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Don't Lead on Auto Pilot

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At auto shows and in the auto news there has been a lot of talk about the “self-driving car.” Theoretically, the person who would be the nonparticipating driver could relax and watch TV, read the paper or even sleep while the car drives itself.

But there are some serious sacrifices that would have to be made to use this capability. The car would almost be like a railroad car on a freight train. It would follow the cars in front of it and never try to pass, no matter how slowly cars ahead are traveling. It would follow GPS directions and never deviate from that route, regardless of opportunities to take a faster route. It will ignore other driver’s honking and verbal or hand signals. It will just go along on its own automatic way.

The reason I describe this is that it comes close to describing a “driverless business.”  A business owner or general manager who mostly relies on employees or outsourced associates to drive the business is much like someone driving a “driverless car.” He or she risks traveling too slowly, missing opportunities to take a better route and possibly ignoring signals from the industry and other business drivers. He or she might fail to participate in some of the most essential aspects of running the business. Like really driving a car, any business driver must have his or her eyes on the road ahead. He or she must watch the gauges and indicators and be able to make an immediate stop, or change direction to avoid a collision or vehicle breakdown.

Last month I wrote about DuPont Performance Coatings’ executive facilitator, Larry Baker, who emphasizes focusing on leading indicators during the month rather than end-of-the-month statements that he called lagging indicators. These are the gauges that will indicate a need to take immediate corrective action.

When a collision repair center is caught in a dramatic financial downturn, it might seem to be most productive for the owner or general manager to cut personnel costs by performing some production manager tasks. But the fact is, even more real revenue is being lost by not having a completely focused, total manager at the wheel. Sadly, I’ve witnessed a number of shops owned by former technicians that fell into this trap.

Because they know the production side of the business so well, they’re most comfortable directing most of their attention to that area. The result can be a relatively  “driverless business,” with the focus inside the vehicle rather than outward on the direction of travel. In a shop of a dozen employees or more, a large percentage of the revenue and profits could be slipping through the cracks if the owner or manager isn’t watching more than the inner activities of the shop. Employees often simply go along, like a driverless car, doing the automatic things their jobs call for. They’re not empowered to make decisions that only an owner or general manager can make.

There can be opportunities every day to negotiate better prices and even more jobs, but it must be done by someone who has the power to do it—the real manager or driver of the business. Marketing personnel can’t really make serious monetary offers to dealership principals or insurance executives. This generally has to be the domain of the owner or general manager. The person in a driverless car doesn’t have to look outside, but this is exactly what a business driver must do. A shop can’t be effectively managed just working inside.

An astute marketing person can do much to build business for a shop, but the real driver of the business could multiply that effort many times by being out meeting with potential business sources, building relationships with community leaders, and constantly negotiating opportunities for the shop to grow. Employees alone can only take that so far.

Finally, the driver of a business must respond as quickly as the driver of a car. If someone honks or warns a driver of an upcoming hazard, the driver must immediately acknowledge that warning. A manager’s every incoming complaint, financial warning, phone call or e-mail should be viewed like warning lights on a vehicle’s dashboard. Ignoring them or postponing the response could be deadly in a car or in a business.

An incoming call offering an opportunity for a new DRP or dealership relationship can’t be shuffled off to a subordinate. It would be lost if the business owner responded days later, and the loss would be enormous. A quick response when a doctor taps a knee to test a reflex indicates the health of the individual. A slow response is an indicator of a sick organism or organization. For a business, it’s like operating a driverless car, a very dangerous approach to management.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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