Is the loss of just one potential customer any big deal? Another shop I visited this past week had just completed painting ground effects on a brand new Camaro. The new car owner was a local doctor who wrote a glowing letter of appreciation for the fine color match and the fast service. He also mentioned that he had first approached a competitor's shop a short distance away but had been treated rudely by the estimator he spoke to there. So he checked the Internet for an alternative shop. He was so pleased with this shop's work that he planned to share his experience at the Camaro Club he belonged to. The loss of this one customer had a ripple effect. The loss was multiplied many times.
A body shop isn't much like a young ball player being sought by a scout for a major or minor league team. But there is always the possibility that an insurance company or other potential referral source has a scout, pretending to be a potential customer, checking out possible shops for a direct repair or referral relationship. And then there are also fraud investigation agents who might come around. A shop owner never knows if a potential customer might have some hidden motive for being there. It might be a wise decision to treat each customer as though he or she represents much more than meets the eye.
So assuming you agree with me that every potential customer is important enough to warrant special attention, what can you do to ensure that the customer knows he or she is getting it? Like the guy I described who walked out of the shop after waiting twenty minutes, these days everyone hates to wait. Much of our society revolves around instant food, instant printing, instant photos and more. If you eat out a restaurant for the first time and have slow service or faulty food, do you go back? Not likely. Nevertheless, we all know there will be days when it seems everyone comes into the shop at once. It seems unavoidable to keep at least a couple of them waiting. How can you convey this "special attention" intent when you're swamped with too many prospective customers?
During the many years I spent in sales and marketing, I attended many training programs. One of the best pieces of advice I received had to do with calling prospective customers to set appointments. The instructor said to avoid being brushed off when you make a call, always start by asking something like, "Am I interrupting you right now? Is this a bad time to speak to you?" Immediately the person you're calling knows you respect his or her time and you may get a couple of minutes to set an appointment. I took this advice to heart and whenever I call anyone, I always ask if I'm calling at an inconvenient time. I've found that it's always best to call someone when his or her attention isn't focused on some more important issue.
Perhaps a variation of this might work with collision repair customers waiting for an estimate. A minute or two asking each person if they're under some time pressure should yield enough answers to get the most impatient people to the front of the line. And you will definitely have created the "special attention" perception you wanted. Out of every six people, it's not likely more than one or two will really be in a hurry, and if you take care of them quickly, they'll remember the special service. Even those who are willing to wait a few minutes will be impressed by your concern for every customer. And one of those people may be the one that belongs to the Corvette Club or the Camaro Club and will spread the word that yours is the shop to go to.