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Put Your Service Department In Overdrive: Technology and Great Customer Skills Work Hand-In-Hand

Every dealership service department faces a tough set of hurdles in retaining customers after their initial vehicle purchase. Quick-lubes, warehouse clubs and independent shops vie for your sales customers’ attention with convenient hours, low prices, and great service. Manufacturers continually strengthening vehicle performance and warranty coverage only compound the situation by making non-maintenance service visits less frequent.
The best plan of action to overcome these hurdles is to wed good sales techniques with today’s technology tools. The same, cherished sales training used in the showroom should be the model you follow in training service employees. Granted, these two types of employees sell different services, but the method used for ongoing training and selling techniques for both is surprisingly similar.
Case in point: When a dealer receives a new model vehicle in the showroom, the dealer invests in training the sales professional to put the car on the street. Similarly, when a dealer pays for a new technological advance in the service department, the same degree of training should be provided so service personnel can put cars back on the street. Technicians must be properly trained to keep up with technology to accurately diagnose vehicle problems.
Technology + Good Customer Service Skills = Quicker Problem Solving
No matter what technology is available, customers still prefer the luxury of personal guidance. During a service walk-around, when customer and service advisor most closely interact, “Always pop the hood,” said Brad Thompson, director of operations at Serpa Automotive Group in Visalia, Calif. “You are not only looking for leaks, fluid levels and tire conditions; you are letting the customer see everything you see rather than calling and telling them later.” If the vehicle needs special parts or service, “Immediately schedule another appointment right then,” he said.
Training and consulting programs can help service advisors and technicians effectively ask questions during the critical diagnostic stage. “If you walked in to your doctor’s office and said ‘I have a terrible headache,’ the doctor doesn’t usually reply, ‘I think we need brain surgery,’” said Don Reed, CEO of DealerPro Service Solutions. “Instead, he’s going to ask you a lot more questions that begin with ‘Who,’ ‘What,’ ‘Where,’ ‘Why,’ and ‘Tell me about,’ so that he can come up with proper diagnosis or make recommendations for tests. You need to be a good investigator and ask the right questions, [such as:] ‘Why do you think you need a front-end alignment?’ This way, you get the symptoms of the customer’s car and can give them a proper recommendation.” Reed also encourages service staff to avoid “automotive jargon or acronyms.”
Once the questions are asked, products such as Advanced Repair Guidance Information System (ARGIS) by Mobile Productivity Inc. (MPI), can help make pinpointing a problem easier. “ARGIS is a diagnostic and repair inspection process tool that is helping dealerships increase their productivity as well as their gross pay profit,” explains Susan Lovett, director of marketing for MPI.
With ARGIS Vehicle Maintenance (ARGIS/VM™), a technician can click on a repair order and receive instant information on a car from the original equipment manufacturer. Some of the available information includes everything related to the year, make and model, repair instructions, wiring diagrams, troubleshooting bulletins and recalls. According to Lovett, it offers “any information a technician might need.” Every detail is then downloaded onto a wireless personal computer (PC) tablet, which technicians can also use it to directly access the manufacturer’s Web site.
The second component ARGIS offers, ARGIS Quick Service (ARGIS/QS™), is an advanced vehicle inspection process that gives every customer a full-color, customized report appropriately named, “Know Your Vehicle.” The report includes a fitness inspection and treatment plan, and, according to Lovett, “It is easy to read and understand, with pictures detailing any problems that have been discovered.” These pictures include the customer’s current problematic part compared to new parts, explanations of a problem’s long term effects, cost breakdowns, services declined and areas that may need reevaluation. ARGIS also retains all information on the customer’s vehicle for instant recall on future visits.
Whichever diagnostic tools you choose, Jeff Cowan, president of Jeff Cowan’s ProTalk, Inc., believes in pairing them with a professional presentation. By polishing how service advisors and writers present those problems to the customer — and why customers should let you fix them — “You can turn a three-tenths of an hour repair order into a 3-hour repair order,” said Cowan. When talking to customers, Cowan suggests six guidelines:
  1. Identify what is needed (“I noticed your tires aren’t wearing evenly.”).
  2. Offer a repair solution (“What I would recommend you do is…”), and explain what will take place (“When the vehicle is here, we will rotate the tires.”).
  3. Give the benefits of service (“Fixing the problem today will prolong the life of your tires and provide a smoother ride.)
  4. State time and cost involved (“To do that today would add an additional 30 minutes to the process and only be X amount of dollars extra.”).
  5. Close the sale (“I suggest we go ahead and handle that today, OK?”).
  6. Handle the objections. Instead of passively responding, “OK, sign here,” you can gently emphasize reasons for getting the extra work done while you have the car in the shop (“I can understand already you have a busy schedule and a budget you need to stick to, and every day we have small interruptions. Even though it’s going to be an extra 30 minutes and an extra X amount of dollars today, if you let those tires go, it may end up costing you an extra three hours of service and substantially more money down the road.”)
Phone Calls and Appointments
“Often dealers train their service advisor and parts people how to operate a computer and how to print a repair order, but they seldom train them how to answer the phone,” said Reed. DealerPro utilizes non-threatening means to improve an employee’s telephone etiquette. With the dealer’s permission, they mystery phone-shop employees and record the conversations. Then, they play it back to the person shopped. The objective is not to embarrass the employee, but “to let them hear what their customers are hearing.” Sometimes employees will hear the phone ring 15 times with no answer. Another scenario is hearing “Service. Please hold,” then getting disconnected. Reed also warns against advisors trying to diagnose a problem over the phone — a feat that’s not possible.
Along with these eye-opening mystery calls, another suggestion is giving positive feedback to a customer when calling about their car. “Too often we give them the bad news, when we also should be telling them the good things about their vehicle. It is part of letting them know we care,” said Reed.
Back at Serpa Automotive Group, once proper phone skills are in place, Thompson favors a “pre-emptive” call strategy. “My service writers call all customers at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. everyday to give each one an update. This puts customers at ease by keeping them informed and also prevents the advisor from having to field phone calls all day.”
Online services that allow for clearer communication with customers, like those offered by Select Repairs, can make each phone call even more effective by obtaining approval for additional needed repairs. With Select Repairs, customers can log on to the Internet while they’re on the phone with the service advisor and take a pixilated tour of everything on their vehicle that needs replacing or repair. Garry Nelson, president of Select Repairs, said, “This is far more compelling than getting a voicemail or having a discussion over the phone about a repair; many people aren’t mechanically inclined. In the case of a $1,000 incremental repair that you didn’t know you needed, a picture is really worth a thousand words.”
Customers can inspect an online image of their own worn out tires or brakes, compare it with pictures of a new part and quickly approve or decline additional repairs. If the customer chooses to get the suggested repairs, they can be done all in the same day. The online menu can also promote dealer specials, parts discounts and other featured services. Both customer and service advisor receive a detailed summary of services via e-mail, and both see the same layout on screen, eliminating room for confusion or error. Nelson added that if the driver (say, a college student) does not have authority to make decisions, the vehicle’s owner can also review the repairs online. Tools, like the ones offered by Select Repairs, help save time, keep customers informed and improve communication and service.
On Thompson’s service floor, details like printing repair orders and tag numbers for customer keys are taken care of by his staff a day in advance to free up time for customers. Especially important, he said, is to “pre-write your appointments for the next day,” staggering them, so each customer is given ample face-to-face time.
Online tools like can help streamline the appointment process, allowing service departments to stay ahead of customers’ busy schedules. This provides customers the ability to go to the dealer’s Web site and make real-time, online, confirmed service appointments — requiring no manual intervention from dealership personnel.
When customers register to utilize this service appointment process, the dealership gathers e-mails for future contact. The customer receives a confirmation e-mail when the appointment is made, a reminder e-mail the day before their appointment, an e-mail notifying them when the work is completed and a CSI e-mail after the vehicle is picked up. If a customer misses his or her appointment, an e-mail is sent offering re-scheduling. The product increases customer satisfaction and retention because customers can easily schedule or shift their appointment at their convenience. “It will also reduce in-bound telephone calls to the dealership and drive traffic to the dealer’s Web site,” said Karen Dillon, president of
The back-end matrix of the product assists service managers in managing their business by taking into account services offered, number of appointments by time increments, service duration, service depth and time-bucket hours. “The ability to totally load-balance the dealership’s service bays assists the service manager in controlling what goes on in this very important area of the dealership and increases service department efficiency and revenue,” said Dillon. The product simplifies the appointment process and increases the efficiency of employees who take in-bound calls. Dillon also said, “Dealerships have lost such a large percentage of non-warranty service business to the independent service facilities primarily because the customer views them as being more convenient.” Products like the one offered by can bring convenience back to dealership customers.
Basic customer service skills are best complimented with continual training and technology. Thompson, a big supporter of continual training for his employees at Serpa, said, “If your technicians are not trained in the latest technology, you will be chasing your tail.” He continually assesses his staff’s strengths and weaknesses and enrolls them in academic training as needed. “If one technician has strong electronic skills, I will send that employee to an electronic school to further that skill.” If veteran technicians struggle with new technology, Thompson enrolls them in classes to overcome the technological gap. The main goal is to bolster performance, while staying ahead of new repair obstacles.
A Bi-weekly, individual visit with every technician is another method Thompson uses to keep tabs on productivity in his service department. He asks them questions like, “How do you feel the service department is running?” These one-on-one talks, even if they last less than five minutes, “reinforce the feeling that they are part of a team; not just a number,” said Thompson.
That same personal touch makes customers feel special as well. Reed of DealerPro said the great thing about great service is, “It doesn’t cost any money – it’s free! It’s just a matter of attitude and a little bit of time and training.”
Service training varies based on the trainer, trainee and specific dealership needs and must be designed to compliment the changes in technology every dealership faces. Some dealerships rely on in-house training, while others believe the best results are achieved with assistance from a third party. Regardless of which training method a dealer chooses, such services help hone the skills of everyone who interacts with a customer — from the service advisor, to cashiers, parts personnel and employees taking service calls. Reed said, “The goal is to exceed the expectations of every person that walks in the door.” If you are capable of achieving that goal, your customers will certainly return to your service department after the sale.
Vol 3, Issue 7


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