Halfords Auto Centres: is a Welcomer enough to deliver a good customer experience?

Welcomers are important – they can make a big difference

In a recent post I stressed the importance of Welcomers and I shared the following statement from Richard Shapiro, the author of The Welcomer Edge:

There is a particular type of staff person who draws new customers to a business and keeps them.  I call this type the “welcomer”. Welcomers create a relationship with new customer that can last a lifetime.  People are so delighted to do business with welcomers that they will have little reason to change allegiance to the company’s competitors.”

My recent experience got me thinking and I have reconsidered my point of view – I am not that sure that Welcomers are enough to leave the customer cared for, appreciated, valued.  Allow me to share my experience with you.

I encounter Alex and he is clearly a Welcomer

I had a problem with the brake caliper on  one of the real wheels and so I rang my brother and he advised me to go to one of Halfords Auto Centres.  As Halfords is a well know brand, there is an auto centre just down the road and I am ok with the retail store experience I called Halfords.

Almost immediately I was greeted by a warm, friendly, cheerful, helpful chap called Alex.  We agreed that the best course of action was for Halfords to do a free brake check and we agreed on a time  – when the auto centre was most likely not to be busy.  Then I had to make a decision: leave the car there or wait.  So I asked Alex “How long will the brake check take?”  His reply “20 minutes”.  Excellent, I am thinking “I am on the way to getting my problem sorted out and it does no harm to get a free brake check”.

I turned up on time, was greeted by Alex, he had all my details, a service bay was ready and Alex drove my car to that service bay and handed it over to the mechanic.  I followed him and stood on one side of the workshop looking at what my car eager to be part of the service experience.  Alex noticed me and told me that whilst it was against policy to have customers in the workshop it was OK as long as I stayed where I was – out of the way and thus out of harms way.  Being grateful for everything he had done I thanked him and told him that I’d continue to stay out of the way.

Gratitude and delight turn to disappointment

I continued to stand where I had agreed to stand where I had agreed to stand with Alex.  During that time I noticed that the mechanic working on my car was in no hurry at all.  Furthermore, it occurred to me that he was not present to the work.  Actually, it occurred to me that he was alienated from the work.  Just at that moment the older chap from the office came up to me and told me wait inside the office.  The way that he said it left me with the feeling of being uncared for – the opposite of my experience with Alex.

At a rational level being in the office was no big deal as there was a clear glass divide between the office and the workshop and so I could see what was going on in the workshop.  Yet at an emotional level some kind of line had been crossed.  It was not that Halfords had put in place such a policy – the intellectual part of me understood the reasoning behind it, most likely the reasons of safety and productivity.  The emotional side of me was hurt and it had everything to do with the way the older chap had talked to me.

Standing there at the glass partition I see that the mechanic has raised my car on the ramp and taken off the wheels.  Then nothing!  He is standing around, walking around, talking with one mechanic (who is working on a car), then he goes and talks to another mechanic (who is working on a car) and then he does a little bit more work on my car.  What work?  He is looking at the wheels/brakes/brake calipers on my car.  Now and then he prods. Then he goes back to wandering around!

The quoted time of 20 minutes turns to 40 minutes and then 60 minutes.  Still there does not seem to be any end in sight – the mechanic is simply not in a hurry.  He also seems to be oblivious to the fact that I am looking at what he is and is not doing.  At this time I became frustrated and sat down in one of the uncomfortable chairs.  Then I notice the office.  The whole look and feel of the place if functional/dull – it lacks heart.  Whoever designed it did not design it for human beings.  The place lacks colour, it lacks art/beauty, it lacks a water cooler or a tea/coffee machine.  It lacks humanity.

Up to now I have not complained to Alex as he occurs as being young and genuinely helpful.  And I get that it really is not his fault: the mechanic could have got it done in 20 minutes, max 30 minutes.  So I do not hold the quote of 20 minutes against Alex.  Just when my frustration and bewilderment is turning to anger Alex returns to the office and tells me what is wrong with my car.  It is what I had told him was wrong with my car – the brake caliper on the rear wheel has to be reset.  And there are a few other minor things that need attention some time.

We agree on the work, we agree on the price. This price is some 50% more expensive than the local garage –  I am not surprised nor disappointed as I know there is no such thing as a ‘free brake check’.  I call my wife, she picks me up and we drive home.  Later that day,  Alex rings me up  with his cheerful voice and tells me the car is ready.  I turn up, Alex greets me with his smile, all the paperwork is ready, I pay and I leave – all inside of two minutes.  The car drives perfectly, the problem is solved.  I notice that I am grateful to Alex and at the same time disappointed with Halfords.

What have I learned?

As a customer I have learned that:

  • Halfords Auto Centres can be trusted to do the work that is agreed between us;
  • I cannot count on and should not count on any time estimates supplied by Halford Auto Centres;
  • There is no such thing as free – the free stuff is built into the higher prices; and
  • Halford Auto Centres are designed to work on cars and fix cars they have not been designed to look after and leave customers feeling cared for.

As a consultant in this space I have learned tha:

  • One good person, a Welcomer, is not enough to create/deliver a good customer experience;
  • The people in the back office (the mechanics) are just as important as the people in the front office – breakdowns in the back office can and do turn a good experience into a disappointing one.
  • Customer Experience is team game that only generates the right results when everyone plays that game wholeheartedly.  Put differently, culture matters – the culture at display at Halfords Auto Centres was one of fixing cars rather than creating happy customers be leaving customers feel recognised, appreciated, considered, valued.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

13 thoughts on “Halfords Auto Centres: is a Welcomer enough to deliver a good customer experience?”

  1. Hi Maz,

    It strikes me that Halfords have put in a fix to improve customer service, but not really got to the root cause of the issue at all.

    Alex was the fix

    The fact that “the mechanic working on my car was in no hurry at all ….. he was not present to the work …. he was alienated from the work” was the cause.

    Why was he alienated? maybe if the management of Halfords fixed that they wouldn’t need Alex at all.

    James

    Like

    1. Hello James

      I am not at all sure that there is any intention on the part of Halfords at all. How it shows up for me is that Alex is simply being Alex.

      I have some understanding of the auto business and it strikes me that the folks in this industry focus on the product/service – the technical task – and ignore the customer as a human being. The hard technical skills may be there. What is missing is genuine care for the work – making sure that it is done right – and genuine care for the customers. Understanding the vulnerability and concerns of the customers.

      All the best
      maz

      Like

  2. Maz, thanks so much for sharing your experience about Alex, the Welcomer. I agree with all of your learning’s, however I also wanted to point out that when you contacted Halfords by phone to inquire about their services, it was Alex who was able to secure your business by being a Welcomer. It sounded like Alex was great and he should be commended. However, it’s possible if he had returned after 20 minutes to double-check with you and to make sure you were being taken care of in the agreed upon time, this situation could have been potentially rectified to your complete satisfaction. It’s also so essential, as you said, that Welcomers, staffing the frontlines are supported by the back office too. Hopefully, Halfords will learn from your blog. I’m so sorry your experience turned from delightful to disappointing. That’s makes the situation even worse. Richard Shapiro, author of The Welcomer Edge.

    James, thanks for your comments too. It is great when a company meets or exceeds the service delivery, but that doesn’t always guarantee repeat business. I do believe that great service delivery, coupled with it being served by a welcomer is the ideal situation.

    Like

    1. Hello Richard

      I thank you for dropping by and adding to the conversation. What can I say except that I find myself to be in total agreement with you.

      When it comes to Alex he certainly could have checked with me. The impression that I got was that Alex was both the youngest and the most junior person at the Halfords Auto Centre. I got the distinct feeling that he had no power other than taking calls from customers, making the booking, doing the paperwork at the end.

      Will Halfords learn? I don’t think anyone is listening. I got an invitation to provide feedback a week or so after I had written this blog.

      I wish you the very best and look forward to hearing your voice once more.

      Maz

      Like

  3. Hi Maz,
    I completely agree with you when you say that customer experience is a team game and that a Welcomer is not enough to generate or deliver a good customer experience. What concerns me is two things:
    1. The over-riding emotion and memory that you are left with out of the experience. I would guess that it is very mixed and therefore indifferent; and
    2. I worry for the longevity of Alex in a workplace like that. We all know that employees are key to delivering great service and experience and the under-performance or lack of care of one can affect everything. Like the old saying says: ‘We are only as strong as our weakest link’. Going on the mechanics performance…not very strong.

    Adrian

    Like

    1. Hello Adrian

      You have nailed it. Whilst I am grateful to Alex, I have no such feeling towards Halfords Autos. At best they are the like the politicians – the best of a ‘bad’ bunch of people. So when I do find someone credible, competent, trustworthy then I will use that person.

      Actually, that person is my brother and he does all of the work on my cars. Just this weekend he is fixed a fault and it cost me £100. The comparable quote from Halfords was in the region of £600!

      The issue is that he lives in Lancashire and sometimes it simply is not possible for me to get him to do the work. He does all the regular work and people like Halfords, I turn to, for emergencies.

      With my love
      maz

      Like

  4. You need to do an article on Post Office sorting/collection centres. The waiting rooms are something out of the seventies, you would never live in a house like them. There are loads of intimidating posters around warning you not to harass their staff too and forget about parking – their staff take all the spaces. I was just at one with my friend and they asked for ID for his 8 year old daughter since a package was in her name! Rubbish service, total jobsworths and every time a terrible experience.

    Like

    1. Hello Spencer

      Good to hear from you, I hope you had a great holiday and are well.

      As for the Post Office sorting/collection centres, I get where you are speaking from. I share the same experience as you. Interestingly a postman “Roy Mayall” has written a small book “Dear Granny Smith” to chronicle the decline of the service/customer ethos of the Post Office. He opens the book with the following words:

      “The world doesn’t seem to be made for human beings any more. There doesn’t seem to be any room for us. We all have this fantastic new technology: all of these computers, mobile phones ….It’s supposed to help us to communicate with one another … but if you ask me non one communicates properly any more, no one gets to know each other, not even their neighbour and when it comes to where we are going, the human race is competely lost…”

      Then he goes on to chronicle the ethos of public service, of care, has been driven out of the Post Office and all the people who work there – a natural result of the prevailing management mindset that focuses on efficiency (cutting costs) and driving up margins through price increases of one kind or another.

      Let me know if you are up for that interview sometime. As I would love to share you and your philosphy. You are one of my heroes.

      At your service
      maz

      Like

  5. I will never use Halfords Auto Centres again. They put sales of “extras” and tell you of things that need doing just so they get you to agree there and then to have the work done irrespective of how much wear is still left in the item. I have taken two cars to two different outlets and have the same sale pitch every time and remarkably brakes and discs etc. Together with the recommemdation of brake fluid changes and engine flush. I guess it puts a lot of people on edge thinking that the vehicle is not safe and agree to the job. The second car has been back and forward as they had not done a couple of things that I specifically asked. They removed an item from under the vehicle to get to the problem and did not refit the part. it was only the next day that I realsied. The garage agreed to take the car back. It wasnt until 4.15 that I contacted them about the part and the manager was very rude and said he would not replace the part as it was already damaged and could not be refitted. Why take this long in letting me know? I phoned Head Office and spoke to the Area Manager and explained all. In a nutshell, we agreed a deal between us to get the part replaced and I specifically asked him to make sure I could get access to my vehicle after closing time as I would be late collecting.
    So at 7pm, the car was locked and I expected this was going to happen and I guess the manager has now got the right hump, not only with me but his area manager! At 745 the manager turned up and guess what, he forgot the keys to the shop! I shook my head and he went into one. Threatening not to come back if I was going to shake my head and have a go at him! I reported this to his manager. As a customer, and on their forecourt, I will not be spoken to by any employee of any Company either in or outside working hours like he spoke to me! Have not heard a word back from them as I expected!
    Back to the sales pitch, most customers who came in on Saturday were asked if they wanted brake fluid changing and engine flushes etc etc. Sales and bonus against what the customer really needs!
    One gripe I have, is that my front washers were not good and I asked for them to be cleaned and would squirt up the windscreen. The guy phone me to say that my wipers need replacing as the screen wasnt clearing! Yes that was the case but only because of what I just described. They worked fine in the rain we have recently had! £30 that didn’t need to be spent!
    That will do from me and I never want to step foot anywhere near them places again!
    DAVE

    Like

    1. Hello Dave
      You are pointing out the curse of the asymmetry of information. Whenever one party has valuable information/expertise that the other party does not have then there is an opening, and under our existing way of living/working, and incentive to use that information to make ourselves better off at the expense of the other party.

      Put differently, the “strong oppress the weak” and the “rich exploit the poor”. It does not have to be this way. We have made it this way under the Anglo-Saxon culture and the Chicago school of free market economics.

      Said differently, you should expect Halfords to do what is best for Halfords. And it is your job, my job, to do what is best for me. Including not believing and checking out Halfords.

      All the best and thanks for entering into a conversation.

      maz

      Like

  6. Halfords are far from being my favourite company. There stock levels are often so low I can never find what I want and they send me emails offering products which appear to be good value for money (and not available for home delivery) but when you try to reserve one at a local store (on the same day I receive the email) it is not available, and when you call them you find it is not available anywhere. They do this simply to get you on to their website. The latest example being:
    http://www.halfords.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/product_storeId_10001_catalogId_10151_categoryId_265865_productId_824337_langId_-1?cm_mmc=E-Mail-_-Automated-_-Product_Browser-_-ProductBrowseID1

    Like

    1. Hello Graham
      You disclose a facet of life that is too often ignored. There is no ONE Halfords. My write-up of Halfords is based on my experiences with the people at the Bracknell branch. And with the purchase and return of the sat-nav. And what you experience shows is that different customers will interact with different Halfords and have different experiences. Many thanks for getting me present to that. I wish you well.

      Maz

      Like

  7. Halfords in Yeovil is probably the worst outlet I have ever used, only yesterday I went into this store yesterday, it was like the “Marie Celeste”. No one was available on the checkout, I stood there for 5 minutes waiting, in the end I led the goods on the counter, left and went a purchased elsewhere. Totally hopeless customer service and store management.

    Like

Comments are closed.