Many years ago, customers could walk onto the shop floor and talk to the mechanics while they worked. Today, most auto technicians have limited contact with customers. Issues of safety, liability and efficiency keep vehicle owners in the waiting room.
As a result, many technicians have either lost, or never fully developed, the ability to deal with the public. Yet, being able to work effectively with both the vehicle and its owner broaden an auto technician's employment options.
In fact, experts say strong customer-relation skills can be pivotal in getting technicians off the shop floor into other jobs. Service writer, service manager or even shop owner are all jobs that require extensive contact with the public. An ability to develop and maintain good customer relations can be key to a technician's success in making the transition.
"It's a critical factor on profitability for an independent shop," says Mike Phillips, vice president for organizational development at NAPA, best known for auto parts. "Maintaining customer satisfaction is extremely important to a shop. You have to treat the customer well. That's the lifeblood for any business."
How to Apply Customer-Relation Skills
Service writer -- the position responsible for writing repair orders, communicating them to the mechanic and estimating the final cost to the customer -- is one of the more popular roles for auto technicians.
"They've worked on cars," Phillips says. "They understand vehicle systems and repair procedures. Working on cars is tough. You're up and down all the time and that can cause wear and tear on your body. For people who love the business [but find the physical demands of repairing vehicles more difficult], it's an excellent job."
To transition successfully, honing communication skills is essential. While strong communication skills are included as a desired skill on most listings for auto technicians, many technicians have limited opportunity to develop those skills on the job.
How can they be improved? Eye contact, stance, tone of voice, body language, facial expressions and appearance all contribute to overall communication and can be improved through organizations like Toastmasters and making a concerted effort.
The ability to listen and respond is also implicit to good communication, especially when dealing with consumers.
"Listening is the starting point," says Gregory Sottile of Research Frontiers Inc. who has spent years researching the relationships between businesses and their customers. "The most proficient people [who deal with customers] ask a lot of questions. Listening, rather than speaking, is really the critical skill. You want to align what customers are looking for with what you are offering."
Linda Olbrys, a human resources consultant with more than 20 years of experience in an auto-related customer-service corporation notes, "There are four basic steps to remember when serving your customer: a greeting, an offer of help, listening to the response and recommending your services or products. Don't assume you know what customers need. Listen to them closely…be sure the product or service you offer meets the immediate needs of the customer."
Where to Get It
Consumer relations training also can help.
NAPA has created training programs designed to help independent shop owners, managers and technicians develop both their technical and managerial skills.
The programs on shop management and customer relations range in length from three hours to five days. "The five-day program is intense," says Phillips. "It addresses your appearance, how to meet and greet a customer [both on the phone and in person] and how to explain procedures. There are video-aped role playing and critique sessions."
NAPA uses Vin Waterhouse and R. L. O'Connor & Associates to do the actual training. "These organizations are geared to the shop level," says Phillips. "They've been in the shop and they're extremely knowledgeable."