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Repairing Customer Satisfaction
Customer satisfaction surveys help auto repair shops improve service and gain profitable customers.
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The large number at the bottom of the faded pink copy of their customer invoices may not speak volumes of brotherhood and good will, but auto repair shops do care about, and act upon, how customers feel about their service. So do the insurers who pay for most of the repair jobs in the country. In the repair business, a standard measure known as a customer satisfaction index (CSI) guides much of the constant self-evaluation conducted by repair shops large and small.

Companies such as Plain City, Ohio-based CSi Complete have made CSI measurement something of a science. The research firm operates its own call center, which can process over 100,000 outbound surveys per month to repair shop customers, taking a few minutes to assess the car owner's opinion of the quality of work and service received. The data is then turned into a detailed report broken down by shop and service technician for the research customer (the shop or an insurance company) and aggregated into an industry research product.

Depending on the service agreement, CSi Complete attempts to reach up to 100 percent of a repair operation's end customers by phone. "There's a grassroots customer retention aspect, and if a customer is unhappy, it obviously gives you an opportunity to recover them," says John Webb, vice president of marketing at CSi Complete. He also maintains that as much as 90 percent of all repair business is driven by personal or insurance-based referrals, making an accurate, complete view of customer attitudes vital.

The approach helps achieve more representative results and a better idea of the median customer's opinion. "With the [written] card system, you tend to get the really happy people, and the really unhappy people," says Charles Baker, publisher of Collision Repair Industry Insight magazine. (His Cleveland, Ohio company also operates a card-based CSI tracking service.) The deep view comes at a price: CSi Complete charges up to $5 per completed contact, plus a nominal monthly reporting charge.

Marketing Lure

Customer satisfaction tracking is now being used not only as a marketing tool to attract consumer business, but to draw the favor of large insurers and their lucrative preferred provider networks. "If they ever want to be a DRP (direct repair program) shop, they better have a record of high customer satisfaction," Baker says. "We're seeing a higher percentage of repairs directed to the shops [that use CSI tracking.]"

Ed Litman, national purchasing manager for ABRA Auto Body and Glass, a Brooklyn Center, Minn.-based repair chain representing 70 shops, is a recent CSi Complete customer. He acknowledges that ABRA uses its CSI data to pitch the quality of its services to insurers and is even offering a free bonus to strengthen its position. "We ask [customers] if they were completely satisfied with the insurance company and claims provider, and we provide that to the insurance company so they can find areas to improve," he says. "Any insurance company would be curious to know the experience their policyholders are having with us, and we're happy to share that in aggregated form and provide them with trending and analysis."

One of the potential problems with CSI analysis is that end consumers are not always competent enough to judge the true quality of a repair project, for better or worse. "If you [formulate] the survey correctly, you can get at the quality of work. Make sure there are no open-natured questions," says Sheryl Kingstone, Yankee Group program manager. "There are ways to make sure you're getting both quality and satisfaction," which include pairing customer satisfaction checks with internal quality audits before the vehicle is returned to the customer.

Despite the possible gaps between a customer's perception of a repair and the true state of the nuts and bolts, Litman says his company's long history of CSI tracking, and specifically its relationship with CSi Complete since January 2001, have been fruitful. "We're now getting data in a timely, consistent manner, which allows our shops to track their performance in key areas of customer service. Our customer service levels, and in other areas, our repair quality, will improve because attention is being drawn to those areas," he says, noting that he feels ABRA has a positive ROI from its spending with CSi Complete.

Rental Market

Repair shops aren't the only automotive service agencies interested in the mindset of the consumer. Abrams Travel Data Services of Long Beach, Calif., a provider of commissioned satisfaction research for the car rental industry, recently decided to "productize" its experience in a new offering it dubs CustomerFirst. "This is an industry that's had a negative image with the public that goes back a few years, and there are heightened expectations about customer satisfaction and service," says Jon LeSage, vice president and director of research.

The reasoning goes that interviewing customers to gain a better understanding of their needs will help offset growing dissatisfaction over crowded rental counters and recent controversies over mounting fees and automated penalties for drivers who exceed the speed limit. Specific pricing of the service was not available.

In the rental business, customer satisfaction is one of the few variables a company can directly control. "Pricing is important, but customer satisfaction is a key differentiator, there's no doubt about that," says Vafa Akhavan, vice president of Orlando, Fla.-based Khoury Consulting. Although maintenance and upkeep can play a role, rental outfits compete with similar business models and have access to exactly the same raw materials, the mass-produced automobiles major carmakers place on the market.

Although the survey results produced by operations such as Abrams and CSi Complete are linked to the personnel involved in the service transaction, neither firm seemed comfortable advocating its service as a final arbiter of employee quality. Baker confirms that real-world repair operations do not typically watch CSI numbers for staffing purposes. "[Survey results] tend to be tied more to bonuses and 'attaboys' than actually getting rid of anybody."

According to Kingstone, there are plenty of other corrective actions a well-conducted satisfaction survey can inspire. "Just because data is actionable doesn't necessarily mean people need to get hired or fired," she says. "It should be used as a way to motivate employees to improve customer satisfaction."

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