How coronavirus can improve your customer service, employee commitment

Updated Jan 29, 2021

I really enjoyed John Blodgett’s recent editorial about routine, and how the trials and tribulations of COVID-19 have thrown a lot of longstanding business routines out the window.

John is undoubtedly right. Removing or reducing face-to-face interaction, between employees and customers, is a huge change to all aspects of dealer and aftermarket operations. Sure, a lot of the work technicians do and warehouse workers do and delivery drivers do and finance managers do and store managers do can be done in a socially distant manner, but that’s not always the best or easiest way to work.

Anyone who’s been in this industry more than a month will tell you “this is a people business.” So, how does a people business adapt when people can’t interact with each other? How are you maintaining your optimal customer service levels in a socially distant world?

In chatting with our 2020 Successful Dealer Award finalists last month, I was equal parts thrilled and impressed to learn customer service has in some ways improved for a lot of businesses in our industry due to COVID-19.

One big reason is employee buy-in. The coronavirus pandemic hit the United States suddenly and broadly. Even in areas where cases and infection rates were low, the virus made it clear that could no longer exist.

At Housby in Des Moines, Iowa, General Manger Tyler Olson says locking down the company’s five buildings in March to reduce potential transmission was accepted almost immediately, as were subsequent efforts to prioritize no-contact pickup and drop-off for parts and service.

“Our No. 1 priority throughout has been about keeping people safe,” Olson says. “I think at first it was tough for some of our people who are used to interacting with our customers every day. But they understood that it was what we needed to do to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Other dealers said the same. No one wanted to close their showrooms or bar their customers from their service shops but they did it. And almost universally their employees and customers accepted it. To me that’s comforting. I rambled last month about how mentally draining this ordeal has been (and will almost assuredly continue to be for a while) but there have been bright spots. Cooperation is one of them.

The adoption of technology has been another. As I wrote in the spring, the OEM and supplier communities did a great job early in the pandemic of reallocating their marketing resources to develop virtual product and sales training tools for their distributor partners and those partners have held up their end of the deal by using those tools to stay informed and remain engaged with end users.

I don’t know if this industry could have done that 10 years ago, but this year it happened seamlessly. This shouldn’t be overlooked because it’s a big deal. As I also wrote in the spring, we should never fully shutter in-person training — some products are just too complicated to understand without on-site education — but for established products, soft skills and other non-technically intensive courses, online education is absolutely the way to go. Suppliers can train more people in a shorter period of time for little cost, creating a unified national salesforce almost overnight who can enter the marketplace and advocate for the product.

You may be shaking your head here but that consistency matters. A customer buying a new Freightliner or a new fan blade wants to know how his product works and wants to feel confident if something happens to it a network exists to help him. Dealer and distributor operations that are not receiving the same training at the same time can lead to customer service gaps. That’s not good for anyone repping any product.

But I think the biggest positive for customer service these last few months has been the makeup of our industry. As you’ll see in our upcoming profiles of our 2020 Successful Dealer Award and TPS Distributor of the Year finalists, there are a lot of truly amazing companies in our business. Companies run by men and women who have dedicated their careers to the pursuit of customer service. People who care about their employees, customers and communities.

In addition to the safety-conscious operational changes they implemented, every Successful Dealer Award finalist this year also went above and beyond in the fight against COVID-19. Some offered meals to essential workers and truck drivers. Others partnered with food banks to keep their communities fed. Several also offered service discounts and/or complimentary maintenance to ensure their customers could stay on the road.

They were equally compassionate internally, with most choosing to eliminate overtime, reduce hours and opt for the occasional furlough day to avoid laying off anyone.

“One of the first things we did once it was obvious this thing was going to stick around was told our employees if they ever felt uncomfortable and needed some time off to take it. Didn’t matter if it was a day or a week. We just asked them to fill out a [time off] request form,” says Hank Knabe, president, HK Truck Center. “We wanted to take the pressure off them. To let them know we weren’t forcing them to show up.”

You want to talk about employee buy-in? That’s where it’s earned.

People want to work for businesses that value them. And there are few better ways to show such commitment than to prioritize employee physical and mental health during a time of great distress. Knabe says most of HK’s workforce didn’t exercise the temporary opt-out option but they appreciated it was there. And since coronavirus hysteria has slowed in the company’s New Jersey market, he says employee performance has been outstanding.

“I think it helped that we showed them they had an employer who cared about them,” Knabe says.

Profiles of the 2020 Successful Dealer Award finalists and TPS Distributor of the Year finalists will begin publishing on our site next week.

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