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How Empathy Fuels Fuse: A Q&A with Caitlin Earnhart, Senior Manager - Customer Success

News and Insights March 21, 2023

By: Fuse
10 minute read

“If you had a superpower, what would it be?”

While others might say “flying,” Caitlin Earnhart takes a more grounded approach. As Senior Manager - Customer Success for Fuse Autotech, Caitlin believes empathy is the ultimate superpower. 

“At the end of the day, you have to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes and comfort them,” Caitlin says. “You have to tell them, ‘It’s going to be okay, and I’m going to help you.’ Empathy is at the heart of everything we do at Fuse — for consumers, for dealers, for everyone.”

Caitlin’s approach is a breath of fresh air in an industry long associated with lackluster customer service. Thanks to Caitlin and her team, Fuse Autotech is helping rewrite that stale narrative with advanced products, great service, and an endless supply of empathy. 

Last week, Caitlin sat down with us to discuss her upbringing in the automotive world, her wide-ranging career, and her enthusiasm for Fuse Autotech.

A gif of Wonder Woman transforming with a text overlay that reads: Empathy powers - ACTIVATE!. Above the gif, the text reads: Behold - with our (customer success) powers combined, we can keep empathy at the heart of everything we do.

First things first: how did you get into the car business?

My father owns a body shop in Dayton, Ohio, so I was practically born into the world of cars.  

As soon as I was physically able to handle the responsibilities, I was sweeping up bays, cleaning oil spills, washing cars, and getting them ready for delivery. 

And by the time I was 16, I switched to the business side of things — managing the books, inventory processes, and customer service.

At 16? That’s pretty impressive. 

It was definitely a lot to handle, and I made my share of mistakes. 

But I was very fortunate to work in a “safe” environment, to learn from my dad, and to interact with customers so early in my life. 

Especially in a body shop, where I’m sure everyone was always extremely pleasant and happy to be there…

Ha! Yeah, people are very raw in body shops — they don’t hide their frustrations. There’s no time for that. 

It was a very unpredictable environment, but it taught me so much about how to treat people.

I remember seeing my dad deal with a young mom and child who had just gotten into a bad accident — and a teenager who all but totaled his car. 

These are upsetting situations that have emotional, physical, and financial ramifications. The people that come into body shops need empathy, and they need to believe that you’re going to help make things better. 

Obviously, we could help fix a car and make it look good as new. That’s a given. 

But we’re also in the business of helping people. So it was always very important to my dad that we work with customers in an authentic, caring, and patient way. 

Related Read: Why People (Not Tech) Are Paramount: A Q&A with Candice Crane

Related Read: Why People (Not Tech) Are Paramount: A Q&A with Candice Crane

That’s amazing. So how long did you work at your dad’s body shop?

After I turned 16, he encouraged me to strike out on my own. 

While I’d work at the shop during summers (and the occasional weekend), I attended the University of Cincinnati and earned a marketing degree in business administration.

Wait, how does somebody with a marketing degree end up in the automotive world?

You know what’s funny, I went to work for Enterprise Rent-A-Car® right after school — which is at least automotive adjacent. 

Enterprise is famous for training managers, right?

Yep. And they have a great customer success model, too. 

I was also very fortunate to work in a flagship store of a large dealership organization — Kenwood Automotive. Between my dad’s body shop, Kenwood and Enterprise, I got to see all sides both ends of the automotive spectrum. 

I went from serving customers who had gotten into bad accidents, to handing over keys to vacation rental cars. Learning how to keep conversations positive and light was just as important as knowing how to deliver bad news to customers.

Once I became a manager and started coaching up teams, I learned how to blend the art of interpersonal relationships with protecting the bottom line.

I’ll always be very grateful for my time at Enterprise. 

What came next?

Once you get automotive in your blood, it never leaves. 

I knew I needed a change from Enterprise, so I went to Reynolds and Reynolds, a Dealer Management System (DMS) company based here in the Dayton area where I live. 

As an inside sales rep, I focused on selling variable products: front-end CRM and finance and insurance (F&I) products — not the DMS itself, but the products attached to it. 

As you look back on your time at Reynolds, what did you learn from that experience?

Working in sales showed me how much I love people. It also taught me that I crave tactile, intimate, and hands-on experiences. 

To be honest, it took me a while to adapt to working on the phone with customers. 

I missed the simplicity of being able to look a customer in the eye and to be in the same room with them. Most communication is nonverbal, and those intricacies inevitably get lost over the phone. 

So at first, I was very hard on myself. I really wanted to make sure I was asking the deeper questions, that I was really listening, and that I was fully in-tune with what clients were saying. 

Ultimately, the five years I spent at Reynolds really helped prepare me for my future at Fuse. 

What do you find most rewarding about your Customer Success role at Fuse?

Wow. How long do you have?

You tell me! 

Okay, I’ll give you my top three favorite things about Fuse — and they’re all intertwined.

For starters, I couldn’t imagine working for a more forward-thinking company. I’ve been in the automotive world long enough to understand how much Fuse is changing the game. 

There are “old-school” and “new-school” ways of doing business, and Fuse is in a category of its own. We’re definitely disrupting the market, but the growing pains are much-needed — and every day, they’re being appreciated more and more by dealers and customers across the country. 

Related Read: The History of Automotive Retail and a Guide to the Dealership of the Future

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I feel lucky to be a part of this amazing adventure, to help evolve how customers go about purchasing cars. 

Secondly, I get to work with an amazing team every single day. I know “team” is kind of an overused word nowadays, but it’s the truth. 

The Fuse staff is so tightly-knit and complementary, and we’re all rowing in the same direction. I don’t take that for granted, because it’s all too easy for employees to get competitive, distracted, or bogged down by disagreements. 

At Fuse, I genuinely feel we’re all rowing together towards the same vision.

What’s your third favorite thing about working at Fuse?

Our customers, hands down. 

I’ve learned so much from our clients, and honestly, I really think they’ve helped me grow as a person. The conversations we have are always so insightful. 

Also, it’s really inspiring to see what dealers are doing to help their local communities. They’re really making a difference in other people’s lives, and it’s thrilling to watch it happen in real time.

Do you have any advice for Customer Success professionals, especially if they’re new to the field?

Here’s what I would say: our job is all about alignment. 

It’s about understanding what customers need and delivering it on time, every time. It’s about having a vision and then reiterating, or even reselling it in each conversation. 

The fundamental questions seldom change: Where are you going? Where is your product going? What is your vision?

Once we ask the questions, it’s incumbent upon us to truly listen — to actually hear what the customer is saying.

I always assume the customer has a different perspective, that they see something I haven’t yet noticed. It’s absolutely crucial to listen and absorb what they’re saying — even if the immediate application isn’t totally clear. 

A big part of our job is learning how to translate a customer’s “ask” into something actionable. 

The better we listen, the better we can implement requests and keep dealers happy.

A headshot photograph of Caitlin Earnhart, accompanied by text that reads: "As customer success professionals, it's crucial to listen and absorb what our customers are saying, even if the immediate application isn't totally clear."

How would you say FUSE helps dealers maximize their potential? 

Many dealers are bogged down by complex systems and levers that only create friction. 

At Fuse, we help dealers streamline their process and accomplish their goals. 

We do that in two ways: first, through our technology, and second, by helping dealers expand their time horizon. 

It’s no secret that most dealers follow a 30-day business cycle. As we see it, that view often prevents them from thinking strategically, and from improving their processes and technology stack. 

Unfortunately, most people are afraid of change. 

Related Read: How Not to Lose Customers to Dealership Complacency

Related Read: How Not to Lose Customers to Dealership Complacency

So how do you help dealers fight through the discomfort?

For starters, you have to manage expectations. Dealers need to know we aren’t waving a magic wand and instantly revolutionizing their business.

I always tell dealers, “Look at this like a lifestyle change. We’ll start small and update things piece-by-piece.” 

My job isn’t to transform a dealership overnight. Instead, it’s to help clear a path for an improved process — and to help dealers move further down that path every day. 

So yes, I help people learn new products and processes, but what I really do is help them deal with change. Growing pains are inevitable, but once everyone can see the same vision — and understand the process of achieving it — they get excited.

You know, I have a four-year-old toddler at home, and he’s just starting to learn to read. 

He gets a little frustrated sometimes, but then I remind him of where he’s headed, and eventually, his frustration gives way to focus. And that’s what it’s all about. 

How has it been working remotely with a young family?

I love being a working mom, and the flexibility has been amazing.

I can take calls with clients and coach my coworkers, and then between meetings, I can do a quick load of laundry or pull some weeds in the garden.

Ten years ago, that would have been an impossibility — but now it feels like the perfect work-life blend.

Do you feel supported as a working mom? 

Absolutely. The culture at Fuse has been instrumental in letting me further my career while growing my family. 

In general, I think the auto-tech industry has empowered women to have the best of both worlds. 

For example, my son had a stomach bug yesterday, and I had some important meetings I couldn’t reschedule. Once upon a time, that would have made for a very complicated situation, but not anymore. 

Occasionally, my son would pop onto the call and say hello to everyone. So, I could easily take care of him without missing a meeting or falling behind on work.

That’s because the people at Fuse understand and respect that we all have our own lives. They know it’s a balance.

Work is important, but so is family. 

And honestly, Fuse feels like an extension of my family. It’s a privilege to be part of this team. 

Related Read: Working at Fuse: Q&A with Head of Engineering Johnny Mor

Related Read: Working at Fuse: Q&A with Head of Engineering Johnny Mor

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