What’s the Secret to Better Soft Skills?

with Mike Anderson

This month, we “ASK MIKE” for his thoughts on the importance of soft skills at a shop’s front end. We at Hammer & Dolly hope you find the following exchange useful, and we encourage you to reach out to us if you have a question for Mike on this or any industry-related matter that he can answer in a future issue.

Hammer & Dolly: We’ve spoken a lot over the years about the technological and training requirements of running a successful collision repair facility, but soft skills at the front end are just as important. When you had your auto body shops years ago, you had very successful customer service reps – CSRs – who had a great reputation in the industry. From a philosophical perspective, what did you bring to that side of your business to make it as strong as it was?

Mike Anderson: You really need to have the right personalities in that role. Those employees really must like dealing with people. I’ve had some rockstar CSRs in my career. Lindsey Moore was one who stood out. Once I saw how awesome she was with people, I did a personality assessment on her. It wasn’t a pass-or-fail test; it was just something to better understand someone’s personality. I then did a personality assessment with any future CSRs I hired, and it helped me bring in people who had personalities that were like Lindsey’s. We also made sure to train our people; we didn’t just throw them to the wolves. 

A CSR is someone who’s level-headed and who can multitask. They can’t be someone who’d get mad at an angry customer. CSRs are some of the most critical people in your organization because they have so many touch points with your customers. 

Ryan Taylor from BodyShop Booster has a great saying: ‘People are more afraid of making a wrong decision than they are of spending money.’ At our shops, we charged the customer the difference between the repair cost and what their insurer paid. One of the first things we did was build a relationship with that customer before we ever talked about their car. You’ve got to know your customer as a person. We spent a lot of time making sure they knew we were the right people to fix their car. We gave them a shop tour, and we’d go over their owner’s manual with them. We’d point things out to them like, ‘Hey, your seatbelt needs to be inspected.’ Competence leads to confidence. When you can establish your competence and that you know what you’re talking about, your customers will have confidence in you. 

Think of a triangle where the top has five minutes and the bottom has 45 to 60 minutes. We flipped that triangle upside down and conducted a ‘Damage Review Appointment.’ When a customer came in, we’d assess their damages and really spend time educating them about what made us different. At the time, we had what we called an ‘evidence manual.’ I once read a book by a guy named Dave Anderson called How to Deal with Difficult Customers: 10 Simple Strategies for Selling to the Stubborn, Obnoxious and Belligerent. He wrote it for car salespeople. Let’s say I sold Toyota Camrys and you wanted to buy a totally different car, I’d have an ‘evidence manual’ that would show you all the reasons why you should buy a Toyota Camary and not buy that other vehicle. We had an ‘evidence manual’ that we’d go over with every customer. The ‘manual’ would have, among other things, a picture of our staff in the middle of a page, and it would have scans of our certifications.      

Ultimately, being a good CSR means understanding how to deal with customers so that they want to get their car fixed by you and they’re willing to go to bat for you if there’s an issue with the insurance company. 

H&D: How was your personality test developed? Did that come about through an outside vendor, or did you develop it on your own?

MA: Through a 20 Group I was in at the time, I was introduced to Norm Bobay of hireMAX out of Texas. I had taken tests like that when I was in the military and through my church. Every time I took one, I’d think, ‘Man, this is me!’ I’d show it to my friends, and they’d say, ‘That’s you to a T.’ But when I did one of Norm’s tests through this 20 Group, I thought it worked out so well that I gave one to my parts person, my best CSR, and my best estimators. We realized that the people I’d call ‘the champions of my business’ all had similar traits. We tried to hire more people like them. It wasn’t the be-all and end-all, but it helped us make better hiring decisions.      

H&D: You mentioned customers paying the difference. You and I both know that even in 2023, that’s quite possibly this industry’s biggest customer service taboo. When you had your collision repair businesses, how were your CSRs able to not only address that issue with your customers but get them to be on your side and recognize that they’d possibly have to pay out of pocket? 

MA: When I used to charge people the difference at my first shop, people would say, ‘You can only do that because you fix high-end European cars.’ But when we opened our second shop and started doing Asian and American cars, we still charged customers the difference. We didn’t lose too many customers even though some of them had to pay several thousand dollars out of pocket in some cases. It was all about educating that consumer. You can’t go into that situation from an adversarial standpoint – you just need to take the time to educate your customers on the front end. Just as we spend hours writing an accurate repair plan, we need to spend hours educating that vehicle owner so they really want to get their car fixed at your shop and would be afraid to go anywhere else. You need to tap into their emotional buy-in side so that they understand, ‘Wow, I’m putting my family at risk if I get my car fixed somewhere else.’ It’s not about scaring them; it’s about educating them. 

Mike Anderson is an Accredited Automotive Manager (AAM) and the former owner of Wagonwork Collision Centers, two highly acclaimed shops located in Alexandria, VA. He has served as a member of many industry organizations throughout his career, including the WMABA Board of Directors, the Mitchell Advisory Board, the MOTOR Advisory Board, the ASE Test Review Committee, the National Auto Body Council, the Collision Industry Conference and the Society of Collision Repair Specialists. Additionally, he is a past Virginia SkillsUSA chairman, serves as a facilitator for Axalta Coating Systems’ highly recognized Business Council 20 Groups in both the US and Canada and facilitates numerous courses for Axalta Coating Systems’ Educational Series. He currently offers expert industry consulting via his latest venture, Collision Advice (collisionadvice.com).

Want more? Check out the September 2023 issue of Hammer & Dolly!