AKRON (April 14, 2008) — Smart, practical service managers should develop sensible road test routes and then require service personnel to follow them faithfully.
The cost of doing business—not to mention the cost of the fuel in a customer's vehicle—makes this a timely topic.
Road testing a vehicle is absolutely essential for confirming and/or pinpointing certain kinds of problems. Some bosses I meet act as if this is some new-fangled concept, but I disagree. When I first worked in the automotive repair trade in the late 1960s, one of the first things I learned was that diagnosing certain symptoms was extremely difficult unless you first performed a thorough road test.
The most effective approach often required the customer to ride along and verify the symptom. This was particularly valuable in situations where the vehicle had more than one problem and we were forced to prioritize the repairs. (It's a good thing none of the vehicles coming into your tire dealership or service shop have more than one problem, right?)
In spite of the advances in diagnostic equipment and data recording capabilities today, road testing is still an important part of modern diagnosis. The only way to match normal engine load inside the bay is by testing the vehicle on an appropriate chassis dynamometer. Understandably, many owners aren't willing to commit the money and space to a “dyno.” However, you can't turn corners, for instance, or simulate railroad crossings on a dyno.
The downsides to road testing are risk and time. When workers drive in a responsible manner, road testing shouldn't be any riskier than a routine commute to work. Experience shows that the diagnostic results are well worth the relatively small risk.
The unavoidable time element is costly for two reasons. First, it involves the labor of skilled personnel—the longer a tech is out driving a vehicle, the greater the cost of the diagnosis. For that matter, the longer a tech is road testing, the greater the exposure to accidents.
Second, the longer the road test, the greater the amount of fuel consumed. With soaring fuel prices, this may become a bigger issue with certain customers.
Competent technicians know what they need in the way of road test scenarios. Therefore, I urge owners and managers to schedule mandatory meetings in which the entire service team plans out sensible, efficient road testing routes. Involving all service personnel in the process makes everyone feel more integral to the overall operation of the business. It also increases the chances of culling all the best suggestions.
Naturally, the routes should be as short as possible while still meeting the criteria techs need for checking various symptoms. For instance, some tests require a relatively rough or uneven roadway—possibly the jarring effect provided by a weathered railroad crossing. Other road test tasks call for sharp curves or sudden but safe turns. Still others may demand fairly steep hills or long, flat stretches of open road.
Considering these requirements, it's possible that you'll end up creating several road test routes. Prevent confusion and ensure consistency by creating a little map of each route. Have copies of the maps handy so techs can take a map with them whenever necessary rather than risk getting lost.
Implementing and following prescribed routes also eliminate or minimize other potential headaches. For instance, if a car does run out of fuel or breaks down during a road test on a known route, it's infinitely easier to locate the car and the tech.
The same holds true for a car crash of some kind. Back in the days when mobile phones were just a dream, we learned about these variables the hard way. You just had to hope the tech had a dime in his pocket and was close to a pay phone.
Although most people have personal cell phones, I recommend banning the use of them while driving any customer's vehicle. Pull off the road and stop at a safe spot before using a cell. Plus, it can't hurt to scout your road test route for the availability of pay phones. That way, a tech who forgets his phone or finds that its battery is dead still has a good chance of contacting you fairly quickly in the event of an emergency.
Lastly, condition service personnel to ask customers about the amount of fuel in the car as well as any potential signs of fuel gauge trouble. As they say, forewarned is forearmed.