® The Superstar Myth

The weary, dirty, sweat-stained 30-something rides up, hopeful of work. The battle for mere existence is written on his face in lines that make him older than his years. His bent sillouette tells his hard life, his eyes the harshness of a culture that views him as only a tool to be used and nothing more. Without right, recognition, or property, and no future, yet despite this optimistic and transparent. Sound like a John Ford western? Actually, it's a tragically apt description of the average powersports technician.

The oldest technician compensation method in powersports is straight commission. In the straight commission system the tech got paid only for what he or she did. Long the standard, in the early 1970s a tech was paid exactly half of what the customer paid for the job. Wow! Fifty percent sounds great, doesn't it? Well, the IRS levied a high tax penalty, and all the tech's benefits he paid himself. That's right, health insurance (what's that?), vacations (what?), sick days, even his uniforms. None of this was included back then, and even today not all employers include it. And on rainy days, techs didn't make any money. They repaired special tools and fabricated new ones. Cleaned their areas, straightened up their toolboxes. Bled their hydraulic lifts. And on payday, it showed. So 50 percent wasn't as great financially as it might sound. On top of that, in the 1980s shops began reducing that number to 40% then 30% and even less.

Most shops have abandoned the straight commission system because it constituted a built-in raise for the tech when the shop raised its labor rate every two to three years, as most do. Probably the most common system today is the "X amount per billed hour" system. In this automotive-derived system, the tech is hired at, say, $19 per billed hour. For every billable hour he produces, he is paid that $19, regardless of what the billable amount is, or what the shop rate is, or anything else. This is actually a modified form of the straight commission system, with elements of an hourly system thrown in, and now the built-in raise is gone, something shop owners never liked.

Incentive pay would seem to be a good idea, and it would be in a perfect world. Properly administered, it is the preferred way. There are three basic problems with it however, and most shops succomb in one or more of them. First, technicians are near or at the bottom of the shop's food chain. If they are on an incentive system, then all the people above them affect their actual pay on a moment-by-moment basis. Let's start for example with the tech's immediate supervisor, the service writer. If the service writer writes poorly communicating service orders, all too common, by the way, or is unavailable for consultation, or is unskilled in preparing customers with the proper expectations, this directly costs the technician in wasted time. And nowhere is the saying more appropriate, time is indeed money. Then there is the parts counterperson. Same deal. If this person is inattentive or just doesn't like dealing with the service department, this also costs the technician. And many parts people do in fact feel that way. They would much rather sell a helmet for its 100%+ markup than wait on a service tech for his $50 worth of 30% margin parts. And then there's his boss, the parts manager. If he neglects to keep in stock commonly needed items, won't that also affect the amount of time the commission technician wastes? You bet! And it all comes right out of his check on payday.

The second problem with incentive pay systems for technicians is, well, human nature. When a little extra effort is required for a repair or service to be really effective, as it so often does on motorcycles, the tech is tempted to not make that effort, because it will cost him money. Lots of gray lines like this have to be crossed multiple times every day. Thus the job suffers. Worse, and not at all unheard of, the tech may find that cutting corners is a lucrative tactic for all jobs, and at that point nothing they do can be counted on to be good quality. An incentive pay system isn't necessarily an automatic invitation to every tech to do lousy work. It's really up to the individual tech, i.e. his or her work ethic. It's also up to their manager, in terms of his or her managing skills. If those skills are what they should be, and the techs were hired carefully, wonderful, the incentive system will work. Under the right conditions, it's still a good system. But, where either of these--the tech's work ethic or his manager's ability to manage -- is in question, then the incentive system is a poor choice as a technician pay method, in my opinion. Unfortunately, poor technician work ethic and poor dealer management is virtually endemic in powersports shops. So you can see where that leaves us.

But there's more to be said against incentive systems because the third problem is it throws under the bus the technician who works at an authorized dealership when he or she does warranty work. A minimum of 30 percent of all dealership service work is warranty related, and sometimes much more. Problem is, the manufacturer reimburses the dealer at a discounted rate that, like a medical insurance provider's, is established beforehand with the understanding that just the right to be a dealer is part of the compensation. An incentive paid tech is therefore literally at the mercy of a factory-driven warranty system that pays the dealer merely a token. He takes it in the shorts with every warranty job.

In fact, these three things, poor shop efficiency, poor management, and the necessary evil of warranty, combine to produce a culture in the powersports service world that is highly corrosive and needs to change before bike shops will have better reputations with the public. The technician who works under an incentive system has incredible pressure on him or her to be superhuman. There is the natural demand to do quality work and at the same time do it quickly, a gargantuan feat that very few manage to pull off. Those that do are the stars of our industry. Incredibly talented, very young guys usually, full of testosterone and like most young people blessed with boundless energy and immense emotional and philosophical resiliance. But they wear out before the ten-year mark. They just can't keep up with the demands of a system that is entirely against them from the beginning.

This is the worst thing about our industry. This idea that it is not only possible but desireable to be a "flat rate" superstar is a stupid, tragic and hellish myth, and one that will never allow our industry to get beyond even mediocre customer service, let alone overcome the stigma it suffers in the minds of the motorcycling public. The superstar myth keeps technicians constantly on the move from one shop to another. It makes enemies of folks that should be working together -- the parts and service departments at the dealership. It alienates customers, separates families and is driving the intelligence level of techs down because those with even a little smarts are increasingly moving on to other lines of work.

So the next time you're at the bike shop, consider the unique world of the powersports tech. Consider that, while there are indeed a few glowing exceptionsal shops, most techs work in just 12 square feet of dingy workspace and eat their lunches while they work. Remember that very few earn more than $40K a year, and many far less. The typical tech doesn't own a cell phone (documented!), is uncomfortable around personal computers, and isn't exactly a voracious reader. And when the shop won't buy the special tool, he has to. When the shop won't source the correct service parts, he has to somehow make do with what is laying around. Remember that just to keep his job, he is required to do the impossible┬ľ -- produce quality work at half the time or less, using junk in many cases. And then do the job over for free when it comes back. He has to beg to be allowed to go to training, and then he has to foot the bill himself and not be paid while he's getting it. It's still not a given that he'll have medical insurance, or paid time off, or even be allowed to use the shop lunchroom. Own his own home? Not likely. Have a family of his own? Maybe. Yup, the situation is still a lot like the old west. And now you know.

Suggested reading:
A little about mechanics
Service in the Service Dept.?
A story about motivation
The face of the store

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© 1996-2015 Mike Nixon