Customer Centricity : Customer Experience and Surviving a Collision with Reality

Brian Canning's first foray into the automotive industry was as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington, DC. Over the next several years, he enjoyed a successful management career that ultimately led to his overseeing several stores and then the entire sales region. Currently, Canning works as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Management Institute (ATI), where he interacts with shop owners and managers in the automotiv e service and tire industries. He adds that he is a passionate student of leadership in all of its forms.

In recent months I have participated in several mystery shopper and mystery phone shopper exercises and can say almost without exception that as often as we would choose to look at how our customers are being treated, we will find problems. In other words, every time we have looked, we have found big problems in how we are meeting, greeting and talking to our customers on the phone. I applaud the effort in checking up on this extremely important aspect of our business but I am appalled at what we are seeing and seeing on a regular basis in our shops, at our counters and on our phones. Most disturbing of all is after these many issues come to light and after we are given the opportunity to correct them, we are still seeing a very poor effort at the counter and on the phone.

I always recommend that in trying to determine where we are procedurally that we do an internal audit. In matters of customer service and in the sales process, I definitely want to be taking a close look at what procedures we have in place. Assuming everything is shipshape here, I would then look at training and at what my expectations have been. If our people are untrained and if we have never laid out expectations, we need not go any further. Our people do not know what to do and do not know what we expect and therefore have no chance of doing the things we would want them to do. I certainly run into situations like this but sadly the more common situation is where we have trained our people, have set appropriate and reasonable expectations and incorrectly deciding that our work was done; we have walked away and abandoned our expectations of excellence. We have failed to lead. 

Six months ago I was asked by a client to play mystery shopper to his several tire stores. In the aftermath of this, we had a meeting to discuss all that had been observed. The next morning I was fortunate enough to be driven to the airport by one of the manager’s, whose store suffered most horribly at the hands of the mystery shopper. In his effort to react, he asked for my opinion on what the store’s issues were. I believe he was prepared to discuss process. I think I shocked him when I told him that I thought leadership was the root cause to his problems. To his credit, this manager accepted what I said and asked me to recommend a book that would help him improve. I thought about this for a minute, wanting to be careful in making such an important recommendation. I knew this manager very well. I knew he would do whatever I asked and avidly read whatever I suggested. In the end, I told him to forget the books and just lead.

I would tell you that this manager was about as far from a natural leader as you could possibly get. At a certain point he just got tired of falling short of goals and tired of being embarrassed. He learned to set expectations and learned to hold his people accountable. He learned how to lead. Quite suddenly he was inspecting all that he expected. Quite suddenly results mattered and suddenly sales and profitability were where they should be. Customers suddenly mattered !

In looking at the broader industry I do not see the same focus and determination to get better. I do not see us focused on providing excellent customer service and almost without exception, when we take the time to look; we find behaviors better left on the playground or at the flea market. We see little or no effort toward greeting the customer or establishing a relationship and in seeing it and doing nothing to correct it, we make it very obvious that leadership is the issue. We want to blame training or bad employees and pretend that we have set high standards. Too often we stand by and watch while our service advisors sit behind the counter and make no effort to interact or know their customers. We stand by while they neglect to talk about maintenance or driving habits and then complain that nobody is buying. High standards and great training only matter if you put them to use. In on-site mystery shopping, in phone shopping, we nearly always find that our people are not doing the things we expect them to be, that our customers are being treated very poorly and given few reasons to ever come back. Many never do.

As customers come into our shops, as they call in trying to find ways to do business with us, I would want to assume that the people standing behind our counters and the people answering our phones are doing the things they should be. I know you know that assume will get you in trouble every time. People, who are decidedly imperfect, are not the perfect custodians of process. That’s your job.

Trust your people, believe in them and then check, just to be sure. The difference in what you think is going on and what your customers are actually experiencing might just astound you. It is entirely reasonable to set high standards and to expect a great effort. Lead toward the extraordinary.

© Copyright 2008 Brian Canning


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