Auto Laundry News - November 2013

Customer Complaints — Six Steps to a Happy Resolution, Part I

By Sharie Sipowicz

With some customers, you try absolutely everything possible to satisfy them and they are still upset. All you can do is apologize one last time by saying something like, “Let me assure you that there is nothing more important to me than a satisfied customer. I have tried everything I can to please you, but apparently I am not able to do that. Again, I am very sorry. Perhaps next time you get a detail, you will have better success with another detail business.”

Unfortunately, there are times when you must fire a customer. We will discuss that later, in Part II of this article. For now, let’s discuss the first four steps to take when a customer has a problem. This will help to resolve problems for you.

Always remember that the customer’s problem is important, but the way you deal with it is more important. If you follow the suggestions provided, you should have success in dealing with customer complaints.


Any time there is a problem or complaint, the first words out of your mouth should be: “I’m sorry.” Say it as if you mean it — not as if it is something you were told to say.

You must mean it. You should be sorry if a customer is inconvenienced in any way. The circumstances are not important, only that you are sorry that your customer is upset.

But, saying you are sorry is not enough. As soon as the customer tells you the problem, repeat it back: “I’m sorry we wasted your time/took too long/did a poor job/over charged. I know you did business with my company because you expected (restate what was amiss) fast, courteous service/quality work/your car delivered when we promised it/to have it detailed correctly. Let me find out what happened so I can take care of this for you. Your future business is very important, and I want to resolve this to your complete satisfaction so you will come back.”

You have to be a real professional to talk about future business when you are in the middle of a customer’s complaint. The reason to do this is to send the message that this is probably an isolated incident and you do not expect it to happen again. You are sorry it happened, and you will take care of it. By talking about future business, you are setting a positive expectation.


After expressing your sincere regret, you need to determine as quickly as possible why the problem occurred. Ask questions that will allow customers to explain, in their own terms, what is causing their frustration.

Stick to the problem itself and do not personalize it. Stay in a problem-solving mode and do not discuss fault, blame, or other emotionally charged words. When you personalize a problem, people get defensive and more upset. Stick to the issues, and try to determine exactly what happened, when it happened, and why (from the customer’s point of view) it happened. Consider using the following statement: “In order to help find a satisfactory solution to this problem, I’d like to know as much as possible about what happened. I would like to hear it in your own words. As best you can, describe what is wrong.”

If you are not comfortable with the above script, choose the words you do use carefully. You want to avoid the appearance of interrogating the customer. That will only make the situation worse. This is not the time to make excuses or cast blame. That only makes things worse because it looks like you are making excuses instead of taking responsibility. It just adds fuel to the fire.

Keep in mind that customers who are upset will not be convinced with logic. They are emotionally frustrated. If you try to calm them down with logic, you will not be successful. Do not try to justify, rationalize, or prove your point by explaining a company policy or procedure. It is simple, what you did caused the problem in the customer’s mind, so trying to explain it again will not work. After the customer is calmed down, you will have a much better chance to explain your side of the story, but not at this point.

Another thing: Price is seldom the real problem. Think of your own experiences when you were upset with a vendor. Weren’t you upset because you felt the vendor did not do what they said they would do — they did not keep their promise? That is exactly what your customers feel.

You broke your service promise, and your customer feels they did not get the service they deserve for the price you are charging. To add insult to injury, they may feel they were ripped-off in the way they were treated. Maybe they feel disrespected or taken for granted. That is why it is critical to show that you do respect them, value them, and want to solve the problem.


When customers are upset, all they are looking for is an advocate. That is, someone to listen to their side of the story, represent them, and do everything possible to resolve the issue. Upset customers want someone to listen and then “own” the problem.

You asking good questions, sticking to the problem, and not making excuses, can demonstrate you are their advocate. If you have employees, teach them to accept responsibility for resolving the problem. Owners do not have to get involved in every customer complaint.

One thing that can be very exasperating is when the employee acts as if he is not part of the problem. In the customer’s mind, that employee is part of the problem by default. They are getting a paycheck to work there so they should accept responsibility and be prepared to do something about the customer’s problem.

Here are the worst things an employee can tell a customer:

  • I just work here.
  • That’s not my area.
  • That’s company policy.
  • There’s nothing I can do.
  • Oh, well.

Another word to avoid is “can’t”. When you say “can’t,” the customer hears “won’t.”

There is an unwritten business axiom that states that anything can be done if there is enough money on the table.

Do not insult your customer by saying you cannot do something. What you are really saying is, “We’d lose too much money to do that, and we are not prepared to (won’t) do it.”


Discuss solutions in this step of the problem-solving process. Up to this point, you have only expressed regret, shown empathy, listened to the customer’s side of the story, and demonstrated a professional attitude and a sincere willingness to own the problem and to be their advocate.

If you feel you are at fault (or even if you are not, but you want to take care of the problem right now), tell the customer what you will do to resolve it. For example:

  • Set an appointment to work on the vehicle right away with you absorbing all costs. You have determined that, “We obviously screwed up so we will absorb the cost for doing it over immediately.” This means you will interrupt work on other vehicles in order to work on this customer’s vehicle. This should be reserved for either a very good customer, or perhaps to correct a flagrant mistake and to avoid further problems.
  • Do the re-work at a substantial discount. This choice is used when you think, “We did a very acceptable job and the customer’s complaint isn’t reasonable, but we want to take care of it and take care of the customer.”
  • Give the customer the choice of having you redo their car immediately and only charging for your time, or redoing the work at your convenience at no cost to the customer. You would be surprised how many customers choose the first option. This proves that the problem it is not the price, but rather how they are treated. When customers are made to feel special and important, they will often pay reasonable costs incurred by you.

This is not ironclad; there are two schools of thought on this. Many operators say they never charge the customer anything because that is not true customer service. Other operators say there are times when the customer understands the complaint is unreasonable and is willing to pay a portion to redo the car. For you, it is a judgment call.

Suppose you cannot do what the customer wants, do not tell them what they want is unreasonable. Tell them what you can do to take care of the immediate problem and that you need more time to resolve the bigger problem. For example, “We’ll provide you with a loaner car at our expense. That will take care of the immediate transportation needs and give me more time to work on the other problem. Let’s make sure you have reliable transportation while we make good on our original promise to you.”

If you are an employee reading this article, say this before you suggest an alternative “I will do everything in my power to resolve this to your satisfaction.” But if you cannot sign a check for the company or direct other employees what to do, then do not trap yourself by saying, “I will take care of it,” or “This is what I can do for you.” You can still be the customer’s advocate even if you have to ask the boss for permission first.

Sometimes employees might make a commitment that their owner will not support, so the problem shifts to a disagreement between the employee and the boss — and away from the company and the customer. Now you have two emotional issues that need to be resolved. If this happens with the boss, the customer’s problem takes a back seat to the employee’s problem. And, the employee quickly loses the desire to help the customer. Please do not go there, know your limits.

Next month, in Part II of this article, we will discuss steps five and six in the problem-solving process. We will also set out some circumstances under which it would be appropriate to “fire the customer.”

Sharie Sipowicz is aftermarket sales manager with Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems Inc. She has been involved in the detail industry for over 20 years, both as a vendor of products and equipment and as a hands-on operator in a retail detail environment. You can contact Sharie at

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