Knowing me, knowing you

Barnaby Donohew asks if by understanding its customers better, a garage can see itself more clearly and provide a better service as a result

By Barnaby Donohew | Published:  15 February, 2018

Since retirement, I’ve found my Dad reflecting on his time in the motor trade; all the memories, good days, bad days and everything in between.

The one thing he misses is the customers. Not the work, the vehicles, or any other aspects of the business – okay, maybe he misses some of the trade contacts, but this article isn’t about them. We were lucky, we had more than our fair share of fantastic customers, but we also had others that would make your blood boil. And the problem with the latter is that they breed feelings of ambivalence towards customers in general. I’m fairly confident in guessing that you will know what
I mean.
Why is it then that a proportion of the people that we deliberately lure towards our businesses provoke these mixed feelings? Well, I think it’s all about expectation. More specifically, the conflicts that arise when there is a difference between what we expect to happen and what actually happens. Some of these conflicts might be avoided by different approaches to communication. Sometimes there are more fundamental issues at stake; maybe the fit between the business and the customer just isn’t right?
We’ll return to this idea of fit in a subsequent article as it cuts straight to the heart of our respective business propositions but before we do that, it will help if we understand better both ourselves and our customers. We’ll begin with the troublemakers…
our customers.
Is everyone going to be a suitable customer for our business? No, so we need to identify those who could be. For those of us with workshops, it should go without saying that our customers should be vehicle owners (which we’ll loosely take to mean as anyone that has an interest in the successful functioning and care of a vehicle). We can subdivide this group in to private vehicle owners, fleet owners, leasing companies, etc. (note how these groups will have their own more specific interests). Other subgroups might be created using assumed-wealth (poor or rich), make of vehicle (as might be relevant to manufacturer dealerships or independent specialists), or customer and workshop locations (rural or urban) etc. Selecting parameters for such breaking up is never easy; however, once segmented in this way, we are better able to characterise specific customers. On that path lies the understanding
we seek.

How then do we characterise, or profile, each of our chosen customer segments? One technique is to describe what they are trying to accomplish in their day-to-day lives by writing down their functional, social or emotional jobs. These jobs will have associated concrete benefits and positive outcomes (gains) or negative outcomes, risks and obstacles related to their undertaking or failure (pains).
Listing all the jobs, pains and gains for a given customer segment really allows us to see what makes them tick. Furthermore, ranking the items in each list will emphasise the things that really count; jobs should be ranked according their importance to the customer, pains according to their severity and gains according to their relevance. Figure 1 shows these lists for a ‘private vehicle owner’. This segment is very broadly defined, however, you can see that it still provides a reasonably nuanced overview of the things that might matter to our customers. Note, no profile will provide the ‘perfect answer.’ In fact, your customer profiles should constantly evolve, i) as you learn more about your customers, and ii) because our customers’ priorities will change with time.

Job importance
Look carefully at the jobs in Figure 1. Can you see the job ‘take car to workshop’? No, you can’t. This is because people don’t own cars for the pleasure of taking them to your workshop. Think about that for a bit. If a vehicle owner happens to be in your workshop to ‘meet statutory obligations’ (i.e get an MOT) or ‘protect and maintain assets’ (get their car serviced), they don’t want to be there, they’ve a million other things they’d rather be getting on with. Now, ask anyone how important it is to them to ‘feel safe and secure’  particularly if their children are involved and without hesitation they would answer that it is their number one priority. It seems to me that the actions and wilful ignorance of many of our customers betray their words. Even as a small workshop, we encountered cases on a daily basis where a vehicle’s state of repair would render it unsafe. That being said, insecurity and fears arising from actual, perceived or imagined risks of harm are incredibly powerful motivators (and manipulators) for many, so this particular emotional job merits its position toward the top of the pile. The same cannot be said for getting an MOT, despite its employment as the safety test of last resort. Given the number of customers that miss their MOT expiry dates, it is clear that the risks of being without an MOT are insufficient to raise it from its lowly ranking.

Pain severity
I have to have a car. Even today, the apparent sense of entitlement with which the preceding phrase is loaded still gets right under my skin -my fists clench as I read it. However, we just have to face it, having a car is a necessity for many, particularly in rural areas and anything that is a barrier to the access or use of a vehicle is a major headache, or worse (see the pains in Figure 1). If we can ease or remove these customer pains, then that creates opportunities for us, not problems.
As indicated above, a ‘lack of automotive know-how’ does not appear to be a concern for many customers, given the general lack of basic maintenance we observe. Come on-  topping-up levels and tyre pressures is not rocket science. A little more knowledge, not necessarily obtained from Google, would surely help them make more informed decisions about when, where and how they should get their vehicles maintained. But no, they still prefer to try to get things done on the cheap, or in the wrong establishments, then wonder why they get ripped off. Hence, a lack of automotive know-how cannot be considered an extreme pain. It is still relevant to us though as it provides an opportunity for us to differentiate our workshops by providing them with sound advice and a bit of education that should help them to minimise their other pains.
In many ways, the gains listed in Figure 1 do not seem hugely significant, not in the way that winning the lottery might be, nonetheless, they are positive outcomes – it is a bonus when ‘things just work’ hence it is an oft-quoted selling point of Apple products. The magnitude of the gains might seem underwhelming because they are skewed by our expectations; we expect things to work, so it is no big deal when they do.
You may be wondering whether profiling can help us, as it is likely you will already chew over similar thoughts within your day-to-day business life? Apart from making explicit all our assumptions, thoughts, and experiences which gives us the opportunity to thoroughly review them, it allows us to better anticipate or respond to change. For example, we can use it to map out possible changes in an existing customer segment or the expected characteristics of a new segment. In every case, it allows us to see if our businesses are able to offer things of value to potential customers. This will be the subject of the next article, where we will examine the flip-side of the coin, i.e., what we bring to the table. The bottom line is that if we want our businesses to succeed, we need to understand our customers, and although they might drive us mad at times, that requires empathy, not antipathy. Profiling helps us develop that by the bucket load, so, surely, it's the best we can do?

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