AKRON (Jan. 6, 2003)—Solid reading skills are essential, invaluable assets for successful automotive service personnel.
The ability to read and totally comprehend the written word is no longer a nice thing to possess—it's a must-have talent in today's competitive automotive marketplace.
To look at the issue another way, consider the carpenter's expression: “Measure twice, cut once.” Perhaps the axiom for a good technician ought to be read twice, wrench once. All too often I find people doing very much the opposite: Wrenching (dismantling things and/or needlessly replacing parts) first and reading later when wrenchin' hasn't fixed the vehicle.
In previous columns, I have argued that the auto repair industry's image was already in serious trouble by the time I entered the trade as a teenager in the 1960s. By then I was already acquainted with the expression, “If these guys could read well, they wouldn't be turning wrenches for a living!”
The source of this pointed remark was a motorist who'd suffered at the hands of quasi-mechanics who were either too proud or too dense to read some kind of resource material before committing to a course of action. To make matters worse, the true professional who finally fixed his vehicle said the solution was available to anyone who bothered to open a shop manual.
In the real world, simply opening a shop manual (traditional book or CD/DVD) doesn't always provide the answers we really need. But consulting some kind of source material is a sensible first step—albeit one that requires reading skills. What's more, the motorist's negative reaction is not only understandable but frightening when you wonder how many times this incident has occurred in our business.
As the auto repair industry battles to rebuild its image, another thing that has always concerned me is the sense that opening a book isn't manly or mature. To put it bluntly, if real men don't eat quiche, then real men also don't open books. They just attack with an air chisel or impact guns and ask questions later. Listen to them or, better yet, watch them work and you'll understand what I mean.
Owners and managers who still think there's something wrong with a worker who has to open a book or consult a data CD or DVD only aggravate and perpetuate this attitude. These bosses need a serious reality check. Many repair jobs today require a minimum of 10-15 minutes of book or computer time to prepare the tech for the task ahead.
Paul Grech, an old colleague of mine, addresses this issue better than anyone I know. Mr. Grech, owner of Allied Engine and Auto Repair, has operated a full-service shop at the same site in downtown San Francisco for almost 30 years. Inside his shop you'll see a professionally lettered sign that says don't be alarmed if you see us opening a book first. Rather, be wary if we don't open a book at all!
Mr. Grech nailed it—there's simply too much we're supposed to know about too many makes and models to get by without reading source material every day.
If your tire dealership or service shop is serious about surviving and thriving in this business, then you've got to take reading skills seriously. First, you have to convince all service personnel that doing the appropriate homework beforehand is part of their job description instead of an afterthought. Create an atmosphere in which cracking a book, consulting a CD or going online is the norm rather than the exception. Maybe the issue should be clarified in your employee manual, too.
A critical key to encouraging this basic “homework” is to charge enough to cover the time via a diagnostic fee or an “informed” labor rate.
Unfortunately, functionally illiterate workers are everywhere. Therefore, watch for clues that suggest an employee has trouble reading. For example, he or she doesn't seem to understand very basic written instructions or stubbornly resists reading any kind of printed material.
When you recognize these clues, your challenge as an effective boss and leader is to rectify the situation without losing a good worker. Try counseling the employee in private and then motivate him or her to enroll in an adult education remedial reading class of some kind. Long-term, you'll be glad you did.