7 Tips For Working With Customers Long Distance

Apr 16, 2012

The majority of work done at Heber Springs, Arkansas-based Spanky’s Hot Rods and Customs is for long-distance customers.

The shop got its start in owner Mike Cooper‘s hometown of Memphis and held on to those first customers through the nearly 150-mile move, as well as attracted many more customers from across the United States, and even into Australia and England.

Many of these new customers have found the shop through its online presence, or, in the case of the Australian customer, through magazine features.

“A car that we had featured in a magazine [here] was reprinted in an Australian magazine, and that generated e-mails, which generated pictures, which, in turn, led to a car being bought and shipped over here,” he said.

For shops like Spanky’s that are drawing customers from around the country, or even around the world, they’re faced with a new set of challenges to overcome. Here, five shops who’ve worked with long distance customers share their best practices, which can also be smart tips to follow with local customers.

1. Be Thorough at the Beginning

Randy Packard Jr., owner of the third-generation upholstery shop Superior Interiors Inc. in Hooksett, New Hampshire, brings in customers from throughout New England and into Canada, some of whom are attracted to his shop because there’s no sales tax in New Hampshire. Before starting an interior for one of these customers, Packard will make several calls to iron out all the details.

“I’d say [we]’re probably looking at at least a dozen times back and forth before we[‘re] really getting down to the style that he likes and the color schemes,” he said, adding that he checks in with customers regularly throughout the project.

“By the time [we]’re said and done, [we]’ve probably had contact at least a couple of dozen times,” he said.

2. Manage Their Expectations

Gary Archer, owner of Gary’s Hot Rods in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada, estimates 10 percent of his customers are long-distance. When working with customers who can’t make regular stops by the shop to see how their build is progressing but instead are relying on e-mailed pictures and statements, Archer recommends explaining to them from the beginning how the project will flow.

“You want to be very straightforward and up front with them when you start, [letting them know] that there’s going to be weeks where they might not notice a lot of progress,” he said. “You have to spend time explaining to them where your time was spent. Other weeks it looks like there was a ton of work done when maybe only eight hours went into it.”

“Communication is the main thing, and as long as they’re seeing progress every week, they don’t mind paying the bill,” Archer said.

3. Nail Down the Smallest Details

Packard of Superior Interiors doesn’t want to leave anything up to chance when working with long-distance customers so he’ll have discussions with them about every aspect of their interior, down to the stitching and piping, and document what they discussed.

“Four months down the road after a big project, they say, ‘I didn’t want dark blue, I wanted light blue,’ well, now you’ve got problems and you’re getting tension everywhere,” he said. “If you had contacted them every step of the way, [though] it might get redundant and you might be calling them every week, a five-minute phone call will save you about 50 hours in labor.”

“Just keep them posted on every single thing you decide to do, even the color of the stitch,” Packard said. “If you’re not doing it the exact same color, then make sure the customer knows that you’re going to use black or white or whatever, and just make sure that he’s OK with that, too.”

4. Write It Down

Jim Fitch, owner of United Auto Body in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, estimates 12-“15 percent of his customers are long distance. He has learned the benefits of logging a lot of paperwork for each project.

“There’s a level of trust that you have to establish from the very first day and we try to do that with the paper trail that we create for these vehicles so [the customers] know that every dollar spent is documented,” he said. “You hear so many horror stories about people going to restoration shops  and they’ll give them so much money down and, the next thing you know, that money is gone but, really, there’s not much that’s been done to the vehicle. To eliminate that, I think we’ve got a pretty good paper system.”

“Sometimes I might over-document but I don’t really know if you can over-document something, especially when [the customer is] not within driving distance,” Fitch said. “I think that’s a plus on our end, if we can present that type of documentation for our customers, they trust us right from the beginning.”

5. Give Constant Updates

Cooper of Spanky’s said he sends his customers regular e-mail or text message updates that include photos of the work that’s being done on their vehicle, and recommends other shops do the same.

“They need to be able to e-mail photos, they need to be able to text, this is the kind of stuff that’s helped me,” he said. “[The customer] can’t come by here and see that work’s being done, and it’s up to me to make sure that they’re comfortable.”

“If they’re sitting there fixing to write me a check for $1,500, they’d like to see $1,500 worth of work, so that’s why we provide them the pictures,” Cooper said.

6. Choose Your Words Wisely

Raymond Klaver, owner of Southern Marine and Automotive in Guntersville, Alabama, has built and freshened engines for customers around the world. He cautions against using automotive slang that may not be familiar to all of your customers.

“You’re so accustomed to using automotive slang that you’ve got to stop and clarify what you’re trying to explain to them because you could see it in your mind and they can’t a lot of times,” he said. “Just make sure that you double- and triple-check, repeatedly asking them, ‘Do you understand what we’re doing here? Are you aware of this? Are you aware of that?’ making sure that they understand why you’re doing something or what parts you’re using.”

7. Welcome Them

If a long-distance customer of Spanky’s does come to Heber Springs to check on their vehicle’s progress, Cooper plays the gracious host.

“I’ve got a deal with a local hotel, they cut me a discount any time I have a customer come in to see their car,” he said. “I feed them, I put them up for the weekend, I pick them up and drop them off at the airport, and if they’re a golfer, I’ll spend the afternoon with them showing them the car and then take them to play golf.”

“I try to wine and dine them and make it a nice experience for them when they do come in, that way I bond with the customer a little bit, make them know that they’ve got the right guy doing their work for them,” he said.