Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2002   by Francis Paige

Soft Skills

Integrated or stand-alone, business management software lets you take command of your operation.

Time is money. It’s an old clich, but there’s no doubt about it: Customer loyalty is taking the back seat to how well and how fast a shop can deliver and that’s putting pressure on shop owners to streamline all aspects of their operations. And shop management is one area where most shops can realize major savings. Where are they turning? Integrated software packages bundle management with repair diagnostics and estimating, while stand-alone management programs offer multiple connectivity options. Is one better than the other?

Both have advantages, but there is general agreement on one important feature: invoices. “The absolute minimum that any shop should have is a system that allows shops to write estimates which go to invoices that can be tracked any time you want”, declares Lankar Systems president Danny Lankar. Shops that go beyond the invoicing function, however, can use software to analyse financial data in new and useful ways.

Software with the capability to handle accounting, customer loyalty programs, inventory control, product acquisition and business logistics features such as financial metrics can reveal savings that are impossible to understand with paper-based systems.

“It’s about saving a shop time,” explains Brian Warfield, OnDemand5 manager for Mitchell1. “For example, if a car’s symptoms are associated with a diagnostic time, that information could be correlated to TSB’s. A couple of things are happening. One is that the shop is reminded to charge for the diagnostic time. Another is the time saved by connecting the TSB to the symptom. Then you can get a repair procedure without another year-make-model search. You’re in one cockpit commanding all of it.”

Consider a management system as a tool to implement all that you’ve learned about running your business, Warfield advises. Tools include the ability to target promotional materials selectively to customers from your database.

Wide-ranging capability also helps advisors at the front end when explaining a complex diagnosis and repair process to the customer.

“Once you get the customer in your shop, you want to drive them back to your shop,” says Don Rayner Jr., senior manager of marketing communications for Mitchell1. Financial metrics enable the shop owner to analyze the percentage of parts to labour, the average number of work orders, and the average number of labour hours per work order.

That high-level analysis can be had in either integrated or stand-alone packages.

Proponents of integration offer the simplicity of a single vendor. “Being able to make one phone call to answer all of your questions and get you up and running is very convenient,” comments ALLDATA’s ServiceCentre product manager, Larry Perkins. “Having to call different companies for a single issue often results in the customer getting bounced back and forth, with each company stating it is the other company’s problem. It can be very frustrating.”

Danny Lankar, president, Lankar Systems, however, recommends stand-alone systems: “Shop management is always evolving. Shop supplies, government regulations and Drive Clean all require changes in your shop management system. When you buy a shop management system from a vendor that provides it all, chances are that system won’t integrate with other industry standards. Then you’re better off buying components that can talk to each other.”

A vital, yet often overlooked consideration is the amount of time and money you need to invest in order to learn to use the software effectively. Says Lankar, “Anyone who buys shop management software should look at the training package from the company and make a judgment call from there. Good software will allow you to see whether you need it or not.” Lankar notes that a trial version can help eliminate training costs. “If you need the system up and running against a tight deadline, get the guys trained. Training should always be a priority.”

Ultimately, the amount of training required will vary by provider. Expect to spend between a few hours to up to four days in training, with some companies requiring an intensive classroom setting. Says Bill Colman, president of Costar Computer Systems, “We do not insist, but we strongly recommend that the end user come to a classroom environment. We will refuse to train on-site because the system requires a dedicated fresh mind and we highly recommend classroom training and off-premises training. That is the only way the people can adequately learn the tool and enhance their success.” Proper training can translate into improved customer satisfaction and a spike in profits as a shop becomes managed more efficiently.

Software capability considered a must by large shops differs from the needs of smaller shops. Local area networking capability, for instance, may be too much for the small to medium sized business. How do you decide which features are essential for your business? “Any feature that a customer pays money for but never uses is ‘too much’,” says Larry Perkins. Brian Warfield agrees: “Customers tend to use a certain percentage of the product. It comes full circle back to training. It’s possible to have too much software, especially if the shop wants to use the software for accounting. Many shops prefer to hand reports over to their accountant, keeping those functions separate. They prefer to use the management system to drive efficiency and sell or service.”

Invoices, estimating, tracking, training, at the end of the day, business management software is really about serving your customers. As Danny Lankar says, “You always want to be in control when your customer walks into your shop. You want to know about all the work you’ve done for them with a quick push of the button. You should never be in a situation where you can’t tell the customer about the work you’ve done for them. That’s very important, because these days quality and service prevail over loyalty. It’s dog eat dog”.

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