that is why they must run two shifts in the service department. If I were in the market for that brand of truck, I would even consider making the trip back to Buffalo to make my purchase.

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That’s what good customer service is all about: bringing the customer back again and again, and getting them to brag about you. Even if all you do is high performance, you still need to be in the same mindset, and you need to have your employees in that mindset too! And just because these incidents are vehicle repairs, they could be any service you perform.

Re-read each one of these three incidents and just think, “How would I handle this?” They are actual incidents and each one has the potential to teach you a lesson.

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Hopefully, you are already on top of your customer service, just like the “Good” dealership. You’re not a car dealership, and may have no involvement at all  in that world. Likewise, these situations are not engine builder specific. However, but the lessons we have discussed here transcend that.

It’s really quite simple, at least to me. Just use your good ol’ common sense, treat your customers the way that you expect to be treated and your future success will be assured.

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