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Welcome All Newbies

Dave Donelson is the author of Creative Selling: Boost Your B2B Sales [Entrepreneur Press]. He writes and speaks to trade groups on marketing and management.

New customers are the lifeblood of any shop, but only if they stick around long enough to become old customers. A one-time buyer is welcome, but the ones who put money in the bank are those who come back again and again.

One breed of new customer that’s tricky to develop is the neophyte, the guy or gal who is new to the restyling world. The way you and your staff respond to that newbie can make or break your relationship with them. Treat them like an idiot the first time and you’ll never see them again. Treat them right, and you’ll create a customer for life.

It’s tough, though. A newbie doesn’t know what questions to ask. He doesn’t know what’s doable and what violates the laws of physics and auto mechanics. He may have seen a TV show where some lucky stiff’s car went from wreck to trophy-class in 30 minutes and expect you to do the same. What’s worse, he’s going to take up way more of your valuable time than his measly little job is worth.

Sueann Blackwell, who has operated Merrillville Restyling in Merrillville, Ind., since 1989, says it’s not unusual for a neophyte to spend two hours going through the options for an upholstering job when she first sees them. They have also been known to ask for the impossible, she says.

“One customer wanted a 12 by 20-inch Buick logo embroidered on his dash, but that’s too big for an embroidery machine.”

Blackwell insists on spending as much time as it takes to educate the new customer before they make a decision.

“I show them all the options available to them,” she explains. “Suedes, vinyls, cloths, welt cords, topstitching, insert selections, embroidery—even though they get totally confused.”

She feels it’s important that the new customer not make a decision based on partial information. It’s also essential that they don’t leap before they’ve looked. She adds, “I always tell them to go home and think about it.”

The next time a newbie walks through your door, put yourself in their shoes for a minute. Remember what it was like when you went onto the field for your very first Little League tryout? If you were like most of us, the experience was a little intimidating. Everyone else seemed to know exactly what they were doing, but you weren’t sure. You wanted to make the team, but the single most important goal was to avoid making a fool of yourself.

That’s what the newbie is feeling when he comes into your shop for the first time. He may not admit it—and he may try to bluff his way through—but he’s nervous about sounding dumb when he talks to the experts in the field.

Your first job, then, is to make him comfortable. Don’t draw attention to his ignorance by telling him it’s all right to be stupid. Instead, listen to his ideas for his car in a non-judgmental way and ask him questions about the job at a level he can understand. Try to avoid using terms he may not have heard before, or, if you have to, explain them without being condescending.

Blackwell gets around the terminology problem (and several others) by showing rather than telling.

“I show them a lot of samples,” she says. “It’s a lot easier than trying to have them visualize it in their head. I also have a lot of pictures of our work with all the different options available.”

One temptation to resist is the urge to make the customer’s decisions for him. It’s easy to limit the number of options you show them in the interests of time or from the mistaken belief that you’re clarifying the issues for them. The problem, of course, is that later they may discover that you’ve done so and misunderstand your motivations. It’s fine to guide them in their decision-making, but don’t give them any reason to think you have shortchanged them.

Another thing to keep in mind with newbies is that praise goes a long way toward making them feel good about their decisions. Go back to Little League for a minute. Which coach got the most out of his team—the one who screamed at you about errors or the one who applauded when you did something right? The same is true for a new customer. As they make each incremental decision that goes into drawing up the specs for your job, confirm each decision as a good one. They’ll feel better about themselves—and about doing business with you.

That’s the goal, of course, to make the neophyte customer so comfortable with your shop that he’ll come back the next time he has a restyling itch that needs to be scratched. Keep in mind that the second job will be easier to explain than the first one and the third one will be easier than the second, and so on. That makes the time and patience you spend on the newbie customer an investment, not an expense.

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What’s A Lifetime Customer Worth?

Most restyling customers are serial car owners. They don’t just trick out one set of wheels and live with it; they buy, sell, trade, and do it all over again and again.

Do the math on the customer who gets a different car every couple of years. If your average job is $1,500 and the customer stays with you for twenty years, he’ll bring $15,000 through the door. If your gross margin (before overhead expenses) is 40 percent, you’ll put $6,000 in the bank.

Plug in your shop’s numbers and think about that the next time you’re tempted to brush off a newbie.