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Recently I wrote about keeping good technicians by developing some sort of training rebate to provide I-CAR training to achieve Gold status for the shop and possibly Platinum status for the technician. (“Incentivizing Tech Training,” April 2011) Then, this week, I heard about an employee leaving a local shop after about 10 years of very good service. How did the shop owner in this case lose such a valuable employee? What might he have done to prevent it?

“A busy shop owner or manager will have a hard time spotting
the negative indicators that can lead to the loss of an employee... One-on-one conversation, where the boss can inquire about
the employee’s family and personal concerns,
is still the best approach.”

Manpower Inc. job placement firm reports that 84 percent of employees plan to look for new jobs this year, compared to 60 percent at the start of 2010. The firm cites increased workloads and stagnant compensation as the main reasons. Downsizing may be the cause of the work increase, and the recession has probably affected employers’ ability to raise wages. But I don’t think these were the causes of this shop’s employee leaving. I’ve noticed a pattern in shops that are transitioning from mom-and-pop operations into full-fledged business enterprises. Recognition in smaller shops is often just a verbal “nice work” from the owner or manager. Shops that have grown into corporate structures have usually developed programs like the upward training path discussed in my previous column. But the shops in transition may be stuck in the past when a verbal pat on the back was considered adequate to keep employees satisfied.

In the shop that lost this 10-year employee, the owner was mainly focused on new marketing and production initiatives. While that focus is essential, there is always the danger of losing employees if adequate attention to employees isn’t provided. I could see that this employee’s workload had increased, but I doubt that the recognition was there for him. I’ve seen other employees leave this shop for similar reasons in the past.

So, is there a right way to handle this transition from small to a medium or large shop? As a shop grows, the shop owner or manager has less time to focus on each individual employee because there are many new demands with growth. But as the shop grows, there will be an increasing need to provide opportunities for employee growth and recognition. The loss of one employee may not have a major impact on the shop’s productivity and profitability, but there is a greater danger. When one employee leaves, others who may have been holding off on making a change may now also leave. A snowball effect of this kind can do some real damage.

Because of the recent recession, this shop owner had some slow months and much of his attention became focused on developing new business, bringing prior customers back, and trying to make up for lost revenue. But this employee’s departure didn’t happen overnight. The circumstances leading up to it had been in the works for quite some time. Had the shop owner been even remotely focused on negative employee indicators, he could have taken steps to remedy this employee’s on-going dissatisfaction. Those of us who have a more thorough understanding of automobiles are sensitive to small indicators of impending trouble. We know that, in an automobile, small problems don’t heal themselves, but will eventually become bigger problems. The same is true of people, but the indicators are a lot less obvious than a knock in a car’s engine. The indicators may be a person becoming less communicative, looking stressed or unhappy, being less attentive to customers, or seeming to be distracted. These can be signs that the employee is contemplating changes and is partially focused on elements not connected with his or her job.

It’s easy to see why it’s so important to have systems in place to monitor employee satisfaction, even for a relatively small shop. A busy shop owner or manager will have a hard time spotting the negative indicators that can lead to the loss of an employee when there are a dozen or more employees to monitor. I’ve seen some that try to have brief meetings where employees can speak up about things that bother them, but not everyone will speak up. Others try suggestion boxes. Once again, many employees won’t use them. One-on-one conversation, where the boss can inquire about the employee’s family and personal concerns, is still the best approach. But in between these conversations the shop owner would be wise to keep a scorecard for every employee, rating not only time and job performance, but also any recent family illnesses and personal difficulties that could ultimately affect job performance and longevity. Considering the cost of hiring and training a replacement, this would be a small investment.

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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