Customer Experience, Customer Experience Spotlight

Customer Experience Spotlight: Car Repair

Periodically I profile a different industry from the perspective of the customer. I’ll detail my experience and talk about how that industry could improve the customer experience. Retaining customers is a key business function, enabling organizations to grow and reach their goals. It also affects the bottom line: it costs four to 20 times as much to get a new customer as it does to retain an existing one. View all Customer Experience Spotlight posts. 

I recently had a bout of car trouble, and in the process of getting my car fixed, I experienced a great deal of angst and anguish. I found myself wondering, “Why does it have to be this way?” The closest analogy I could think of was health care. “Why am I almost as upset trying to get my car fixed car as I would be trying to get a health condition diagnosed?”

I believe the answer has two parts. The first part is how reliant we are on cars in our society – at least the part of the world where I live. I rely on my car to eat, to work and to care for my children. (If you want to know why we’re so car-dependent, watch the episode “Adam Ruins Cars” from the popular TV show “Adam Ruins Everything.”)

The second part has to do with empathy, or the lack thereof, in the car care industry. If we are utterly dependent on our cars, if we need them for our very survival, then the people who help us when our cars don’t work are like first-responders. They see us at our lowest – when we’re afraid we won’t be able to pick up our kids, when we’re wondering if we can afford the cost of repairs, when we’re missing work and afraid of getting in trouble.

Yet, anyone who has been to an auto mechanic a few times can attest to the fact that empathy isn’t in heavy supply at the service desk. But I’m not here to speak in broad terms, I’m here to talk about my personal experience and how it could be improved.

About a month ago, my car wouldn’t start. My boyfriend gave me a jump start, and we figured the battery had died due to my phone charger being plugged in all night. The car started fine after that, so I put it out of my mind.

A week or so later, it wouldn’t start again. The boyfriend jump started me again, and this time we thought it was a bad battery. I went to a national auto chain that was open on Sunday, and got a new battery, to the tune of about $150. I thought my issue was resolved, but then it wouldn’t start again the next day. I got a jump start and drove back to the place that replaced the battery, describing the issue I was having. They looked it over and couldn’t find anything wrong with the battery, and said they thought I had left the lights on. I should have questioned this, because I usually have my lights on auto, but I didn’t.

The next day it didn’t start again. Now I was upset – upset at myself for not speaking up and asking for a more thorough check the day before, upset at the mechanics who had dismissed my issue, and upset at work time I’d already lost. I was also upset for another reason, and this gets to a bigger issue in the automotive industry – I am a woman.

According to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey, 50% of drivers are women. Yet women (including myself) often feel intimidated or discriminated against when dealing with auto repairs. Needing a place to vent my frustration, I went to Facebook and posted this status update: “I can’t describe how frustrating it is to not be taken seriously by car repair techs (and have my car issues misdiagnosed) because I am a woman. I have experienced this for the ENTIRETY of my driving life. It has cost me money, time and energy. I am just SO. OVER. IT. Makes me want to find a woman-owned car repair place.”

I received many comments from men and women, but nobody argued with me. Comments ranged from “I agree” and “I know the feeling,” to this more detailed response from a friend. “This is so true… [they] look right through me while I talk if I’m explaining the problem to them. Then later they’ll ask me a question that I already told them the answer to. But they didn’t hear it because apparently when I open my mouth all they hear is blah blah meow meow.”

After my Facebook rant, I brought my car back to the same chain, but a different location. Now I could hear the anger and frustration in my own voice as I explained the issue, again. When they called me back, several hours later, it was to tell me they could find nothing wrong. “If you could bring it in here when it’s not starting, maybe we could figure it out.” That, of course, would require a tow truck – more expense and time.

I was due to go out of town with my kids that weekend, so I bought a portable jump-starting device and hoped for the best. Amazingly, it started consistently for the whole trip. But sure enough, Monday morning it happened again. This time, after waiting a few minutes, I was able to get it to start without a jump start. I decided then to go to a different chain, one where I have always had a good experience with oil changes and regular maintenance. They had been bought out by another company, but I noticed on the phone that they still had the same kind, sympathetic attitude that I remembered from previous experiences. They gave me their names, referred me to a closer location, and made an appointment for the next morning.

It’s amazing how far that small amount of kindness went. I was actually in a good mood as I went in that morning. I had also spoken to a friend with car knowledge, and we thought we had narrowed down the issue to the starter. So I was prepared to say, “My MALE friend says it’s this issue.” But I didn’t need to. They listened to me and took care to check everything. Ultimately, they diagnosed the issue but couldn’t fix it. I would need to go to the dealership.

Now, the dealership has a bad reputation with me. My experiences with my dealership have generally been bad. It starts with the website, which has an online reservation system that doesn’t work; then there’s the poor experience of getting transferred around when I call. They always keep my car forever, and the cost is astronomical. (They charge about 30% more than the other chain for basic services like oil changes.) Then there’s the notorious survey, which they always try to game by telling me what to rate them (“anything less than the top score will count against me, so please …”)

First I tried a different dealership, thinking that maybe a different service department would be better. A man answered the phone, but there was so much background noise I couldn’t hear him. When I pointed this out, he said, “It’s just the noise in the shop” and didn’t offer to go to a more quiet location. We spoke about me making an appointment, but his rude tone was so of-putting, I gave up.

I then called my usual dealership to make an appointment, but every time they tried to transfer me to the service department, I got a voice mail message saying they were closed. Each time I called back, the woman on the switchboard would apologize and try again, but it still took around four calls.

The next morning, as I feared, my car wouldn’t start when it was time to go in. I called, and the scheduler on the phone showed no empathy, even though she must have heard the panic in my voice. At first she said they wouldn’t be able to see me that day after all; then she relinquished and said they could squeeze me in 90 minutes later. I was in the process of calling a tow truck (more hassle, more expense) when the car finally started. I drove immediately to the dealership and got in.

So. At the end of the day, what could these auto repair businesses learn from my experience? Let’s go one by one.

1. The national chain who initially replaced the battery. I will probably not go back to them or recommend them, because a) I do not think they took my issue seriously, b) they didn’t seem to have the skills, expertise or desire to diagnose the issue once we realized it wasn’t the battery, and c) they didn’t show empathy.

  • How could they improve? The people who work at the service desk would benefit from customer service training, with an emphasis on listening and showing empathy. They also need to be clear about what their brand is, and what level of service they provide. If they can’t diagnose more complex issues, fine; but that is not what their advertising and branding says. In fact, one of the principles on their website is, “your advanced vehicle will receive advanced service.”  The employees at both locations I visited were not delivering on that principle.
  • What did they do right? They initially got my business because they were open on a Sunday – so points for convenient hours. The initial battery replacement was quick (about 90 minutes) and hassle-free. The price was reasonable (although as it turns out, I didn’t actually need a new battery).

2. The second chain I visited. I will probably go back to them, because they treated me with respect and kindness on the phone, as well as in-person. In addition to diagnosing my problem at no cost, they gave me quotes for an oil change, air filter and wiper replacement – all at a lower cost than the usual places I go.

  • How could they improve? As I mentioned, they were recently bought by another company. Google maps was not completely updated with the new name. Also, the new company name has “tire” in the title, which makes it sound like they are not full service. I almost didn’t call because I thought they were now just a tire place.
  • What did they do right? Great customer service, both in person and on the phone. They have several convenient locations in my area. They were quick and were able to diagnose the issue. Their pricing for the other services was good.

3. The dealerships. I will only go to the dealership if it’s absolutely necessary, and I will definitely NOT go to the location where the man was rude on the phone. Sure, there are some specialty services that only the dealership can provide. But I know I’m going wait longer and pay more than I want to.

  • What could they improve? For the first dealership I called, don’t answer the phone in the shop, and provide customer service training to anyone who interacts with customers. For the second dealership, they need to make appointment-making easier. They shouldn’t offer an online reservation system if it doesn’t work, and they should be sure to turn off the “closed” message when the service department is open. Their customer service was better than the first location, but as I mentioned, they need to show more empathy if someone is clearly upset. Additionally, they should look at their reputation for over-charging – this goes for all dealerships. Finally, the gaming of the survey is unethical and unprofessional. If they are going to do a survey, they should solicit honest feedback, or there’s no point. If they don’t know what the problems are, they can’t fix them.
  • What did they do right? They listened to me – probably because I had been to two places before, and was able to speak knowledgeably about what had been done so far. The initial price they quoted me was high, but they were willing to work with me to find an aftermarket starter at a lower cost. This issue is still in progress, but if I have further insights, I’ll update this post.

Bottom Line:

As traditional industries continue to experience disruption, and consumers become more empowered to shop around, compare services, or even do things themselves, these companies will need to evolve their service models or they will lose business. Especially the dealerships, which have large footprints and high overhead.

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