Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2008   by J. D. Ney, Assistant Editor

Fixing the Client Before Fixing the Car

The new advantages of shop management software

It’s long been said that you can’t manage what you can’t track, and that particular idiom has been popular throughout the service business. From professional management gurus to regional sales reps, the idea of more effectively managing a shop’s numbers has historically been a difficult point to hammer home, despite the repeated calls to action. However, recent advancements in computer technology, software usability and an increasingly complex repair environment, have all conspired to make today’s technician come shop owner, a much more computer literate and savvy business person. Combined with a constant push from shop management software providers to constantly make their offerings more intuitive and helpful and you’ve got yourself one lean mean tracking machine. In fact, given the prevalence of shop management software among the nominees for the SSGM Garage of the Year Award, it is quite clear that everyone is starting to get the picture. However, despite the widespread uptake of management software, suppliers say they are far from resting on their laurels. With new versions coming from several top sources, the world of shop software is about to get much more interesting for you, your technicians and even your customers.

Tracking the client before the part

Shop software has, since its inception, been largely based on simplifying and improving the parts ordering process and tracking the daily or monthly operating expenses of the business. While today’s latest generation of software still accomplishes this basic goal, suppliers say there is much, much more. In fact, some of the latest developments aren’t even about tracking your business, so much as they are about tracking your customer.

“We’re about completely knowing your customer and their vehicle,” says Danny Lankar, of Autogence Inc., makers of the Lankar shop management system. “It’s about allowing you to develop a rapport with them. When a customer is entered into the system, a history appears before you, giving the service writer a better call of what they might need. It’s easy to see what’s been done, and get them on board with a maintenance program. It’s a full way to communicate with your customer.”

It’s helping you know your customer that Jim Ball, with Protractor Software cites as a major benefit to getting on board with shop software as well.

“There are some really unique types of customer retention features available today,” he says. “It starts with closing out the initial service and it’s based on the preventative maintenance model, so it pre-schedules the next visit. With this feature, the customer knows the date and what is likely to be done, and he’s agreed to it. What’s more, the shop doesn’t have to do anything to remind the customer, because the program will send out email reminders automatically.”

Now, I for one make all sorts of preventative maintenance appointments in many areas of life that I have no intention of keeping. My dentist and barber can attest to those facts, as both of them have struggled to keep me on a steady maintenance schedule. This is to say, that just because a client has agreed to return at a certain time, certainly does not make it a certainty. However, Ball says the software can and has tracked some quantifiable success.

“The shops that took part in a pilot project saw an increase in their annual growth from about six per cent to 11.5 per cent. The program allows you can quantify the success for yourself, as it creates a unique log for everyday,” he says.

As he went on to explain, that means that if a maintenance appointment was made, and email reminder sent, and the client did in fact return for his/her scheduled appointment, the program would keep track of that, allowing you to measure your successful return rate.

The push towards preventative maintenance is also a key feature cited by John Dwulet of Mitchell 1.

“Shops today tend to want to focus on the customer first and not the car; fixing the customer before the car, and you can get proactive with a customer by getting them into a preventative maintenance program,” he says. “Software provides the service writer with an immediate snap-shot of that customer, and allows them to treat that customer appropriately.”

What’s more, according to Dwulet, if you’re going to keep a customer coming back, you have to do more than make an appointment.

“It’s all about customer relations management,” he says. “The software can provide your customer with a colour glossy page detailing all of the service information. It’s a traditional checklist taken to the next level, that puts the customer at ease, and encourages the customer to get the next service done at the same shop. It ends up being a great sales tool for the service advisor too.”

In terms of that sales tool, it is the customizability of many programs that the service writer in particular can take advantage of.

“Years ago, it was enough to indentify a problem and give the guy a quote, but now we need to find out something about our customers,” he adds. “The management software allows your service rep to access the info about the customer like make, year, model and previous work, but it also allows service writers to input other miscellaneous information like wife’s name, favourite radio pre-sets, hobbies etc.”

How about your business?

Despite all of the work that as gone into the client management side of the shop software industry, rest assured, the suppliers and software developers have not forgotten about your other business requirements. As a matter of fact, many of them say the software of today is all about integrating more and more parts of your business, and running it all directly through the same program.

“The biggest development recently has been the incorporation of a full-fledged accounting program,” says Lankar. “We’ve taken popular accounting programs, brought in a bunch of industry specific experts, and designed a fully-integrated accounting package. Basically, you go about your day, and everything happens behind the scenes.”

It is that fully integrated nature of the new generation of software options that Lane Colman at Costar Computer Systems says is vital.

“Our customers are looking for integrated solutions,” he says. “Features like point-of-sale, inventory management, printing invoices, accounting can’t all be handled in separate systems. Most importantly too, they have to be designed to be industry specific.”

Where Lankar and Colman tout the new accountancy and integration advances, Dwulet notes the improved efficiency that comes from fast, accurate ordering.

“The new software creates a unique purchase order for the shop that basically says that this part is for Mr. Smith’s white Toyota. It eliminates what many shop owners call the walk of death, made by the technician from the shop to the parts desk when the wrong part has come in,” he says.

Accounting, integration and accuracy; oh, and these new programs do all stuff you’ve always asked them to do as well.

Clearly the function of shop management software is still to track the various factors that go into the profitability of your business. As Protractor’s Jim Ball told me: “Today you need that sort of instant analysis of your business. If you don’t know where you are, you could be bankrupt before you even know it.”

With that said, given the recent push for preventative maintenance all across the board, perhaps we need to adjust the old saying. While it remains true that you can’t manage what you can’t track, we now have to throw the customer himself into our matrices. As a result, it is now equally true that you can’t manage who you can’t track.



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