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What can support pros learn from their auto mechanics?

An examination of how good mechanics attend to their customers can provide some guidelines for how the help desk can provide a high level of service. Six tips for support pros.

An examination of how good auto mechanics attend to their customers can provide some guidelines for how the help desk can provide a high level of service. Six tips for support pros.

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When I was recently arranging a routine service appointment for my automobile, I was struck by the fact that, for once, the shoe was on the other foot. I'm used to being the expert who has to explain a complicated technical issue to a nontechnical customer. When it comes to repairing cars, I know just enough to make myself sound stupid. Suddenly, I find myself in the position where I have to have things explained to me, often more than once.

I have a great mechanic, so when I work with him, I'm seeing customer service done really well. My visit to the garage got me thinking about some of the practices of good auto service professionals, and I realized that the techniques that produce a positive car repair experience could serve as a guide for creating a positive support experience for my users. Here's the list I jotted down while waiting for my car to come down off the lift.

  • Triage effectively. My mechanic, Jim, is great about making sure that emergency situations are given special attention. Engine threw a cylinder on the highway? He'll immediately send a wrecker to pick you up. Just need your oil changed? If there are more pressing tasks, Jim will gracefully let you know he's too busy and will ask you to drop off your car in a day or two. The takeaway here is that most customers don't mind waiting for nonemergency service, as long as they're given a firm date when they can expect attention.
  • Provide an estimate. When I work with Jim, his estimates usually have two parts: the cost and the timeframe in which the work will be done. Cost may not always be a factor when the help desk is serving a user, but there are other things to take into account. It may be necessary to order replacement parts, for instance. Providing your customers with estimates of what the work will entail and when it will be completed will manage their expectations and lower their stress level.
  • Offer alternate arrangements. In the auto-service industry, this takes the form of the courtesy car. Consider keeping a couple of serviceable machines on hand as cold spares that you can loan to users whose regular workstations may need significant repair. With a "courtesy computer," at least the client can continue his or her work.
  • Update the customer. Mechanics revise their estimates; sometimes it's necessary because the work required is more extensive. This can happen when a machine is on the repair bench, too. If the situation has changed -- for the worse or for the better -- make sure that the customer is informed.
  • Explain things clearly. Think of it this way: your customers won't appreciate your work if they don't understand your description of it. Avoid jargon as much as possible. Put the situation in terms that are easily understood, and contextualize things for the users. If they have an understanding of how you've helped, they'll feel better about the experience.
  • Suggest future maintenance. Lots of car trouble can be avoided if the owner takes care of the vehicle. The same holds true for computers. If there's a way that the user can avoid the inconvenience of future problems, share that knowledge with them.

I recommend my mechanic to anyone I overhear complaining about the last time their car had to be serviced. There may be a guy out there with more qualifications than Jim, but his work is solid, and his customer service is second-to-none. When I'm in a situation where I'm out of my depth, I appreciate working with a professional who is concerned about the quality of my experience. Your users will, too.

21 comments
reisen55
reisen55

Earlier this year I visited my local Meinicke shop and found their computer horribly infected by a virus that attached itself to the winlogon process and was eating processor time alive. I took this computer home, got it semi-better and returned it. I did not know enough about the business software to rebuild it totally. Four months later - the Meinicke shop is closed. Gone. And my first thought was: .... gee, was it something I did?

bblackmoor
bblackmoor

The one thing no one seems to get, and one thing which causes many of the headaches for IT professionals, is that a skilled professional should be responsible for her tools. When you take your car to a garage, do you demand that they use a specific brand of wrench? When an electrician comes to your house, do you demand they have a specific brand of voltmeter? Do you search their toolbox, and chastise them if they have a MP3 player or a DVD in there? Of course you don't. The current way security is managed in every organization I have seen in the past 15 years is based on the flawed premise that the professional whom we trust to administer and manage multimillion dollar projects can't be trusted to select and maintain her own workstation. This is ridiculous. IT professionals should not have their software selection restricted (or worse, chosen for them). IT professionals should not have their Internet access filtered or obstructed (for many IT professionals, Internet access is the #1 tool in their toolbox). "Does she get the job done safely, legally, on time, and under budget?" That is the question that should be asked of any IT professional. That question has a yes or no answer, and it has nothing to do with web filtering or "nailing down" her workstation so she can't install "unapproved" software. Hold IT professionals accountable, by all means, but do not pre-emptively cripple their ability to do their jobs. You hired them to be experts: let the expert choose and care for her tools, like any other skilled expert does.

jasondlnd
jasondlnd

These are excellent tips, as the computer repair industry is a lot like the auto repair industry. More often not, the two are compared with one another. There is one comment I would like to make. Some people simply are unable to speak tech. No matter how clearly you describe what is going wrong, some people just are unable to pick up on it. For these individuals, the easiest explanation is to simply state that the problem has been fixed, with a short description of what was done. If they want to know the why of what happened, offer a simple explanation, one that is easy to grasp.

dave
dave

I have nothing but sympathy for (most) auto mechanics as I have been doing pretty much most of my own auto repair for the past 30+ years and understand what they have to do. Think computers are hard to work on? Try working on a I\M problem on some of the newer vehicles.

pdickey043
pdickey043

These are good tips. However, I think they need to be pointed out to Educators as much as us. That way, when the support reps come in from school, they've already got this ingrained into their methods. They can train us, as much as we'll train them.... Patrick.

Good Old Dog
Good Old Dog

Listen .. Listen .. Listen .. THAT rule is number ONE! Having enjoyed 40+ years in the Automotive Service business I have picked up computer building/upgrading/servicing in my retirement. If you do not Listen carefully to the customer and hear the symptoms from him or her to get a head start to the problem, how are you going to successfully perform a diagnosis and repair. This approach is essential to maintain good customer relations, repair the problem quickly and for a fair price to both parties and generate repeat business. It is tool number one in the Automotive Service World and should be in our bits and bytes world as well.

Thack
Thack

There can be some bad lessons, too. Like charging an obscene amount because they know you simply can't live without your car. Like the way they diagnose a fault by swapping things until the fault goes away, and THEN CHARGING THE CUSTOMER FOR ALL OF IT. Some mechanics are outstanding - Jim sounds like one. But others are utterly useless, and the problem is you often don't know which your mechanic is until the get the vehicle back and the bill. The issue here? Too much variability in the profession, with no meaningful professional standards. And frankly our profession is a bit too much like that for comfort. SteveT

reisen55
reisen55

I visited a Meinicke dealership last year and discovered a horrible little virus on their computer - began to chide them on bad practice the same way auto mechanics can chide ME for ignoring the car. Small world. The key is to be customer proactive, not reactive.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

I know the average mechanic can't provide "loaners" but a lot of users would really appreaciate such a gesture in the event of major service and extended outages. Providing the broken parts after service is an assurance to the user that you indedd replace parts as being charged for. In addition, most parts are not easily disposed of and the offer must be made to take care of that too. What would a user do with a bad CV joint, likewise a bad hard drive or toasted video card? To many users, discriptions of service provided and parts replaced and their functions would be "greek" to most but must be broken down into language that each user will understand. This has to be a case by case basis as each user has their own level of knowledge and a generic explaination would not fit all users.

williamjones
williamjones

My most recent blog post was inspired by a visit to my auto mechanic. You can read the original article here. Seeing how well my mechanic handled his customers got me thinking about how I can make sure that my clients are well served. How about you? Have you encountered another field that reminded you of IT? From what other professionals might we be able to crib some skills that would make us better at our jobs?

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