Training Front Counter Staff

January 9, 2010

By George Witt. I remember my first job as a Service Advisor in a dealership, before shop management computer systems.  The training was intensive— “Here’s your clip board, there’s your work area, the doors open at 7am.”   It was “Lightning Bolt Training” at it’s finest.

The customers were lined up before we opened and they poured into the Service Department in an overwhelming, steady stream until 9am.  It was 2 hours of the most stressful work I could imagine.  We did take appointments, but only used the appointment system to fill up the day and fill it up, we did.  We were sold out of time when we opened and that’s how it worked.  Cars were routinely held over or rescheduled for more work.  It was zoo, but that was how it was done.  Too often, that’s how it’s still done.

Before we can train our Front Counter Staff, we have to have good systems in place for them to learn and use.  Good systems and procedures should be designed to make it harder to mess up the job than to do it right.

For example, job codes in the computer system should be intuitive.  All things having to do with brakes, for example, should start with a “B”.  Well, duh!  If you don’t know what the correct operation is for front brake pad replacement, hit “B” and search the drop-down menu to find “BPF” or “Brake Pads, Front”.  Oh, your system shows that as “Front Brake Pads”.  You’ve got some work to do…

Job kits should be the same way, easy to find in a few seconds.  This is the fastest way to have a novice producing accurate, complete estimates in a short time.

The shop management software should have a display showing hours available to sell and hours sold prominently on the screen where it’s easy to see, so the shop can be properly loaded easily by anyone.

A shop’s front office should be set up in such a way as to enable the shop to hire someone who knows nothing about cars and have them functioning comfortably as a Service Advisor within 2 weeks.  It may sound far-fetched, but it’s not.

In fact, failure to do this results in training the front counter staff for months, just to get things to flow right.  In reality, this makes the job too difficult and stressful.  There are too many things to remember and too many little things to forget.  There’s no reason to be the kid who had training wheels on their bike for years.

In the book, “Good to Great”, it was said that the most successful CEOs had “all the right people on the bus, all the wrong people off the bus and all the people in the right seats…”

In order to have all the right people in the right seats, we have to determine what skills are the most important for each job.  A parts person needs to be very detail-oriented and they’re not the person you want in contact with your customers all day.  A Service Advisor needs to be very people-oriented and that kind of person isn’t always a good technical person.  I disagree with the idea that you put a technician on the front counter.  I want a Service Advisor who loves working with people all day long and I don’t care if they know much about cars or not.  I want them to enjoy building relationships with customers and helping them solve their transportation problems.  I want that customer to ask for them by name the next time they call.

It’s been my experience that the techs will do a better job of writing out what the car needs and why if you have a good salesperson on the front counter who doesn’t have good technical skills.  My techs have flat out told me that they go out of their way to give the SA a good sales presentation.  They know that, if they do, the work will get sold.

My customers have commented on “how knowledgeable our front counter staff is” about cars.  It’s very seldom that any customer has technical questions that need an in-depth technical explanation.  When that happens, we get the tech to explain the job to the customer.

What this boils down to is simple.  If the Service Advisor establishes credibility with the customer and sells them on the idea that they will be their ally and will work on their side, very little selling is actually necessary.  The SA simply explains what all is found on the car, prioritizes it for the customer and asks what they’d like to do about it.  It’s all about trust.  The customer trusts the Service Advisor, who in turn trusts the techs.

In the beginning, training the Service Advisor consists of learning how the shop’s systems and procedures work and that shouldn’t take long with the support of other workers.

The next part takes longer and involves more skills.  I developed a Service Advisor class and the book is fully written out and covers 36 pages of basic skills, from handling the price-shopper phone call to dealing with Sam Ting (you know, “Uh, car do Sam Ting, now you fix, I no pay!!”) to people who want to bring their own parts and everything in between.  There are many classes like this offered.  The trick isn’t just to sit through it once.

Mastery of the material starts with that, but then continues with taking a page or 2 a week and working on mastering those things and then going on to more material until every last thing in the book has been mastered.  This may take months and the speed varies with the worker.  This is probably where most front counter training begins to break down, as I don’t believe most shops carry training out this far in this much detail.

OK, so now we have a completely trained front counter person.  Right?  Right?   Uh, no.

One of the most important jobs of the front counter is to properly load the shop daily and I think that takes another separate class in order to really understand how to do it.  So, now we put them through a class on “Workflow, Scheduling”, following the same training regimen.  This should go much faster, because there are fewer things to master and they’re generally easier to do.  Now, we’re trained, right?  Not yet.

If the front counter staff doesn’t really understand the value of a technician’s time, they can’t do a good job of supporting the techs and getting them the parts and approvals they need in timely fashion, so production and sales will suffer.   Therefore, they next need to take training on “Technician Time Management”.

Where I’m going here is simpler than you might believe.  In order to really function as a front counter staff should, they all need to have management training in many different areas.  Their performance is directly related to how well they understand the overall workings of the shop.  The better they understand the underlying management theories behind all those little things they are called upon to do, the better job they can do for the shop.

In short, they need to earn the Automotive Management Institute’s (AMI) Specialized Degree of “Automotive Manager, Service Advisor” for mechanical shops and “Collision Manager, Estimator” for collision shops.

The AMI Board recognized years ago that, in order for a shop to really function well, every job position in the shop needed some management training.  The Board spent over 2 years detailing which courses were needed by every position in both mechanical and collision shops and went further to determine the exact minimum content of each course.

The result is the new Specialized Degree program, which you can view in more detail on the AMI website:

I guarantee you that when your staff all earn their respective degrees, your shop will be as close to “cruise control” as it can be.

Selection—skill sets

Systems—job codes—job kits—estimates

Organization—procedures for paper flow, dispatch of work, parts procurement, customer flow

Finally, training the staff….

Check out George’s training programs click here.

George Witt is the owner of George Witt Service, a Honda and Acura repair shop. He is an ASE certified Master Technician and service advisor, an AMI Accredited Manager, and an AMI Approved Instructor. He has presented management training classes to thousands of shop owners from coast to coast.