The business-savvy tech: fact or fiction?

Jan. 1, 2020
Ask any shop owner you meet what technicians really need, and they'll probably tell you training, training and more training. This answer should come as no surprise, because as vehicle systems become more and more complex, the stereotypical "wrench t
Ask any shop owner you meet what technicians really need, and they'll probably tell you training, training and more training. This answer should come as no surprise, because as vehicle systems become more and more complex, the stereotypical "wrench turner" is being replaced by a computer-savvy technician. But should a tech's training extend beyond the technical realm into the business realm? Opinions are mixed on the subject.

"Yes it should," says Jim John, chair of the Aftermarket Management Department at Northwood University. "The business itself has become so much more complex. And the financial aspects of running a business are extremely important to all employees."

But there are some aftermarket players who want to qualify John's unequivocal "yes" with a more temperate training schedule for techs. Rick Baker, owner of Rick Baker's Auto Service, Inc. in Pleasant Hill, Ohio, agrees that techs should have some business training. But he stops just short of teaching them too much, and instead concentrates on schooling them in the ways of general operations.

"In today's world, it's important for guys to know how a business runs," he says. "They need to know how what they do impacts the business, especially in terms of efficiency. Until you're the one paying the bills, it's hard to understand the details of the business or to buy in to certain practices."

Baker adds that business training is especially important in smaller shops run by two or three people, where multitasking is critical to the business' success. Employees need to know what's going on and how to do a variety of jobs in the event that a colleague is not available to field a customer query or handle a business emergency.

"In our shop, we have to be flexible," says Baker. "We need everyone to know how the workflow goes."

Dan Dorflinger, district sales manager for NAPA's Underhood Group, agrees.

"A tech can do a better job if he's had business training, because he understands return on inventory and vehicle turnover," he says. "If techs don't have business training, they may just look at what they do as putting on parts, not contributing to the business."

Dorflinger adds that for the past three years, NAPA has been working with Vin Waterhouse, an automotive training specialist at The Waterhouse Group, to provide business training to shop owners, service advisors and techs in NAPA stores. Waterhouse and his employees run seminars and workshops in all three segments and use a simple formula to help participants figure out how many vehicles a tech needs to see in a day for the shop to turn a profit. In addition, Waterhouse teaches techs to break down hours by efficiency, so they can understand how much money the shop is losing when they aren't working efficiently.

But go any farther than that, says Carl Uptagrove, a wholesale manager with NAPA, and you risk creating a know-it-all tech who thinks he or she has a better handle on the financial world than the boss does.

"Techs should have some business training, but give them too much and they'll be giving me advice I don't want," he adds. " We want our techs to be the best they can be in their segment, and to concentrate on that segment. I don't want someone standing over me giving me advice on a subject he may not completely understand."

Striking out on their own

Look on the other side of the proverbial coin, however, and there is an argument for more advanced business training for techs, says Jay Buckley, the Bendix® Answerman and industry trainer. That argument involves the fact that most independent auto repair shops are run by people who got tired of working for someone else and decided to strike out on their own.

"These guys may be great mechanics, but they are lousy businessmen," Buckley says. "They lack the skills to negotiate supplier deals, communicate with customers and sell their work. Being a good mechanic is only 50 percent of the job."

And don't think you can bluff your way through that 50 percent, Buckley says — statistics show that of all the technicians-turned-shop-owners starting repair shops in the U.S., more than half fail during their first year of business.

"It's very, very difficult to go out on your own," says Russell McCloud, owner of Accurate Automotive Attention in Yuma, Ariz. "If someone is thinking of doing that, they need to attend management training before opening the shop."

Buckley goes on to explain that Bendix is developing business-oriented classes for technicians, and that these classes will be available starting in 2009. The classes will incorporate practical business advice needed to run a shop, as well as teach techs the communications skills they need to explain repairs or invoices to customers.

"We found that the No. 1 complaint among customers is that the guys they are talking to at the repair shops are very gruff and aren't able to communicate or explain things clearly," Buckley says. "Helping the tech-turned-shop-owner learn these communication skills will help them succeed in the long run."

But for the average technician who's not interested in going it alone, business training still can make a lot of sense.

"To give a tech that type of training in a classroom setting greatly assists with their buy-in and their understanding of the procedures and practices a shop owner has put in place," says McCloud. "In the end, there's nothing a shop owner or manager can do that's more important to a company's success than to attend management training every chance they get, and to communicate what they learn to their technicians."