Wednesday, 26 January 2011 19:12

Client vs. Customer, The Marketing Difference

Written by Tom Franklin

I was recently surprised when a local handyman referred to the people he does property repairs for as “clients.” It sounded kind of grandiose. Would that same designation be out of place in a collision repair shop where repair prospects are generally referred to as “customers?”

In this slow economy, few shops can afford to let a single repair prospect slip away without agreeing to have his or her vehicle repaired at the shop. In general, sales to customers are different from sales to “clients.” Retail merchants and equipment sales companies generally think of people who buy their products as “customers.”

The term “clients” is generally reserved for attorneys, CPAs, financial consultants and others who offer professional services. The dictionary defines “client” as “A person who is under the protection of another.” Professionals like lawyers and CPAs theoretically protect their “clients” from legal or governmental abuse.

Why should a collision repair facility think of a repair prospect as a client rather than a customer? What are we protecting him or her from? First of all, from future accidents that might occur if a repair is faulty to the point of making it hazardous to drive the vehicle. We may also be protecting him or her from insurance company abuse. And if you are a reputable shop, you should be protecting him or her from buying into fraudulent claims by less reputable competitors.

But there is a more important reason to think of this prospect as a client rather than as a customer. That is how a shop’s estimators approach a collision repair prospect. Unfortunately collision repair shops have gotten a bad reputation in some areas because of publicity about fraudulent activity by just a few shops.  While this is not publicity that is good for the industry, it does provide an opportunity for an estimator to treat the repair prospect as a client needing protection from abuse.

Another reason for characterizing a new contact as a client, especially for attorneys and CPAs, is the hope that this will be a long-term relationship. Unlike body shops where people who have accidents may come in every day, most professionals like dentists get only occasional new referrals, so it is highly important to them to capture each new client for the long-term. Perhaps in previous years there was an abundance of people coming in for collision repairs. But most shops have seen a drop in volume of business, so a long-term relationship is becoming more and more important.

A CPA captures a client for the long-term by keeping a complete record of the client’s finances and taxes on file, by providing money-saving information, and by providing advice that may keep a client from getting a future IRS tax audit. In a sense, the CPA addresses the client’s financial past, financial present and financial future. Is there a way for a shop to utilize this successful professional strategy? If so, there would have to be a new way of looking at what would now be considered to be a “collision repair client.”

In general, the only PAST an estimator is concerned with is the recent vehicle damage. Extending that concern to the level of “client care,” the estimator would have to take more time and inquire about any previous accident or damage to the vehicle, including weather damage to the paint and body. The estimator now assumes the professional role of “consultant,” possibly providing tips on paint finish care and other long-term maintenance.

While the PRESENT damage situation is the main reason this prospect came to the shop, once again the estimator can assume the role of consultant. This might include suggesting ways to enhance the cosmetic appearance of the vehicle, to possibly reinforce areas of the vehicle that might make the vehicle less safe to operate, and even to go beyond body repairs to suggest performance enhancements.

I once had a vehicle that frequently overheated. A mechanic pointed out to me that the cooling system was poorly designed and failed to cool both the engine and transmission adequately. He suggested putting in an auxiliary cooling system for the transmission, which I had him do. After that I never had an overheating problem with the vehicle again.

Finally, the estimator/consultant can do much to improve this new client’s FUTURE vehicle care and driving experience. The most obvious, of course is to suggest ways to prevent future accidents, and that could include added lighting and special back-up sensors and devices. It could also include incorporating additional safety features for the driver.

An older vehicle may not yet have side air bags. It might be possible to modify sunvisors or the steering column with additional padding. For some people larger mirrors might provide an additional margin of safety while driving. Ideas like these are only limited by the imagination of the estimator/consultant.

Now the last client care element is record keeping. A more extensive file system should be added so that whenever that client calls, anyone in the shop should be able to view the client’s past, present and future needs and communicate a level of professionalism that is called for when dealing with a client instead of just another “customer.”

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