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Friday, October 17, 2008

BIZ TIP: ADVICE on Advisors!

BIZ TIP: ADVICE on Advisors!

by Kelly Bennett, WORLDPAC Training Institute (WTI) Business Development Instructor

In this series of fictional letters from a new shop owner to his former boss, WTI management trainer Kelly Bennett discusses basic business principles that apply to the automotive repair industry.

ADVICE on Advisors! says if you ever want to be an absentee owner, you’re going to have to find someone you trust to run the counter. It also addresses the evolving role of an automotive shop owner and the four main skills of a good advisor.

Dear Kelly.

OK. I hired a new technician. He lives close by and really loves the shorter commute. He’s turning out to be a great technician . . . and a great employee! However, this has caused a new problem. With more work on the go, I’m having an even harder time keeping up with the service advisor role. I am feeling pulled in every direction between the bays and the counter. I don’t think I can afford an advisor, and even if I could, can I trust them to look after MY customers?

- Erol

Dear Erol:

Well, that’s great news about finding the right technician. I’m sure that’s a load off your mind. I’m well aware of the challenges of trying to wear three hats at once – technician, advisor and manager. I think that cost me more grey hairs than anything else! One thing that helped me was the book Getting Things Done; The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen.

Another thing that helped me was seeing the “bigger picture” of how the role of an automotive shop owner evolves. I went through it myself, although it took a lot longer than it probably should have.

Stage 1: Technician

Many of us shop owners start in this industry as a technician. So when we put our own name on the building, it makes sense that we continue to do what we’re really good at. After all, there’s no revenue if we don’t fix vehicles! And this is what we love to do anyway. So we’re pretty happy at first. But there are all those phone calls, and the walk-ins. I always hated getting interrupted when I was working on a vehicle. But there was no one else to deal with customers.

The truth is, you can’t fix every vehicle yourself and still have time to talk to customers, prepare estimates, order parts, and keep everything organized.

Stage 2: Service Advisor

So you hire a technician and spend more of your time on the counter. You figure you’ve truly arrived as a full-time manager! But here’s a new problem you didn’t anticipate: You like your customers and want them to like you, so you tend to give away lots of stuff. There are those parking lot opinions I’ve mentioned in the past. There are those “tiny, little jobs” for friends and giving credit to everyone who comes in... You could easily sabotage your own business. When I was the service advisor, I gave away the farm!

Stage 3: Manager

So the healthiest thing you can do for your own shop is hire a professional to deal with customers while you concentrate on managing the business. Erol, I really wish I’d gotten to this role faster. Getting out of the bays was tough. Giving up the counter was even tougher! I was afraid to trust anyone else to look after my customers. But when I finally gave in and hired a service advisor, I really started to feel I’d reached “that next level.”

Stage 4: Absentee Owner

I’m not quite there yet, but I’m looking forward to this stage most of all! The business is running smoother than it ever has and I’m at the point where I can go on vacation and trust my team to run the shop by themselves. In fact, it’s hard to admit, but it sometimes runs better when I’m gone. And really, that’s the main goal of successful business builders – getting it to the point where it can run by itself.

So, you’re just entering Stage 3. Congratulations. The question is, can you afford a full-time service advisor? I would say you can’t afford to not have one! You’re not a super hero. You’ll burn out if you keep doing what you’re doing.

Now, I’m sure you have lots of fears about this next step. Will your customers be treated as well as you treat them? Will someone else be able to sell services as easily as you can? Will they know enough about cars to talk intelligently about the work you do? Will they do the paperwork properly?

Clearly you need the right person at the desk. I’ve spent a lot of time sorting all of this out, and I’ve learned to look for the four main skills of an advisor . . .

  1. Customer Service Skills

    You have to find someone who truly loves people. I tried for years to train people to like people. I even trained them to pretend they like people. It can’t be done. You have to find someone who is a people person at heart. This is a must!

  2. Selling Skills

    The problem is, people who are really great at customer service often lack selling skills. They think people will resent the pitch or be offended by it. But the best service advisors understand that selling people what they need is more important than just giving them what they want.
    Their job is to take care of the customer’s vehicle. Proper selling never sacrifices customer service, it enhances it! You don’t need someone on the desk who is just an order-taker. The good news is that selling skills can be learned.

    Even people who are not natural sales people can learn how to effectively suggest necessary work, and see it as a service to their clients.

  3. Administrative Skills

    The paperwork has to get done. I once had an advisor who was great with people but she was disorganized, never balanced her books, and couldn’t stand any paperwork. Eventually I just had to let her go.

    When I started looking for our next service advisor, I knew administration was a key skill we were looking for. What a find Val was! A real people person who understood the importance of paperwork. Yeah, we had to get her some sales training, and we had to teach her how a car works, but she caught on in no time.

  4. Technical Skills

    The person at the counter has to understand the basics of automotive repair. Without that they can’t discuss our work with customers.

    Now, I know some people think former techs make good advisors, but I’m not convinced. Technical knowledge is good, but sometimes technicians give their knowledge away for free or they get wrapped up in trying to diagnose a vehicle problem at the counter. They also tend to get too technical with the customers. They can make people feel stupid.

    So to help educate our advisors, I get my technicians to take turns conducting a weekly meeting where we explain just one aspect of automotive repair. We even put it in writing so they can refer back to it. Any time a new technology comes along, we make sure we get the service advisors up to speed before customers start asking about it.

I’m convinced that training is the key to developing a “well rounded” service advisor. As long as they come with a genuine love for people, you can manage around their weaknesses. And if you ever find someone who is an expert in all four areas, keep them happy! They’re great for your business.

Erol, I’ve developed a short test that identifies a person’s strengths and weaknesses in these four areas. I use it when I’m interviewing a service advisor, and occasionally I use it to assess existing employees. If you want it, e-mail me at and I’ll send it to you.

- Kelly

To learn more about Kelly Bennett's Business Development Classes, visit the WORLDPAC Training Institute (WTI).

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