DETROIT-Before it asks its dealers to remake their service departments, Ford Motor Co. believes it should ask itself some basic questions. For example: What message do customers get when they enter a dealership and see a world of glass and chrome in the showroom. . . and a land of cement and cinder block in the service area?
This year, Ford will probe countless questions like that in an attempt to overhaul parts and service operations at its dealerships. The process differs from previous, scattershot approaches aimed at curing trouble spots.
Now, Ford says, it is taking a systematic approach to the entire operation, looking at questions such as:
What is the optimal distance between the service adviser and the cashier and dispatch areas?
Can the service adviser see all areas where a customer might need help?
Ford wants to translate answers into dealership designs that promote the best service practices.
In one model, service write-up areas are showcased in the showroom along with the new-car sales reception area.
In another, a customer lounge provides a view of a clean, high-tech repair area.
Ford will spend much of this year studying such issues, said Joe LaFramboise, leader of the repair process development team in Ford's Customer Service Division.
The company then will take the evidence to its Ford, Mercury and Lincoln dealers and ask them to make changes at their dealerships.
``With dealers, we have to present irrefutable evidence,'' Mr. LaFramboise said.
``They worry about losing technicians and affecting grosses. We have to show that not only did the process change and customers are happier, but it was done with no loss of business. We are not there yet.''
The new philosophy says ``return on investment is not the singular focus you need to have,'' he added. ``That drives short-term decisions. We need to convince them that customer focus and long-term focus will result in profits.''
Ford is taking pains to point out that it is not creating a blueprint for dealers to follow by rote.
Instead, Mr. LaFramboise said, the new approach asks dealers to examine how the results of the new methodology can best be applied at each store.
The stakes are high: Parts and service represented more than 50 percent of total dealership profits in 1993, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. And that share has been growing.
Like other carmakers, Ford is trying to find ways to capture more of the customers who spent a total of $114 billion in the U.S. parts and service aftermarket in 1993.
Four teams are working on specific areas:
Customer appointments, write-up and dispatch processes;
Diagnosis and repair;
Parts availability; and
Customer follow-up, delivery and handling.
The three chief areas of review are facility upgrades, the write-up process and a return to hourly compensation for repairs.
Ford knows that the writing and process-ing of service orders has a significant effect on twin goals: fixing it right the first time and customer satisfaction.
So the company's wide-ranging review covers recruitment of service advisers, the skills needed to handle a customer, how the write-up system can improve service diagnosis and how technology can help.
Ford is reviewing possible use of computer ``prompts'' that would guide the service adviser through the write-up process with a series of questions.
Similarly, because parts availability is critical to customer satisfaction, Ford is trying to move beyond the current target of same-day parts availability.
``Customers don't want same-day availability. They want same-moment availability,'' said Mr. LaFramboise. ``Current reliance on a manufacturer's distribution center won't give you same-moment availability.''
Ford also is examining how it can better forecast parts demand and share parts inventories among dealers and other local supply sources.
Ford is handling the review differently than it would have 12 months ago.
Essentially, the company is trying to move a practice known as ``process engineering'' into its dealerships.
Many U.S. corporations have invoked the system in recent years. Ford itself is using it in the global reorganization the company began this year.
In simplest terms, process engineering involves pinpointing all the steps needed to complete a given job.
Proponents say efficiencies can be found when a task is broken into its components. The practice has been widely used in automotive manufacturing operations.
In a service shop, process engineering would look at what happens step-by-step when a customer arrives. Everything, from the appointment system, through write-up, order dispatch, diagnosis, repair, parts availability, customer delivery and follow-up, is examined in a systematic way.
``You focus not only on what you do, but how you do it,'' Mr. LaFramboise said. ``You want to know if the process is delivering what you want it to. If not, you re-engineer the practice.''
Ford is betting that dealers will take a long-range look at their parts and service operations and use the new approach to discover what needs to be improved.
``We used to look at the symptoms. We never got down to the root cause,'' Mr. LaFramboise said. ``When you become process-based, it is a more holistic approach.''