Tuesday, 05 May 2009 14:13

Franklin --- First Contact = First Impression: Don't Undervalue the Front Desk

Written by Tom Franklin

Many science fiction films speculate on what it would be like for outer space aliens to make first contact with humans. Some jokingly suggest a humorous encounter with an animal assumed to be our most intelligent species, but the message is clear: That first encounter can set expectations for all that will follow.

    Similarly, a customer's first contact with a collision repair facility may very well determine that customer's view of the entire shop.
    This was brought home vividly to me this past week. A local shop that was experiencing a major downturn in business was also downsizing expenses wherever possible. One approach was to cut employee hours or pay rather than letting them go. This was working well up to a point, but when an exceptionally good front desk lady quit and was replaced by a lower-paid trainee, I could see even more trouble ahead for this shop. I surmised the reason she left was a cut in pay or hours.
    I've watched this lady at work for a while and I believe she was seriously undervalued. This isn't the first exceptional front desk person I've seen leave a shop. I think many shop owners fail to grasp how important it is for a new customer to feel welcomed and understood by the first person they encounter. I underscore the word “understood.” The assumption that any reasonably attractive, intelligent person can be quickly trained to understand collision repair customers and to handle the front desk of a shop, underestimates what that person can do to help capture and retain customers.
    There is the belief that a new customer comes into the shop with a clean slate—no prior assumptions about what a body shop is or should be. This is a naive belief. Too many shops have given the industry a bad name in some areas. TV news people have warned prospective customers to watch out for inflated or fraudulent estimates. Some prospective customers may arrive already suspicious, just looking for a reason to move on if they sense something may be wrong. A front desk person familiar with the industry, the collision process, and the often difficult task of converting an estimate into a paying job can make a major difference in whether or not a customer leaves his or her keys and car.
    This is not to undervalue the role of the estimator who has the final task of selling the job. But Prima Donna estimators may also fail to appreciate the value of the preliminary work of orienting a new customer who has been greeted, consoled, and somewhat educated by a knowledgeable front desk person. From my observations of the lady who left the aforementioned shop, I would have increased rather than decreased her pay and hours. I believe her contribution to the shop's capture rate warranted it.
    While we're on the subject of “first contact,” it’s also a good time to mention the importance of upgrading all “first impression” elements. When business gets as tight and competitive as it is today, the last thing a shop should cut is the quality of first appearances. Shabby furniture, old magazines, worn carpeting or floor tiles, questionable rest room cleanliness and other waiting room elements may need upgrading. When we live with a space day in and day out, we tune out small imperfections but the new customer generally has the opposite experience. It's human nature to notice imperfections first. The otherwise beautiful face with a wart on the cheek will draw attention to that imperfection first. That's just how we are and it's urgent to correct any small waiting area and front office deficiencies at a time like this.
    It would also be wise to carry that “first contact” mentality out to the parking lot. Because I've visited so many hundreds of shops and had to park my car to pay a visit, I've noticed how powerful an effect a carefully painted parking area with designated spaces can be. Blacktop and white paint is cheap. Right now, I would guess that most shops have painters with some time on their hands. The absolute “first contact” most visitors make with a shop is parking their car. To see a well-defined space with a small sign that says “visitor” or “parking for estimate” gives that prospective customer an immediate sense that this is a well-organized, customer-friendly shop.
    If that comfortable experience is followed by a knowledgeable front desk person who greets, consoles and educates the prospect immediately when he or she enters a bright, clean, cheerful front office, the task of selling the job is more than half done.

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