Redefining your service manager’s role

By Bob Clements

I was recently at a dealership on the West Coast, talking with an owner and his wife about the challenges they were facing in their service department. They began to ask me questions about how to fix the problems: “What do we do?” “How we do it?” and “What do you believe will be the most difficult thing to change in our shop work?” As we visited, I explained that the biggest issue for them and their service manager would be to change their thinking about service shop operation at its basic foundation. I could tell that they weren’t sure what that exactly meant, so we spent the next hour discussing the necessary mental changes that would allow their service department to reach its highest level of profitability.

A traditional service department

The past few years have taught all of us that change is inevitable. In order to have a sustainable and profitable dealership, owners and managers must make changes — changes that will cause them to rethink everything that they do. Look at your own service department. Could its level of profitability be increased? Are you maximizing the labor dollars you have available to sell? If you were more efficient, could you either capture more business or maintain your current level of business, while reducing your number of service techs? Is your service manager in control of the department, or is the department in control of your service manager?

If you were to ask 10 business owners to make a list of the top five characteristics of a great service manager, the list would probably look as follows:

They are masters at getting equipment out the door.
They are good at determining what equipment can wait and what needs to be moved to the front of the line.
They are strong in dealing with customers’ concerns.
They know all about their customers and what they will and won’t approve to repair.
They have the ability to jump in and do the work if necessary to move a job through the shop.

If you look at the list, you will find that a couple of the critical elements — knowledge and decisiveness — rest in the hands of just one person. The question every owner should be asking themselves: Is it wise to have that much dependence on one person, or would it be better to spread the information and decision making out to the entire service department?

If you have read any of my articles in OPE, you will know that I am always working to focus my readers on the importance of bringing better processes into the dealerships. The goal is to reduce the cost generated by waste in time, materials and motion, and then to take that savings and apply it to adding value to current and future customers.

How does your service manager play into helping reach that goal? It’s simple. In a traditional service department, the service manager’s role is one of control — control of both knowledge and information. Service managers push all the buttons and make everything happen. It’s their job to take command of the “troops” and march them up the hill every day to do battle with the mowers, chain saws and trimmers, so that the customers’ equipment can be serviced and money collected. In the “traditional” model, the troops are not there to make decisions, except in a very limited way; they are to move up the hill blindly and ignore the bullets flying over head.

Although most dealerships are structured so that all the knowledge and information rests in the hands of a few key people, in reality it is a terrible way to operate a business and wastes a huge amount of time and money, especially in a service department.

What would happen if you built your service process in such a way that every person involved with the department had access to the same knowledge and information and that each was compensated for making decisions on everything they do that reduces waste and improves customer satisfaction?

Just a few months ago, I started working with Doug Howard and Tim Oliver at Duluth, Ga.-based Howard Brothers Outdoor Power. Doug and his brother John own three stores in the Greater Atlanta area (Duluth, Doraville and Oakwood), and Tim is the VP of the company’s outdoor power equipment division. I had the opportunity to spend time with Doug and Tim at the High-Performance Service Department Pavilion we hosted at last year’s GIE+EXPO. As we talked, they made a decision to bring us into their service departments, meet their service managers and techs, and outline what we could do to help them improve their shops’ performance.

Each store had its unique issues, ranging from staffing to physical layout, but nothing that was insurmountable. From the beginning, as I talked with each of the service managers, and then with Doug and Tim, it was apparent they were all focused on delivering exceptional service to the customers and were ready to make the move from the traditional service department, where the manager controls the chaos, to a highperformance service department, where the “process” becomes the manager.

What’s the service manager’s job?

As I have had the opportunity to work with the three service managers at Howard Brothers Outdoor Power — Fernando Contreras, Chris Raney and Greg Pethel — our focus has been on process and to ensure each store is consistent in its procedures. The service managers have embraced the need to make changes and are working hard to move from their role as a traditional service manager to that of a high-performance service manager. They understand that their job is not to be the gatekeeper of information — directing everything that goes on each and every moment. They, instead, are beginning to focus their attention on other aspects of their job that will aid in improving their customers’ experience and the attitude and satisfaction of their employees.

Key components of the process

As a part of the process, each morning the service managers give the service techs the knowledge and the parts they need to perform the work that is required. They make sure that each technician has eight hours of billable time available to complete and go over any details of the jobs scheduled.

Because of the process, the techs know each day what is expected of them based upon the work that is pre-staged by the service manager or service coordinator. They never have to guess how they are doing because the process has predefined what success is. The process requires them to be at least 85-percent efficient with their bench time versus their billable time. If they exceed that number, they have the ability to achieve significant bonuses. If they consistently fall below 85 percent, then the process will trigger the service manager to begin looking for another tech.

The process also requires the technicians to define the amount of time they will allow themselves to complete a service or repair. By defining the billable time on each job, the process gives the service manager the ability to effectively schedule work into the service department, adding to an improved customer experience.

A process should be designed in a way that all techs know, from the moment they arrive in the morning until they leave that evening, exactly what they will be working on. Plus, with an effective process in place, the parts they need to complete those specific service or repair jobs will already be at their bench.

There’s a risk

In most organizations, service managers like Fernando, Chris and Greg gain much of their personal satisfaction in being problem solvers. As a matter of fact, in many cases, managers are praised for the ability to put out the moment-to-moment fires that crop up each and every day. These “firefighters” feel good about what they do. They love the challenge of being faced with seemingly impossible problems and finding a way to “pull off a good day.” If you don’t fundamentally change how they see what they do and the value they bring to the organization by managing the process instead of the department, you may end up losing them.

From manager to leader

If you look at your service department and see no need to make improvements or changes, then you can skip the following three steps. On the other hand, if you see that improvement would bring value to both your dealership and your customers, then define what you would like to see happen and begin to build a process that will move you in that direction.

As an owner, you must change the expectations you have for your service department from a necessary evil to a strong profit center that prides itself in happy, satisfied customers. When you personally start to see that your service department can be the “crown jewel” of your dealership, you will invest the time and energy in making the changes to turn it around and focus on implementing the process that will take you there.
Help your service manager to learn to hate fighting fires. There will always be a bit of this in any system, but you should work with your employees to get to the point that they truly hate it when a fire erupts. They need to learn that their real value rests in helping their team learn to solve problems by themselves. In doing so, they will reach a point where their personal satisfaction comes from building great employees and a great service team.
Create a “service leader” not a “service manager.” A leader takes on a very different role from a manager. A leader’s goal is to continually push employees to achieve a higher level of performance. Leaders see “fires” as opportunities to improve their processes, where managers see them as problems to overcome. Leaders are required by the nature of what they are doing to see into the future and to understand that the rewards they receive are going to be a longer-term proposition.

Now’s the time

The change begins with your decision to sit down with your service manager and begin to map out a process that will eliminate the chaos and improve your customers’ experience at your dealership. There is no better time than the present to begin redefining the role of your service manager and to begin creating a process that will change your service department in an extraordinary way forever!

 Bob Clements is the president of Bob Clements International, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in the development of high-performance dealerships. His organization works hands on with dealerships throughout North America, helping them attain the personal freedom and financial wealth all owners strive to achieve. For more information, contact Bob Clements at (800) 480-0737 or or visit his Web site at

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