It feels like a case of extremes if you’re an automotive aftermarket shop owner these days.
A key phrase for shop owners these days is ‘shortage.’ There’s a shortage of technicians — and a shortage of talent in general, really. There’s a shortage of parts which is delaying some customers in getting their vehicles repaired.
That’s one end of all the problems.
At the other are what feel to be never-ending shortages of problems when it comes to issues in the business, from keeping staff engaged, to finding time to work on the business, to successful retention to keeping the bottom line strong.
These issues have been front and centre recently during training sessions from automotive aftermarket experts and coaches.
Perhaps now more than ever as consumer behaviours, markets and trends change, it’s important for shop owners to ensure they’re dedicating time to key areas of the business. Particularly, ensuring that they’re spending time working on it, rather than in it.
It was a common phrase used by the late Bob Greenwood. He would emphasize the need for shop owners to get themselves out of the daily grind in the bays and in the office to plan out how they would position their business to get to the next level.
For Brandon Smith, a workplace author and speaker, that means avoiding common traps as a shop owner. One of the easiest ways to get distracted from core tasks is to immerse yourself in every emergency that pops up.
Usually, only 10 per cent of all emergencies should require the shop owner to step in.
Any more than this and staff haven’t been trained well enough — or aren’t trusted enough — to handle run-of-the-mill situations without having to be called in for support.
Unfortunately, “we screw this up,” Smith told a group of shop owners at NAPA Expo 2022 in Las Vegas this summer. Often, shop owners fall into the ‘hero trap’ where they feel the need to jump in and save the day the moment they see an emergency taking place or someone bursts into their office with their hands waving in a panic.
“When we rescue our teams, we’re stunting their growth and creating a co-dependent relationship,” Smith said. “It feels good to put on that cape. It feels good to swoop in and save the day. And they thank us for it. But the only person there who’s really working is us, right? We’re the only ones getting stronger.”
Giving up more control and watching people fail along the way as they learn can be tough for any leader, Smith acknowledged. That’s another trap shop owners fall into: Fear of failure or loss of control. In other words, the owner is scared to see their staff fail as it could hurt the business, or they fear the loss of control because the job may be done a different way.
“This is one of the most common kinds of ‘founder’s dilemmas’ — this idea that I like it done my way and my way is the only way to go,” Smith said.
Another trap is what Smith calls ‘the bait-and-switch’ — an employee comes to you with a problem and gets you to solve it for them. Not only does that relieve them of the duty to problem solve, which stunts their professional growth, it now gets the owner involved in working on the problem.
Instead, Smith suggested having the employee think more about how to solve the problem. Take, say, an hour and come back with some solutions.
The owner’s goal is to coach and elevate their staff so the shop can run seamlessly without them. When your staff can run the business without you being there, then you are free to plan the next steps of the company, he added.
“Talent wants clear information. We have nothing gained by pretending we’re paying more than we’re not or not telling people what we’re paying. Embrace it.”
With some free time now hopefully opened up, shop owners can work towards perhaps their biggest challenge: Finding technicians.
Unfortunately, too many don’t take it seriously enough, said Linda Brenner, managing director and founder of Talent Growth Advisors. She has worked with aftermarket companies and those in other industries.
“A lot of companies, they just [think] recruiting is a joke,” she said at NAPA Expo 2022. “They don’t know how to do it … It can be very convoluted. People minimize it. So the bar is low. So that’s an opportunity.”
The opportunity lies in doing a better job of attracting quality candidates. Quantity isn’t the goal.
“We want quality candidates — and quality candidates mean people who get hired and stay and perform,” Brenner said. “And I don’t mean ‘stay their whole life.’ But if you’ve got a trendline of ‘within 90 days people are quitting,’ you want to push that longer. You want to get people who stay longer and perform better on the job.”
Start with a better job posting. The whole mindset in this area needs to change, Brenner said. “Don’t write these long, formal, boring [legalese] job descriptions that someone gave you. Nobody is going to read that; you and I wouldn’t read that,” she said. “But definitely younger people in the marketplace that have a very short attention span are not going to read that either.”
Explicitly say what you want. Don’t be cagey. Don’t hide the fact you want them working weekends, for example. Be open about pay. Define what part-time actually means.
“Talent wants clear information. We have nothing gained by pretending we’re paying more than we’re not or not telling people what we’re paying. Embrace it,” Brenner recommended.
Flexibility is a key topic on people’s minds. “To the extent you can, be flexible with people that are dealing with a lot of issues,” she said. “In our world right now people taking care of aging parents, they’re divorced, they’re single moms, whatever.”
If you need someone part-time, try to give them as fixed a schedule as you can. They may have another part-time job to co-ordinate with. Some people just like knowing what hours they’ll be working and when. That can help recruitment efforts.
And if a job post isn’t successful, try other methods. Think about former employees; maybe things aren’t working out for them at their new job. Call them up, see what they’re up to and if they’d like to come back. “Just get that conversation going,” Brenner said.
Another strategy is referrals. If your employees like working for you, they’d be happy to recommend someone. “If you sit down and say, ‘You’re so dependable, you’re so smart, you’re so good at dealing with customers — who else do you know that would be great here?’ And really get them to think about it.”
You can sweeten the pot by offering a referral bonus or gift.
And don’t forget about poaching from the competition. Because if you don’t, someone else will poach you, Brenner said.
“If we finally get it in this industry, and we fix it? Now we’re going to have people lining up to be techs in our industry because they can make the kind of living that they should make.”
And if the automotive aftermarket really wants to expedite relief in not just attracting young people to be technicians but keeping them, it all comes down to the almighty dollar.
“How are we going to attract qualified technicians to our business if we’re still paying $20 an hour and they can get a job at McDonald’s making 20 bucks an hour serving hamburgers?” Cecil Bullard, chief executive officer of the Institute for Automotive Business Excellence and RLO Training, asked rhetorically. “We can’t do it anymore.”
He called the lack of technicians — qualified technicians — “an epidemic” in this industry.
So how does a shop pay more to their techs? By charging the customer more. Most shops are already vastly undercharging customers for the expertise of a technician. So bump up your labour rate by $20 an hour, Bullard advised, and put $10 of that into your technicians’’ paycheques.
“Now we’re starting to get to a point where we can hire somebody as a junior technician … that is going to make us competitive with some of these other jobs.”
When people see they can make good money in this industry as a tech, that makes the job more attractive. “If we finally get it in this industry, and we fix it? Now we’re going to have people lining up to be techs in our industry because they can make the kind of living that they should make,” Bullard said.
“I want you to realize how important it is that you have a succession plan.”
Planning an exit
Every good shop owner should be thinking about their exit from the business. That doesn’t matter if you’re planning to leave in the next five years or 30 years — you owe it to not just yourself, but your staff and customers to have a properly planned out map of your transition, explained Bob Ward, owner of Perpetual Business and an expert in business succession planning.
For the shop owner, not planning their succession means potentially never getting paid for their life’s work. There are two ways to exit a business, according to Ward: Either one that is planned or one that is forced. In the case of the latter, that could come by illness, death or just being worn out with no buyer ready. The business simply closes up.
Without a plan, your employees — those who depend on you for a living — are left in the lurch.
“You’re risking that person’s future, not to mention all of your employees and their families that rely on your business for their livelihood and well-being,” Ward said at NAPA Expo 2022.
Not to mention your customers, who depend on you for reliable, quality service, are now left to find someone new.
“But we don’t think about that most times — we’re just running our businesses,” Ward said. “I want you to realize how important it is that you have a succession plan.”
He offered some tips on finding a successor. One could be working for you right now. If a service advisor, for example, looks like they have a knack for the industry and appear to be someone to whom you could successfully transition, talk to them. You may be surprised by the answer you get.
They may not have thought about it but are intrigued by the idea. Or they may have the idea in their mind but they’re too afraid to ask you, Ward observed.
“They’re kind of afraid,” he elaborated. They might think they’re too young or don’t have the money to buy you out. Lack of experience adds to the cloud of doubt. “They don’t have the confidence” to go up to you to tell you about how interested they are.
Even if they don’t want to be an owner, maybe there’s a role elsewhere in the company for which they may be a fit. By asking what’s important to them, their family and their career, you can see where someone may want to end up. You always want to know how you can satisfy your employees.
Ward called these “essential conversations” to have. That’s how you find employees for life.
“If you know [what they want] you can help satisfy it. If it helps satisfy their needs and wants and their career goals, you can keep them forever,” he said. “If you can’t satisfy them, they’re at risk of leaving on their own or being recruited out.”