Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2014   by Murray Voth, TACT

Building Team Relationships

In my last several articles, I have been really challenging shop owners on their human resources practices and policies. In this article, I would like to challenge some of the technicians in our industry and, in a round about way, encourage...

In my last several articles, I have been really challenging shop owners on their human resources practices and policies. In this article, I would like to challenge some of the technicians in our industry and, in a round about way, encourage both the employees in the shop and the shop owner to come to a more modern approach to employer and employee relationships.

Since the great recession of 2009, I have noticed that many shop owners are finally facing the consequences of having kept on employees who do not perform to even the minimum standard, or have not kept up with technology, or bring a very negative attitude to the shop. Some employees have taken over as de facto managers or shop foremen. Some of these employees, technicians in particular, dictate where to order parts from, cherry pick the work they want to do, and are very reticent to share information with other technicians in the shop. In some cases, these technicians actually bully other employees and sometimes even the owner.

First, I want to address the timing of my observations and experiences I have had with dozens of shop owners in this predicament. There are two reasons the chickens have finally come home to roost in the last few years. The first is that even though the overall economy is improving, many independent shops are not bouncing back as fast as they need to financially. The normal peak of business after a recession has not happened this time for various reasons.

(There have been record new car sales in the last three years and new car dealer service departments have grown their market share of the four- to seven-year-old vehicles from 10 per cent to over 60 per cent in the last seven years, the bread and butter of the independents. These are some of the key reasons among many.)

As shops struggle financially they begin looking at their labour costs and realize they are overstaffed in the shop for the volume and type of business they are doing. In the past, many of them would have laid off an apprentice or other technician who is lower on the totem pole, but now they are realizing that some of their most expensive technicians are the ones who produce the least relative to their cost of wages and benefits.

The second reason for the timing of this phenomenon is the rapid advance in technology in vehicles today. Not only is technology changing, the speed at which it changes is faster. Technicians are now dealing with more change, more information, and more challenges accessing that information than ever before. It takes energy, intelligence, hard work and tenacity to keep up. There seems to be more diagnosis required every passing year, not just in drivability and electrical, but in vehicle processors as well as in the mechanical systems.

So if a technician with years of experience and a high hourly rate does not, or will not, keep up with technology, you end up with a highly paid employee who cannot produce the results that you need.

Getting a Grip on Labour

In both of the situations I have described the owner knows that the best decision for the profitability of the business and/or shop morale is to lay off or fire the technician with the poor performance. But what has happened is that now because of their length of tenure, there is the possibility of large severance cheques or other labour relations challenges. The trouble is that owners bury their heads in the sand hoping things will change or the employee will quit on their own, but the problem just intensifies. In some cases, the other “better” employees begin to quit because they cannot stand the lack of leadership and poor shop morale, or one of them steps forward and tries to control things and elects themselves shop foreman. Now we need to discuss how we got here. How we got here is complicated and multi-layered. However, with a few variations on the theme, most shops and technicians ended up in this predicament for the many of the same reasons. I am going to highlight four.

Over 90 per cent of independent shops are started by automotive service technicians. In some, the owner and self-appointed head technician or shop foreman, feels like they also need to be the best technician in the shop. They feel threatened by a talented technician who could be better than them, so they don’t encourage the development of the technicians working for them. However, they need some decent technicians to bang out the mechanical work while the owner is the king of diagnosis. In order to keep the technicians they need, they keep giving them raises for time served, rather than as a measure of productivity and efficiency. Hence after a number of years, you will have a highly paid technician whose employer has not sent them to training, has not encouraged them to develop and has not given them challenging work. So you get what you asked for. In addition to that, many technicians want to be loyal and/or really want or need this particular job and stay around. But they realize that even though they are smart and work hard, they are not going to advance. I would get grouchy too.

Some shop owners, and again those that are technicians, have what we all in coaching circles an ‘emotional’ bank account. They do not know how to charge properly for their work and show the value to their customer. When they first open their business, most of their first customers are friends, family and neighbours. As we know, these people expect you to do the work for free or for a significant discount. It does not take long for a shop owner to believe that anyone driving a car has no money; everyone wants a break or help stretching their automotive repair dollar. So the shop owner, when given the results of an inspection or a diagnosis will then begin to question their technician as to how long something will last, or override the technician’s call and tell a customer they have two more weeks left on their brakes when the original technician said they were below safety standards. After a while the technician will always defer to the owner’s opinion and not develop opinions of their own. They too will continue to get raises for time served and years later we have created what we think would be an experienced licensed technician, but the owner has psychologically beat their confidence out of them.

Most shop owners in my experience have very little expertise in hiring employees. Whether they need a technician or advisor or shop assistant, shop owners will wait till just the right person drops off a resume. But when no one shows up and we desperately need to fill the position, we grab the first person that walks in the door. We do a cursory interview to see if they have a Red Seal License and if we like them. When they start, the first job we give them is a timing belt on a double overhead cam engine. Two days later it is finally done. Then we are angry, but keep the tech because . . . well, they are good at some things. A better way would be to create a clear description of what the position is and interview and select candidates based on those criteria. It is also important to see if the person is a good fit for your team. Are they a team player or are they a lone ranger?

Lastly, most shop owners do not have a good employee review process in place. Employee reviews that are done well, along with regular well-run staff meetings and professional job descriptions, will keep communication lines open and expectations clear. Most employees are waiting for guidance and want feedback on their performance. It is when things are unspoken or up in the air, that an atmosphere of distrust develops. Employees should be clear on what expectations are for their technical skill, their interaction with the rest of the team, and their contribution to the financial well being of the company. Imagine getting a group of 11 people together that have never played football, and then pitting them against a team that has been playing for years. The confusion that would ensue from lack of skill, no understanding of the rules, or how the score is kept would be a disaster. However, this is happening in hundreds of shops.

Know How to Hire

The solution is to start with hiring well. Hire people who are better than you at their jobs. You have to be a good manager, not a technician. Interview well, and choose the right people for the job. Good interviewing can sometimes eliminate those grouchy ogres out of the starting gate. Have a clear job description. Have reviews at least twice a year. And have staff meetings at least once a month. The majority of employees would love to work for a company that is managed in this way. And all of these tools will be helpful in identifying those rare situations when you have an employee with so many personal issues, that they need to seek help from other professional sources. Sorry, shop owners, but we have met the enemy and he is us. Also, technicians, before this industry or a particular shop or employer makes you bitter, do something about it. Ask your boss to take management training, or be courageous and make a move to a shop that is operated properly. Make it your fault, even though it really isn’t.

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