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The Challenge To the general public the words mechanic and trust generally do not belong in the same sentence.

When customers take their vehicles to a repair shop they are often anxious, afraid and untrusting before they even hand over their keys. Customers worry about everything – from getting ripped off to hearing bad news right away, to not being in control of the situation and losing their cars for several days.

In return, most mechanic shops do not know how to communicate effectively with customers to help alleviate these fears. Many customers share similar experiences – we receive a call from one person with the status of our vehicle, we pick up our cars from someone else, and if we have questions or something goes wrong we talk to a third person or often the correct person is not around. A vicious circle, we leave the dealership with the same fears, feeling like no one cares and that it is all about the money.

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According to a Harvard Business Review article, "service is still a major differentiator that allows firms to be competitors in the marketplace."

So, how does a small, family-run automotive business remove fear and anxiety for their customers and stand out in the marketplace?

The Background Knibbe Automotive Repair (KAR) is a family owned and operated company in Calgary. Established in 2004 by John and Charlene Knibbe, the business has grown to include their children Rose and Justin. John, Rose and Justin are all Red Seal licensed technicians, possessing the knowledge and abilities required to perform preventative maintenance, diagnose problems and repair vehicle systems. Since 2004, KAR has provided hands-on professional service to Calgary and area customers and as a result of their success, the Knibbes opened a second location in 2007 with sales doubling at both locations. Between both shops the Knibbes employ a total of 21 employees.

The Solution:

Developing customer intimacy through trust and open communication are the key elements for overcoming fear and anxiety. "Gain trust and gain a customer, lose trust and lose a customer," is a slogan Mr. Knibbe passes down to this family and employees. KAR's mission is to remove the fear and anxiety customers feel every time they walk through the door and to earn their trust along the way.

In order to achieve this, the company instituted five key policies. The first is allocating three service advisers for every four to five technicians as opposed to competitors who only have 1.4 service advisers for shops of similar size. This allows service advisers to spend more time with each customer, they take responsibility for the car, owning any problems, and become an advocate for the customer.

The second policy is all service advisers are trained licensed technicians. This means that they understand the cars, the problems and are able to explain the process to each customer.

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The third policy is service advisers are required to enroll in communication training, regardless of their background. As service advisers their role is to advise, never to pressure the customer into any purchase.

The fourth policy was establishing transparency within the company in order to gain trust, by communicating consistently with customers. The service advisers walk the customer through the process of their auto repair, they are shown any parts that were replaced on their car so that they can see what was done and why.

The fifth policy was to create a serene customer environment. For example, KAR's lobby is clean and inviting, the atmosphere non-intimidating.

Recently a customer had a new power steering pump installed and the old one sent back to the manufacturer for a rebuild. Mr. Knibbe discovered that the customer had not seen the old pump before it was sent away, Mr. Knibbe recalled it from the supplier so the customer could see it and provide his acknowledgment prior to beginning the work.

Treating each valued customer with dignity and respect is how KAR differentiates themselves from their competitors – through leadership in customer intimacy.

The Result:

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KAR has grown into a successful family business with strong customer relationships. Both locations are working at full capacity and the company is looking to expand. Since implementing their five customer intimacy policies, KAR's marketing expenses have reduced. A recent customer survey showed that 99.2 per cent of respondents would feel comfortable sending their grandmother or older parent to KAR. Close to 50 per cent of KAR's customers are referral-based and their technician efficiency metrics are nearly 100 per cent. All these positive factors resulted from the implementation of customer focused policies which have resulted in authentic, genuine and intimate customer service.

Sharaz Khan is an instructor of business technologies at the Haskayne School of Business.

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