Improving and polishing the automotive service industry's image is vital to the trade's long-term health.
Burnishing the industry's image affects everything from recruiting and perceived value to overall profitability.
To me, some tire dealers and service shop operators seem convinced that the “journey” to professionalism is finished. But my firsthand observations suggest this is a lengthy trip instead of a brief jaunt. And if this “destination” is a polished, professional image, then many service businesses are still far from that point.
As I've noted before, I first worked in a full-¬service gas station in 1967. What's more, I've been crisscrossing the country since 1976, reporting on this industry. My theme here is similar to driving across expanses of the American desert. The landscape may lull you into thinking that you're closer to your destination than you really are, but in reality, you still have a long way to drive.
Some bosses gripe that they've been on this “journey” so long that the auto service business must have reached a plateau of polished professionalism. But has it really? Some colleagues razz me about my references to the old days. But if our industry really has gone the proverbial distance, then we'll easily gauge the image gains since my high-school days, correct? Or can we?
For example, I never got the feeling from relatives, friends or teachers that auto repair was a solid, reputable career choice in the late 1960s. Now today, of course, an overwhelming majority of parents would cite auto repair as a career choice for a son or daughter, wouldn't they? Or would they?
During my high-school and college days, I saw losers, knuckleheads, malcontents and loudmouths stream in and out of service stations and repair shops. These characters often bragged about learning from the masters. That meant they'd absorbed the worst habits and riskiest shortcuts from older mechanics. No wonder, then, that bosses used to moan about finding a mechanic worth hiring.
Today, however, bosses have one resume that's simply stronger than the next one, right? For instance, some tire dealers and service shops are flooded with applications from former law and medical students who long for challenging work, respect and recognition. Plus, countless engineers and technicians from all disciplines are applying. Their applications indicate that fulfillment means a stream of scalding motor oil running down their arms.
Truly, is that the cross-section of talent you're attracting? What caliber of resume is in the boss' desk?
Circa 1969, I vividly recall debating the value of maintenance and repairs with stubborn, tightwad (now called “value-conscious”) motorists at the service counter. But as sure as every teenager will be the next Bill Gates, today's motorists recognize the value of your services. Nearly 90 percent of your clientele leaves a blank check, insisting that you fill in the numbers. Sure, people give you blank checks all the time, don't they?
Back in school, we studied research on people's perceptions of credibility, trustworthiness and competence. The research examined how appearance, titles, credentials, etc., affected someone's opinion of an “expert.”
Today, of course, those analyses have been debunked—especially the appearance issue. Countless dealers and service shop owners want to attract higher-end luxury vehicles. But they're often stymied because the Lexus or Mercedes owner insists, “I can't trust my car to someone unless he's covered with tattoos and has several pounds of metal hanging from his face.” No kidding, is that their perception?
Take a long, hard look across the industry before you crow about reaching some perceived plateau of professionalism. This first step toward continued improvement may be recognizing that we still ain't there yet. I believe it's an ongoing challenge.
Tell me about the most effective image improvements you've made at your place. I'd love to share them with Tire Business readers.