Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2004   by John G. Smith

Point, click and learn

Looking to get the most from your shop software? Take the time to learn what it can do.


Technicians spend years learning the skills of their trade. After all, nobody would expect an apprentice to master a tool that he’s never seen.

Surprisingly, shop software seems to be an exception to the rule. Many of the advanced features offered through today’s programs earn little more than a cursory glance, and sit unused in the computer’s memory.

Today’s software tends to be more intuitive than its predecessors, so shop employees will likely grasp basic functions with little formal training, declares Danny Lankar of Lankar Systems, which has provided management software to about 1,000 shops in six countries. It’s often a matter of a point and click, or accessing a drop-down menu.

As such, initial training sessions usually see shop owners and employees focusing on features that “get the most bang for the buck out of the gate,” says Jan White, president of Janco Software.

“We do offer follow-up training on managing your inventory and customer contacts and central office administration, and probably most people don’t take advantage of that. Life gets in the way,” he says. “Eighty per cent of the people use 20 per cent of the functionality … in our case, we have one or two days of training, and you throw so much at these people in such a short period of time, they can’t absorb that much.”

But any investment in shop software should be matched by a commitment to training, says Nick Diverde of Mitchell1. “Although many programs — shop management software, for example — include time-saving features, users must first invest at least a couple hours learning to use those features. Users can’t expect software benefits to be instantly evident.”

Costar, for example, includes a mandatory training session for every new customer, says sales representative Laine Colman. “Just throwing the software on their machine and throwing them to the wolves is not a good idea. They need to get comfortable with the software before they even get back to their repair shop.”

And when it comes time for the initial training efforts, it’s important to take any courses off site, White adds.

“Get them out of the damn shop. We’ll be training in the shop, a few minutes go by and there’s a fire that needs to be put out … it doesn’t work really well,” he says. “They need to make the commitment to come to our office and spend a couple of days in learning mode. They’re more apt to retain what they know.”

Lankar, however, suggests that the training can be conducted with a phone call and two people looking at the same screen of information, and his software allows users to be connected over the Internet. “We predict it’s going to be much more utilized than anything else.”

Follow-up training doesn’t have to be limited to traditional classroom settings, either. Sometimes, the software itself can provide related tools, such as a selection of videos that can be accessed through Mitchell1’s OnDemand5 Manager.

Costar offerings feature the ability to develop pop-up windows that appear on the screen as employees are entering information. “You can set point-of-sale reminders, so you can have pop-up windows that come up every time you do a repair order, asking did you offer a seasonal sale, did you get a phone number,” Colman says as an example.

Regardless of the training approach, there’s a common secret to retaining the information, says Gary Wilde, president of Canadian Automotive Information Services, an Alldata distributor.

“Repetition tends to be the key,” he says.

“There are many features that users are missing because they never revisit their training materials,” Diverde agrees. “Users will be amazed how much more they comprehend after using the product for awhile.”

FOCUS ON MARKETING

When focusing on additional training, it may be important to consider that marketing tools are among the features that are the most likely to be overlooked – even though they can be the most lucrative, the makers of the software suggest.

As such, those who work at the front counter should be included in any training, to show them why accurate customer data is so important to the business.

It might take less than a minute to collect the personal information that will identify a customer, says Bob Worts, territory director for Carrus Technologies, “but you need to do it right the first time.”

While shop owners may tend to focus on the type of data that employees can access, they should be focusing on the information that employees can add to the system, Lankar says. “For example, when a customer is added to the system, he has to be added with an email address.”

Email addresses offer one of the most inexpensive ways to maintain a line of communication with customers, he says, and the messages won’t tend to be seen as spam because shops have already developed existing business relationships.

“Regardless of the way they’re paying, you should be keeping track of the customer history so you can do follow-ups,” Colman adds. (Forget about entering “cash sale” in the field looking for a name.) “One of the main reasons people buy shop management software is to have that customer history, and document the history to see what’s done on the vehicle and when.”

Even when the contact information is collected, customer follow-up tools are probably the most under-utilized shop software features, White says, referring to the importance of everything from thank-you notes to reminders for oil changes. “Your service on the car is the same,” he says, comparing the services of various shops. “It’s that personal attention that sets you apart from your competition. Let them know that you’re thinking about them.”

Lankar agrees, and even suggests that the messages don’t have to be limited to business matters. “When everybody has their birthday, they’re always looking for someone to say ‘Happy Birthday’ to them,” he says. “The big thing with automotive repair shops today, the number one thing they should be doing, is keeping their automotive centre in the eyes of the customer … they’ve got to see material from you at least four times a year, minimum.”

There’s more than one benefit to tracking repairs that are skipped during a particular visit, he adds. On a return visit, a shop can suggest the skipped repairs as up-sell opportunities. For that matter, the information can offer an indication of customer loyalty if skipped repairs are mysteriously completed when the car returns to the shop’s bays.

Data, after all, is the key to making the software work. And it needs to be kept up to date, White says.

“So many people look at (updated data) as an expense item rather than a tool to generate revenue,” he says, referring to the way that Activant (CCI/Triad) subscriptions can help ensure a shop is setting realistic rates. “The reality is, it can make them thousands.

“But they have no trouble buying a lot of tools when the Snap-On truck rolls in.”

Perhaps shops need to spend more time looking at their software as a tool of the trade.