Phone Estimates? An Old Problem Resurfaces

Phone Estimates? An Old Problem Resurfaces
Shops can’t give accurate estimates without seeing the vehicle first. (Photo: Mopar)

A customer called for a car repair estimate.

This was when we still ordered all our parts by phone years ago. I wrote down all the information, then called my main supplier. After I told him what I needed, he burst out laughing! When he calmed down, he told me I was the sixth shop to call for exactly the same things for exactly the same car. From a shop and parts store point of view, this customer wasted a lot of time for many. From the customer’s point of view, they might be looking for the best price, but I’d guess they had a bad experience with a shop in the past and felt they were protecting themselves from it happening again. The saddest part to me is that the shops, the parts store and the customers all consider this good customer service as part of what they offer. It was a problem back then and it’s a more difficult problem now.

At that time, my coach was teaching me that I should stop giving estimates over the phone. He said it was a waste of shop and parts store time—in the end you couldn’t accurately give a phone estimate unless you saw the vehicle. He was right then and is still right today. He gave us various ways to ask questions in order to qualify the customer. Were they a price shopper, or did they have questions but didn’t know how to ask them so only talked about money? This worked well; we eliminated the price shoppers (who don’t understand value), and served the rest of the customers in a more professional manner.

Find a solution

Many shops today have taken some training and learned not to give estimates over the phone. Some do it poorly, bluntly saying they don’t give estimates over the phone; that doesn’t always work well. Others have found a way to have the customer come in for a diagnosis/inspection so an estimate can be created accurately. It now seems a lot of shops and new car dealerships are again offering estimates over the phone! In some cases, it’s lack of training and the misconception that it’s good customer service; others are desperate for the business. In many cases, they’re baiting customers with low prices and then switching them into higher invoices by either slick salesmanship, or high-pressure sales.

Again, the customer is experiencing exactly what they were trying to avoid, and getting more frustrated with shops. Even well-trained professional shops are getting more requests for phone estimates. Not from their regular customers, but from people calling them for the first time.

It’s back!

So why has this problem returned? 1) Vehicles are far more complex than in the past, and as components fail or act up, diagnosis and repairs are more costly relative to older vehicles. 2) Even though the economy has improved, inflation has devalued people’s discretionary spending and customers seem more cost conscious. 3) Although the economy has improved, business for independent shops and dealership service departments hasn’t improved due to record new car sales for the last five years, extended service intervals, and intense retention programs from dealerships for free oil changes with the purchase of a car—new or used.

We can only control our own behaviour, not that of others. The best thing we should do is inform and educate our customers. Remember, they’re coming from one of two points of view. One—they get three estimates on everything they have done for their due diligence. If they need a new roof or new furnace, chances are they’re going to make three phone calls. The other is they use wrong logic when it comes to car repairs. They understand they can buy jeans for $15 or for $200—the only difference being style and status. They both cover your behind equally well. So when they’re offered a $50 brake rotor versus a $100 brake rotor, they assume it has to do with the brand name or some other irrelevant factor, rather than quiet and safe braking. Think about this—do other professional give estimates over the phone? The roofer must come to the house to measure and help you choose shingles, the gas fitter will charge travel time to come by to confirm where the furnace is located. Lawyers, accountants, engineers do not give estimates over the phone. They invite you in for a consultation first.

Solutions

Here are three solutions. 1) In principle, do not give estimates over the phone. You can’t be accurate without seeing the vehicle, and the customer will hold you to that price no matter what. Then you’ll be disappointing the customer or doing work without profit. 2) Having said that, here’s how you approach the call. First, always be a professional, not a retail clerk. A) It’s important to identify who’s calling—if they were a regular customer asking for an estimate on previously recommended work, you’d happily provide that. B) Ask questions. If someone asks you for a price on a water pump, ask them why they think they need a water pump. Chances are their car is leaking a fluid and their neighbour took a guess. Identify what stress the customer is having regarding their car. It could be price, but maybe they want to know how long they’ll be without their car, or they likely have a concern, but don’t know the right questions to ask, so they focus on price. 3) Be careful with this next one! Ask them to come to the shop right away so you can confirm the concern. When they arrive, spend a few moments with them… don’t make a free diagnosis. If it’s obvious or simple, give them an estimate and make an appointment for them. If it’s more complex, spend time in person educating them about the diagnosis or inspection needed to identify their actual concern.

By showing concern, giving a bit of time for a consultation, you’ll get more appointments than giving phone estimates. If the customer on the phone is really pushy about an estimate, ask them if the reason they want an estimate is because the last time the bill was higher than the estimate. If the answer is yes, tell them it’s because the shop did the estimate over the phone. If we have the vehicle at our shop, we can guarantee our estimate. One more question to ask yourself—of all the estimates you give over the phone, how many actually turn into appointments?

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