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.