Time savers and money makers

Jan. 1, 2020
The right information can speed up life for your service bay customers.
Information fixes cars today, and one key component of that is the information obtained from the motorist — the person who drives the vehicle every single day and who knows which of 10 rattles is really the bothersome one. Yes, it takes a service consultant extra time to gather all pertinent information up front, but there is no bigger time-waster than providing a technician with vague or incorrect information.

For example, a DIFM (do-it-for-me) customer may simply say his car worsens over bumps, and that is the extent of the information offered. The responsibility, in this case, falls on the service consultant to quiz him further. It’s better to spend an extra five or 10 minutes narrowing the scope of the problem at the front counter than risking a vague repair order and wasting a second of a technician’s valuable time.

Information super sleuth

It’s easier said than done when it comes to extracting all the necessary information from a customer seeking repairs. Some admittedly have no idea what the problem is but assume the technician will when they offer up a “detail-packed” description like, “It doesn’t accelerate right.” Although their confidence in the technician is flattering, a lack of acceleration covers a gamut of problems.

Other customers believe they know the source of the problem and prefer telling the technician what to repair rather than answering what appears to be seemingly senseless questions. Then there are the customers who have all of the information, but they clam up because they don’t realize the value of that information. They’re afraid of looking stupid, or they’re in too much of a hurry.

So how does someone overcome these mind-sets and dig deep to pull out the information they need? Here are some ground rules for providing to your service dealer customers when they are considering a repair:

1. Listen carefully and with interest. Although there’s no shortage of advice on how to be a better listener, this is still one of the most difficult skills to master. One crucial point is for customers to have the floor and full attention. They need the opportunity to explain the concern(s) in detail and without interruption. A service consultant should show interest in what the DIFM is saying and never patronize them. Automotive customers are not used to being taken seriously, so a good set of ears goes a long way.

2. Confirm the information. Once a motorist  has finished speaking, what they’ve said needs to be repeated in the staffer’s own words. This gives both parties the opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings and also provides the motorist with confidence that both individuals are on the same page. In many cases, this restating technique will also keep them talking — and the motorist will likely divulge details they might not otherwise have thought to share.

3. Ask a lot of questions. To fill in any holes, service personnel need to ask questions that encourage their customers to provide as many details as possible. Open-ended questions that don’t lead in one direction or another are good. Also, the motorist won’t necessarily volunteer minute, but key, details because their minds are racing through a dozen other things or because they don’t realize those details are pertinent. In many cases, a diagnostic worksheet can be useful in drawing information out of the customer. Finally, it should be verified that the person dropping off the car is the primary driver of the vehicle and that they’ve experienced the problem they’re describing. If they are dropping the vehicle off for someone else, the actual driver should be called to discuss the problem.

4. Review the entire work order with the customer. Although an interrogation may center on an intermittent drivability problem, a dealer can’t forget to review the other reasons the car is coming in. This may trigger the driver’s memory for services they forgot to mention initially, or it will remind them of services they need. For example, if an appointment was rescheduled once or twice, the customer may now be due for an oil change. Once the repair order has been reviewed, the service person should ask if there’s anything else. This is one final attempt to jog their memory. Wiper blades, for example, are easy for consumers to forget about when it’s not raining.

5. Interpret the information. This is tricky. On one hand, service consultants have to resist “Service Counter Diagnostics” — hearing part or all of the customer’s description and jumping to an inaccurate conclusion. Instead, they should remain unbiased and relay only factual information to the technician. On the other hand, they have to read between the lines to make sure they understand exactly what the customer is asking for.

Sometimes, customers legitimately want an alignment because the steering wheel is crooked and the car is pulling. However, they’re often trying to resolve a problem that has nothing to do with alignment angles. This also happens frequently with customers who come in and ask for “a tune-up.”

It’s ultimately up to service consultants and technicians to ask their customers the right questions so that any problems can be resolved properly. They are the experts when it comes to determining what procedures are necessary.

The test drive

Despite the best information gathering abilities, some problems are just bizarre or elusive enough that a staff member needs to experience them personally. Noise complaints, unusual drivability problems and brake and steering concerns are all prime candidates for a test drive with the technician’s customer.

Those who take a little extra time at the beginning will undoubtedly save themselves and their technicians a lot of headaches and wasted time in the end. If trying to track down a reported rattle, a tech is very likely to climb in the car and hear 10 different rattles. How is the tech supposed to know which one is bothering the customer? It would be very easy to waste an afternoon eliminating the wrong rattle. But if a service consultant is sent on a test drive with the customer and successfully reproduces the noise in the customer’s presence, the consultant can then share that information with the tech, who will know which noise to pursue, and at the end of the day, will know without a doubt that the correct problem has been resolved.

Aside from confirming the customer’s complaint, spending five or 10 minutes on a test drive offers a few added benefits. First, it shows the service center truly cares and truly wants to help the customer. Second, if the problem is intermittent, the DIFM customer can see and appreciate that. It helps them to understand the complexity of the situation, and it gives the technicians added credibility. Even if the car doesn’t act up and they have to bring it in another day, it’s a lot more well-received than a “No problem found,” stamped on the invoice at the end of the day.

Information access in the service bay

There are two parts to the “information fixes cars” philosophy. While the first is gathering all pertinent information from the motorist, the second is putting technical service information at the technicians’ fingertips — literally.

To be efficient and accurate, technicians need instant access to everything, from their toolboxes and vehicle service history to wiring diagrams and service information. A service bay is not just a place where cars are hoisted up and down all day. Instead, it is a technician’s office, and that office must be organized to create the most efficient environment possible. Like a surgeon, technicians need all necessary tools and resources within arm’s reach.

If information sources are difficult to access — like when they are across the shop — technicians are going to be more hesitant to take the time-consuming walk to retrieve the information. Instead, they’ll spend more time trying to plow through the problem without assistance. In this set-up, efficiency, productivity and accuracy all suffer, right along with the service dealer’s bottom line.

To create the most efficient environment possible, each technician’s office should include the following:

  • A computer with access to the shop management system, service and repair information, wiring diagrams, TSBs, the Internet and online parts ordering. Many shops have one lonely computer dedicated to information access, and too often, that means someone is waiting in line to use it. How much of a time waster is that? By simply giving technicians access to the shop management system, they can check customer history to see if a certain problem is recurring and can avoid accidentally recommending work that has already been done. Traditionally, technicians have relied upon service advisors to look up needed service information, wiring diagrams, TSBs and maintenance schedules, even though the techs are the ones who know exactly what they’re looking for. Incidentally, this research is all part of the repair procedure and is billable time. When it comes to parts ordering, it again makes sense to put that in the hands of the technician because who else knows best what needs to be ordered?
  • A phone with voicemail. This is an essential communications tool and should be part of an effective communications system within any shop. If technicians have a phone with voicemail, other employees and management are able to quickly call them with a question. One of voicemail’s most significant benefits is that it prevents a technician’s concentration from being disrupted with every phone call. If the phone rings in the middle of an important procedure, the technician can retrieve the message when time permits. Many shops insist on prohibiting personal phone calls. The fact is: employees deserve more respect than that. Instead of micromanaging and policing the phones, service dealers should have a phone system that benefits everyone.
  • A company e-mail address. Just like the phone, this is another important method of communication. It allows staff members to receive company news, technician production hours, upcoming training classes, internal TSBs, company events and reminders. E-mail is beneficial because it gives employees an opportunity to actually see news and reminders in print. This typically has a stronger and longer-lasting impact over a verbal message, and it helps ensure that everyone has received a message. This helps to eliminate any “You didn’t tell me that” disputes. And like voicemail, e-mail is non-intrusive and does not require an immediate response. Employees can check it as time allows.
  • A toolbox. While this is obvious, its placement within a bay can positively — or negatively — affect efficiency. The closer the toolbox is to where the work is being done, the more efficient a technician will be. If three extra steps are required every time a tech heads to the toolbox, those steps add up at the end of the day, the week and the year.

When it comes to time management, there is one key rule for using tools: technicians should always put them back in the same place. This applies in all situations, whether a tech prefers putting their tools in their toolbox after each procedure, uses a roll-around cart or places their tools on the workbench. If they don’t follow this guide, they will end up spending more time looking for the tool they need while simultaneously wasting time on the overall job they are performing.

Chuck Hartogh is vice president and co-founder of C&M Auto Service Inc. of Glenview, Ill. and Vernon Hills, Ill, which he and partner Mike Starovich founded in 1984. Hartogh is an ASE-certified Master L1 Technician and has been in the industry since 1976. He earned his associates degree from Triton College in River Grove, Ill. He is a member of the “ASE Blue Seal of Excellence Extra” editorial board, vice president of the Lee Auto Parts Bumper-to-Bumper Dealer Council board, and an Auto-motive Service Association member.

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