The wisdom of service sales incentives is an old debate that has been rekindled by Goodyear's recent edict banning commissions in its company stores. But such a ban isn't necessarily the best medicine for all tire dealerships. Dealers' preoccupation with the sales commission controversy only distracts them from vital issues such as front-line leadership that mean much more to the long-term health of their businesses.
Surely, ditching commissions removes the incentive for a dishonest minority element within our industry to oversell service work. But scrapping incentive programs usually points to a deeper, potentially fatal flaw in any service shop: Weak and/or uninformed front-line leadership.
Commission or no commission, solid front-line leadership is the first, best line of defense against overselling and selling the wrong repairs. In fact, history shows it's the cornerstone of an upstanding, profitable service department.
Make a firsthand study of reputable service departments that have been successful for decades. Astute observers will see that no matter where they're located, the key trait that model service centers share is strong, smart front-line leadership.
It's somewhat ironic that three of the best examples of front-line leadership I've found are in independent Goodyear stores in three major markets. These stores' total experience exceeds 100 years!
First of all, their top managers realize overselling isn't just immoral-it's wholly unnecessary. That's because they've seen more legitimate service opportunities on today's vehicles than a service department can handle. They know the key to success is getting the vehicle inside, identifying these opportunities, and closing as many sales on them as possible.
Upper management staffs these stores with strong front-line leaders who think like they do. Often, the person who understands their concepts best is a promotable, multi-talented technician from within the store's ranks who knows the philosophy because he's lived it.
What's more, this former technician is a conscientious professional who's heard the ``con artist'' and ``sleazy mechanic'' put-downs all his life. One-on-one, he emphasizes that harsh criticism has hardened his resolve to run a shop that reflects his sense of pride, fairness and professionalism.
This technician-turned-manager learned about consumer mistrust of auto repairmen in the ``School of Hard Knocks.'' Fortunately, the same school also taught him to be prepared to justify his work or service recommendations at a moment's notice.
Now that he's leading a service department, he expects of his workers the same that he expected of himself. He understands technicians needn't be accomplished orators. But they must be able to describe what the car needs and substantiate why.
Meanwhile, the service managers at these model stores who weren't technicians seem to possess an endless curiosity about vehicle operation and all aspects of auto repair. Typically, they eagerly attend the same seminars and clinics the store's technicians do and devour the same trade journals, often earmarking important technical stories for their techs. When these managers don't understand something they see or hear, they don't hesitate to ask their techs to explain it to them.
These non-technician service managers send a subtle message to technicians: They're striving to ``walk the walk, talk the talk.'' Their inquisitiveness and persistence serves notice that they won't be patsies for any technician.
At these successful tire stores, technicians can and do talk to customers. But first and foremost, techs must justify diagnostic conclusions and service recommendations to an informed, inquisitive service manager. If the service manager is convinced the recommended work is appropriate, then he or a service writer convinces the customer.
Basically, upper management authorizes these managers to set the example, serving as technical and ethical guardians of the service department-the store's first line of defense against improper repairs or systematic overselling. Doing the wrong repairs may not carry the stigma of overselling, but still wastes customers' time and money and tarnishes the store's image.
Show me a dealership with a golden reputation and successful track record and I'll show you one with knowledgeable, competent front-line leadership. Without it, a service department becomes a house of cards waiting to tumble.
Take this warning to heart: Whenever leadership is lacking, what can go wrong in a service department will-including misdiagnosis, overselling, and getting stung by watchdog groups!