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How to Win Over a Tough Customer

If you close your eyes and picture a tough customer, what image do you see? Is it a price shopper on the phone? An argumentative customer at the front counter?

If you close your eyes and picture a tough customer, what image do you see? Is it a price shopper on the phone? An argumentative customer at the front counter? A Yelp reviewer who went directly to the internet instead of giving you a chance to address his or her concerns? 

David Rogers

Each of these kinds of tough customers can put a kink in our day if we let them. I know ­because I’ve lived it. When I came to work for Terry Keller, I didn’t start as his chief operating officer for Keller Bros.; I started as a service writer. So, I’ve been on those front lines. 

When I say that we can win over each of those tough customers in the same way, I say so from experience. 

But as we’ll see, there’s more to this topic than just winning over tough customers, because the same things we do to help the ­individual tough customers are the things we can do to make real, lasting, sustainable changes in our shops that truly set us apart. 

But I’m getting ahead of ­myself. First, let’s look at these tough customers and how (and how not) to win them over. 

‘How Much Will A Water Pump Run Me?‘ 

I saw a service writer training video recently on how to win over price shoppers. The ­advice? Lie to them. Trick them. Convince them that their repair might not be as bad as they think. Above all, get them into your shop. (Strangely enough, the video didn’t go on to cover what to do if that customer’s ­ repairs were more than they originally thought.) 

It’s patently bad advice, but there’s a nugget in there that I want to dig out: it’s easy to get burned out. When you’re on the front counter, dealing with tough customer after tough customer, it’s natural to want to get them off the phone and into the shop no matter what. 

But whether we’re talking about price ­shoppers or any other kind of tough customer, we’re just talking about people — people who need our help. They don’t know what we know. They don’t have access to the equipment and information we have. 

More than that, they’re looking for somebody who they can entrust with the safety, welfare and ­ financial well-being of their family. Sure, the question may have been about the cost to do a water pump job, but the thought behind it was: “I’m trying to take care of my family’s finances.” 

Which is why our job in this ­moment isn’t to close the sale. It’s not to give them a price, or to persuade them to your side. It’s not to tell them they are wrong for asking about price. It’s not the time to worry about getting the car into your bay. And it’s absolutely not the time to sell them. 

Now is the time to stand up for them. 

At Keller Bros., I teach our service writers to think of their own grandmother. If she were in this situation, how would you want somebody to treat her? 

The people we consider “tough ­customers” really just feel betrayed. I’m using the price shopper as the stand-in so far, but it’s true of any of the tough customers that I brought up. 

A price shopper feels betrayed by the person who sold the car to them or by the last repair shop that worked on the vehicle, and they’re just trying to protect themselves. An argumentative ­customer feels betrayed by the information they had before the repair. The Yelp reviewer feels that their trust has been so betrayed that they don’t have a better option to deal with it. 

And viewed through that lens — this is somebody who needs our help, our respect, our care and ­ attention and expertise because they’ve been betrayed before. It’s clear that the solution isn’t to lie to them or to get frustrated that they’re angry or to be annoyed that they’re looking for a price. 

The solution is to take responsibility for them. 

Consider this approach: put everything else to the side so you can focus 100 percent on that customer. Get everything that is between you and the customer out of the way — including the counter or even the phone. Don’t worry about the car or the money or anything else except: “There’s a person here in front of me who I am responsible for.” 

Everything that comes next should flow from that place. 

If the tough customer is a price shopper, offer genuine advice. What should they know about the job they’re asking about? What might they not typically think to consider when they’re choosing this job? 

If they’re upset with the job you ­performed, learn why. This person can teach you better than anyone where you have a breakdown in your systems and processes. Be their advocate and let them teach you how to be better. 

These same lessons apply even to the Yelp reviewer. Remove the obstacles, and move the conversation off-line and into your shop. And then listen to them and treat them the same way you’d want a service writer to listen to and care for your grandmother. 

Taking responsibility for the ­people who trust you doesn’t start and end with the tough customers, of course. 

In part, I mean that this extends to all customers. It’s why we worry about hiring ASE-certified techs. It’s why we create procedures for proper inspections and hold the team accountable. It’s why we set clear policies on ­adjusting parts pricing so that one ­unlucky out-of-towner doesn’t get raked over the coals in the name of hitting our parts gross profit target. 

But it’s bigger even than being ­responsible for our customers. 

Being responsible to the people who trust us is why, at Keller Bros., we set targets for our team and measure them daily. Our employees trust us to run a profitable business and to protect them against bad employees who might otherwise try to sabotage our mission. 

That responsibility doesn’t start or end during business hours, either, ­because it’s not just people who trust us to protect them — it’s our entire community. The classes we teach in the community and the charities we support may not directly win over “tough customers,” but they’re part of a bigger mission that does: when we make it our constant focus to protect the people who trust us, when our dedication to ­customer service spills into every area of our business, all of our customers will feel it — even the tough ones. 

That’s your winning difference. 


David Rogers is chief operating officer of Keller Bros. Inc., president of Auto Profit Masters, Shop4D®, and the award-winning Automated Marketing Group. David has a heart for service, a mind for perfecting systems, and an expert at consumer marketing. Reach David via email at contact@shop4d.com, toll-free at 1-866-826-7911, or online at https://autoprofitmasters.com.

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