Auto Laundry News - August 2011

Damage Claims — Reduce Harm to Your Business Through Diplomacy

By Anthony Analetto

The second rule of navigating damage claims is to embrace the principle that most people are reasonable (you’ll have to read all the way to the end for the first rule). If your mind just filled with the memory of a screaming customer demanding payment on the spot for damage they insisted came from your wash, I realize it may be hard to believe, but let me repeat, most people truly are reasonable. In this article I’ll cover using cameras and research to reduce liability, along with tips to avoid damage claims in the first place. The real trick is having the diplomacy to lead customers to rational behavior when their adrenaline is pumping. At your car wash, there’s an even bigger challenge — how to create and train the processes and procedures that turn a good manager into a good diplomat, one that handles each damage claim in a clear, consistent way, every time.

I remember a situation once with a regular customer and his BMW. On this model, BMW had an air deflector on the driver-side wiper, but not on the passenger. One day he comes through in a hurry, looks at his car after the wash, demands to see a manager, and begins yelling that the car wash ripped the air deflector off the passenger side wiper. My first reaction was to tell him that the car never had a deflector on the passenger side, but instead followed my own training, listened, and said nothing until he finished. I then explained that if we damaged his car we would of course pay for any repair and asked him to fill out the damage claim form, at which point he nearly exploded, saying that he didn’t have time to fill out papers. Again, my first instinct was to ask him how he expected us to reimburse him for a claim he wouldn’t even fill out the form for, but I again followed procedure and moved him to a third-party, in this case, the BMW dealer. After I wrote down the pertinent information, including the VIN number, I simply told him to go to the BMW dealer, get a price for the passenger wiper, and to bring it to us so that we could fill out the damage claim form and resolve the situation. One week later — after the BMW dealer informs him there’s no such part — he comes back, apologizes, and thanks me for not calling him a liar. It turns out he was on his way to a friend’s funeral service and wasn’t in the best frame of mind.

The moral of the story is that most people are reasonable when you have the diplomacy to lead them
to rational behavior. Unfortunately, diplomacy requires self-discipline. Regardless of whether you run a military unit or a car wash, don’t expect your frontline people to have self-discipline without rigid procedures, rules, and training in place. So how do you make this happen? Let’s take a look.

STEP 1: DIFFUSE THE SITUATION AND DOCUMENT THE CLAIM

Most washes have a form with the phrase “Damage Claim Report” in big bold letters at the top. Think about it. Right from the beginning, the title of the form says that the customer has been damaged, has a claim against your business, and is reporting that fact for compensation. Change it, and change it fast. Call it a “Customer Experience Report” or, if you must, a “Customer Unpleasant Experience Report.”

Next, state your resolution procedure at the top of the page, right under the title, before asking for contact information. Your policy might have a heading such as “If you ever have an unpleasant experience at our wash” with five bullets that say something to the effect of:

  • We promise to listen to your experience completely, and will never interrupt you until you have told us everything that occurred.
  • We promise to write an accurate report of the experience and provide you with a copy.
  • We promise to photograph your vehicle before leaving the property and provide you with copies of the pictures for your records.
  • We promise to provide you a list of certified third-party shops that can perform an honest and free-of-charge estimate to repair any damage.
  • We promise to review your experience and, if the damage is shown to have been caused by improper action of either our equipment or staff, resolve the claim quickly and professionally.

It’s important to state your policy in writing on the form first, and then have spaces to write in contact information including vehicle VIN#, manager and customer written descriptions of what occurred, and company legalese. The reason is simple. Even though you’ve trained your managers to act diplomatically, in the heat of the moment, it’s easy for them to forget. By repeating your policy in the one place they’re sure to see it, you remind your manager of your expectation for diplomatic self-discipline, the steps they must complete, and assure the customer that they will be attended to in a respectful and orderly manner.

STEP 2: BE PREPARED

This step is rather straightforward, so here it is. Every car wash should have surveillance cameras that record the condition of a car before it enters the wash. Every car wash should have a written policy of what it is, and is not responsible for, clearly posted for customers to read. Every car wash should have negotiated discounts, or reciprocal service agreements, with local body shops. Every car wash should have a camera and printer on site with managers trained to photograph all vehicle damage before the car leaves the property. Every car wash should maintain an updated laminated card with a picture of any vehicle with a history of problems and any special handling procedures. Every car wash must have a “Customer Experience Report” to document claims. Every car wash should collect the VIN# of any vehicle that has an incident at the wash to research pre-existing damage. And, whenever possible, every car wash should visually inspect all vehicles before they enter the wash. To accommodate this practice without slowing production, many washes, especially express-exteriors, will simply train drive-on attendants to touch any scratches or blemishes they see and then point up to the camera. This recognition of damage by an attendant before the car enters the wash makes a powerful statement to a customer watching the video who may not have noticed the damage before.

STEP 3: RESEARCH YOUR LIABILITY

Although cameras that record vehicles entering the wash are a solid first line of defense, often you’ll have to dig deeper. With the VIN# of the vehicle, you’ll first want to look up any recalls that may be related to the damage that occurred. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, www.nhtsa.gov, is a good place to start. If that doesn’t help, turn to a paid reporting service such as CARFAX or AutoCheck. These services not only let a car buyer research a vehicle’s history, they can also alert a car wash operator if the damage to a vehicle occurred from an earlier accident that was improperly repaired. Imagine you discover that a car, whose bumper fell off in the wash, was previously in a front-end collision. You’re able to alert the body shop to check if an improper repair caused the damage, remind the customer of the accident, or if they’re the second owner, inform them that the car was previously damaged.

STEP 4: RESOLVE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

Your business is about delivering value to the customer. If your research concludes that you are responsible for the damage claimed, fix it fast with a sincere apology. On the other hand, if it turns out that you are clearly not liable, diplomatically inform the customer, in person if possible, show them whatever videos, reports, or other information that demonstrate why you’re unable to pay for their claim, and again sincerely apologize. In either case, you’ll want to provide them with vouchers for free services on the spot, wait a week, and mail them a letter with another coupon for free or discounted services. Some operators will give nothing, which they justify by saying they’ve lost the customer anyway. Personally, I prefer to shower any customer with a damage claim, whether paid or not, with vouchers for free services. If they’re so angry that they refuse to use my wash again, they’ll either throw the vouchers away, or give them to friends. This dissuades them from speaking negatively about my business in the community I serve. And if they use the vouchers, I’ve managed to maintain a customer, and potentially turn them into a raving fan.

THE FIRST RULE TO PREVENTING DAMAGE CLAIMS

Although you can’t guarantee that every car enters your wash undamaged, you can absolutely ensure that your wash doesn’t damage a good car. Proper equipment and wash materials, correctly maintained, with appropriate use of lubricating soap, will nearly eliminate any potential for vehicle damage. Combine that with continuous staff training and coaching, and you’re on your way to reducing the impact of damage claims on your business.

Good luck, and good washing!

Anthony Analetto has over 28 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.

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