It may be a simple exercise in semantics of the “you-say-'potato,' he-says-'potahtoe'” variety, but any way you mash it, having a service adviser in an auto repair shop is essential on several key, interrelated levels.
Consider them, if you wish, traffic cops who keep the traffic flowing smoothly and in the right direction.
Just ask Stan Elmore, the 57-year-old owner and corporate president of Stan's Automotive in Lafayette, a growing community in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains about 10 miles southeast of Boulder.
First, though, you have to clarify the terminology. What one shop may distinguish as “service writers” are “service advisers” in another. Then there's the position of “service manager.”
“We like to use 'service consultants' because you're literally consulting with your customers about the conditions of their cars,” Mr. Elmore told Tire Business on a day that found him preparing to depart for a meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) board, on which he's a member. The ASE in fact chooses to call the position in question “service consultant,” and Mr. Elmore was on the board when about six years ago the organization—which conducts industrywide automotive testing/certification—began discussing the term.
“I was a huge proponent and really pushed to get the service consultant test done because it's so important to me,” he recalled.
“I have a saying that a great service consultant can make a mediocre technician look pretty good. A not very good service consultant can make a great tech look pretty bad. And I truly believe that.
“They're such an important link between a repair shop and customer, and how efficient the tech and the whole shop operates. It's a huge deal.”
With Mr. Elmore's prodding, the ASE instituted the service consultant certification test.
While he sees the service manager position as being more typically in a car dealership—they're the go-to guys or gals who handle warranty issues, paperwork and make sure all of that is done properly—the service writers/consultants are “still the people taking care of the everyday customers,” he said.
Independent repair shops can be set up in many different ways, “but we don't need a service manager, per se. We're a large independent shop, as they go, but we don't have a need for a service manager,” Mr. Elmore explained. “The service consultants in my shop handle that. We don't have a dedicated parts person either, like a car dealership would have.
“My service consultants talk with the customer, talk with the technicians, give estimates, procure parts. They are the contact people. They make it happen.
“It's pretty key to the operation to have quality service consultants. Every one of my guys is an ASE-certified consultant.”
Like other ASE tests for technicians and other positions, the one for service consultants must be retaken every five years for recertification.
Mr. Elmore started Stan's Automotive, which is legally incorporated as Stan's Tire Shoppe Inc., in 1973 when Lafayette was a small burb with a population of about 4,000 and Stan's was a tire store that dabbled a bit in auto service. Today, his shop has evolved into one that is 90-percent repair oriented—”frankly, I found that to be more profitable,” he said—with tires offered as a customer convenience. The dealership's biggest seller is the Toyo brand, followed by Michelin and Multi-Mile.
He moved the shop in 1980 a couple of miles from its original location to a more centralized spot between Lafayette and Louisville, Colo., and the business now serves customers in an area that's home to some 60,000 residents.
Measuring 7,500 square feet with 12 service bays, the business employs six technicians—two are general service tire and lube guys—and all are ASE certified: three are master techs, the other three are certified in various areas. The shop pulls in about $2 million in annual sales. That's probably small for a tire store, Mr. Elmore said, but a healthy amount for a service shop his size.
He noted that Stan's pretty much does it all—”everything you have to do in this day and age to stay competitive.” Services include underhood, undercar, emissions (Colorado has a centralized emissions testing program, then sends vehicles to independent shops for repairs) and engine replacements. The shop will send out transmissions to a specialty shop for repairs, “but we take it out, take it there and make sure it's fixed properly,” he said.
Mr. Elmore's son Scott is Stan's general manager and, he said, “Scott sees, understands and shares the same vision I have…about why the business needs to continue to improve and evolve. He's doing a really good job for us.” Scott, who pretty much grew up with the business, started at the shop in early 2000, left in 2005 to manage a motorcycle dealership Mr. Elmore bought, then returned to Stan's in 2008 when the cycle shop was sold.
Back to that traffic cop analogy for a moment. As customers enter Stan's showroom/waiting area, they're met by two service consultants at the front counter. They're the guys, Mr. Elmore said, who listen well to the customer, start asking questions—”as any good consultant will want to do”—and “not just write down what the customer says, turn it in and let it go.
“You really have to peel stuff out of customers sometimes and can only get it by asking a lot of questions based on what the customer is saying.”
Once the queries are broached, the consultant provides an estimate for the diagnosis, gets multiple phone numbers, an e-mail address and ways to reach the customer throughout the day, then passes the service tickets through to another counter in the backshop. There, two more consultants finalize the repair orders, determine which tech will get the job in what order, feed the work to techs, procure parts and handle follow-up calls to customers.
Once a Stan's tech looks the vehicle over, he writes up a report based on the findings.
“We're very strong on really good written reports from our techs, not just verbalized ones,” Mr. Elmore pointed out. On the back side of the initial write-up is a section for techs to fill in. Estimates are figured out between the tech and service consultant, who calls the customer to discuss the repair.
“And our discussions are not just 30-second conversations,” he said. “I have a lot of support staff, and that's for a reason. We want to spend a lot of time with the customer and be able to really relate to them and what's going on with their vehicle and be able to answer any questions without feeling we're just pushing through it. Having a lot of support staff helps you do that.”
Most of the work Stan's handles gets in and out the same day, or the next day in some cases, Mr. Elmore said.
He admits to having a “deep bench.” The four primary techs are able to help out the service consultants, as can Scott, filling in and working any of those jobs. Mr. Elmore said he also has a bookkeeper—”she's very sharp”—who works three days a week and can do scheduling and fill in for a service consultant if needed.
“I can sometimes be criticized for the size of my support staff, but it works. My people are not tired, they love their jobs, and if they love it, they do a good job.”
And that translates into a lot of repeat customers. “We draw quality customers into the shop because we have quality people working here.”
The point is, the guys at the front counter are the primary go-to staff. Unlike some shops that seem to constantly be slammed, the same employee at Stan's “isn't trying to answer phones and sell tires while trying to do all these other things,” Mr. Elmore said. “In a lot of shops the staff is carrying a lot on their shoulders and too few of them for the amount of work being done…. I don't think you can do as good a job.
“I've listened to my people on 20-minute phone calls with customers. But our tickets may be $1,500 or $2,000. If it takes 20 minutes to sell a couple-thousand-dollar job, so be it.”
Years back, Mr. Elmore was the shop's primary service consultant, then began adding staffers as the business grew.
It now includes a crew of 16 full- and part-time employees, including a part-time detailer, since “we clean the windows and vacuum every car we work on, no matter how small the job, from flat repairs to major jobs,” he said. The dealership employs a part-time driver for the customer shuttle it operates, and it also offers loaner cars.
Among the shop's strong suits is the longevity of its staff. He said two staffers spent their careers at Stan's before retiring, a bookkeeper who retired had been with the business 25 years, and another tech has been there for 19 years. “The rest of the group ranges down from there. It's a very long-term staff—that's the real key: Having everyone on the same page and really understanding the culture inside our business.
“That's where I think we're a lot different than some shops…. It really boils down to, if you really value and take care of your internal staff, they take care of your customers for you and you don't have to worry about it.”
That, in turn, contributes to another sometimes elusive factor: customer longevity.
“When you've been in a community as long as we have, that longevity, it's truly such a marketing advantage you have. I didn't realize it for a long time,” he said.
Treating employees like family also helps those longevity odds. Mr. Elmore said technicians are paid based on experience and level of proficiency. His top tech, for example, pulled in a salary in the $80,000-plus range, with the second-best tech “a little under that,” and the remainder “easing down from there.
“Sometimes you have a tech who knows just as much as the top performer, but some just can't do it as fast. Some guys are better at multi-tasking. They're not necessarily a better tech, but just a better multi-tasker.
“One might have two or three or four jobs going on at the same time.”
The dealership has offered 401(k) plans and healthcare for a couple decades. “If you're known as a great place to work, you won't have any trouble finding great employees,” he noted. “You've got to treat your people well.”
Mr. Elmore acknowledges he doesn't market the same way a new shop might, or for that matter “a Firestone or Goodyear store that might come into a market.” He does almost no print advertising. “We send out mailers to newcomers to make sure we're reaching people new to the community. And we do a lot of marketing out of our own database to our customers through our own software.”
The shop also does some direct-mail marketing, but he noted that “there's nothing like being involved in a community for 30-plus years and having customers say, 'Multiple people told me to come here.'
“But obviously, you have to live up to it all the time.”
The business racked up a record year in 2007, beat that record in 2008, and Mr. Elmore said he was “just barely off” that record last year—not too shabby considering the state of the economy over the last year or so.
While he's found that some customers are doing OK financially, they're not buying new vehicles but are doing whatever it takes to keep their old ones on the road. Others are “watching their dollars more closely, doing what they need to do to keep their cars going.”
Anything that doesn't get fixed on a customer's car gets tagged in Stan's computer database and customers get regular service reminders.
All that certainly helps a business keep customers coming back, despite heavy competition in the market from other independent shops, a Big O Tires Inc. store down the street and a Goodyear outlet a few blocks away.
Mr. Elmore will argue that keeping techs at the top of their game through ongoing training is, in a word, “huge” in the scheme of maintaining a successful business. His shop used to require that each tech take at least 40 hours of additional training annually, “but with the longevity of our staff, sometimes we literally run out of classes to go to.”
He sings the praises of quarterly classes sponsored in every region of the country by Carquest Auto Parts and its Carquest Technical Institute (CTI). The local Automotive Service Association (ASA) chapter also brings in trainers regularly for classes that cover a wide range of topics, from management to service consultants to high-tech training for computerized vehicle systems.
“There's training out there,” he said. “You have to go get it. I often hear shop owners say, 'I have to make my staff go to them.'
“I don't have that problem. Our employees want to be better. They want to do good. They know that to be a part of Stan's, that's part of the deal—they need to get training.”
Mr. Elmore pays for it all. If a tech takes a training course during the work day, for instance, the course cost is covered by Stan's and he still receives his wages while away from the shop.
“You've just got to stay on top of training. I've got a library of business books…that's part of what keeps me motivated,” Mr. Elmore said.
That motivation seems to filter through to Stan's staff, which meets every Wednesday after the shop closes for one hour for discussion and sharing.
“We're going through a book right now called, 'Customer Satisfaction is Worthless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless: How To Make Them Love You, Keep Them Coming Back and Tell Everyone They Know',” by Jeffrey Gitomer. Mr. Elmore called it a “great business book. Doing things like that keeps everybody on the same page and understanding how it needs to be done at Stan's.
“After that one we'll do another. I've got dozens of books. It keeps us sharp, fresh and learning. It's another thing that brings people together as a family and keeps us on track.”
The weekly meetings also provide the staff with an opportunity to share how someone “wowed” a customer. “Everybody feeds off of that,” Mr. Elmore said, and no one gripes about attending.
Recently, for example, the staff bookkeeper told of a call she received from a longtime customer who had collected several of the pay-for-four, get-one-free oil change punch cards the company provides. He kept losing track of how many he'd accumulated. So the bookkeeper sent a thank-you card along with a new card all punched out, entitling the customer to a free oil change.
“That's how you make customers feel special,” Mr. Elmore said, noting the meetings have become “a fun thing…to show how someone went above and beyond for a customer.”
Freedom to succeed
Despite his longevity in the business, don't even think Mr. Elmore is coasting on the downside toward the big R. He's having too much fun—and a lot more to learn.
For several years he has scaled back his day-to-day presence at Stan's. He participates in the weekly staff meetings and also shows up during the week to do what he refers to as “the old Tom Peters thing of managing by wandering around,” citing the well-known business management guru.
“I talk with everyone. Make sure morale is good. I'm just kind of a coach for whoever needs help, and sometime it's in their personal lives.
“I still track the marketing side of the business and come in for two to three days a week for part of the day. Been doing that for the past few years.
“I've had a lot of freedom with my business because I felt I go through a lot of trouble hiring the right people, training them very well, really getting them into the culture of what Stan's is all about, and then I'm not a guy who keeps my thumb on them.
“I let them go out and do their thing and show me what they can do. I have a lot more guidelines than rules. And if you work within my guidelines, you don't have…a lot of company policy this and that.”
Mr. Elmore then added: “Somebody's got to have the time to invest in the time it takes to read a lot of different stuff…and have a vision as to where I want the business to go and figure out how to get there.”
If an owner hits the ground running every morning and gets bogged down answering phones and trying to do everything, “you never get the opportunity to get there,” he said. “That's what I see in an awful lot of businesses.
“I remember being too activity-based and rushed back in the 1980s instead of being productivity-based, and there's a big distinction. We did very well back then, but you can actually slow down and be more productive and do a better job by slowing down, better serving your customers and making more money for your business.
“I had to learn that. It wasn't something that was natural for me.”
Mr. Elmore belongs to the ASA's Colorado chapter as well as the association's national organization, is an ASE board member—he was chairman in 2007—and is on the national advisory board for Carquest.
He also has paid his dues locally, coaching Little League baseball teams and girls softball, done Scouting, belongs to the local Lion's Club and Lafayette Chamber of Commerce.
All those activities are just part of what he calls “marketing that a lot of business owners don't realize. To market a business long-term, community involvement is the game.”
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