® Where's the Service in the Service Department?

Some years ago Motorcycle Consumer News magazine summed up its dealer satisfaction survey with the declaration that, based on the survey's results, too few dealer service departments appeared to provide good service. More recently, poll results from J.D. Power reinforce the notion that customers are not always satisfied with the service they receive at OEM dealer service departments. Clearly, customers view the dealer service department as an oxy-moron. That is, how can a department be named "service" and not provide it? Let's examine just three possible reasons for this.

Reason #1: Ineffective Service Management
I often ask my management class students if they relate to the idea of being either the service department's policeman or fireman. Service managers who find themselves the shop policeman are insulating the dept from the owner or general manager. "Don't let me hear anything about what goes on back there, that's your job, keep those customers off my back!," such a dealership owner says. Or, if a fireman, the service manager has a huge firehose in his hand. He's so busy putting out fires he's not effective in running anything and he is likely not empowered to create systems that will prevent those fires from occuring in the first place. Either is a sad, unenviable place to be beaause a manager who works like this is far from actually being a manager,

To be truly effective, a service manager must be more than a glorified phone answerer. He or she must lead in two areas. The service manager must provide procedural leadership, that is, set department rules, policies and standards; and the manager must provide technical leadership, which usually means establishing best practices. Usually, a service manager is better at one of these than the other, and that's to be expected. However, management that is significantly skewed one way or the other is not only not completely effective, such management is either powerless or perplexed, and in worst cases, both.

The powerless service manager is one who is prohibited from setting policy. That is, how things such as wreck repairs, tire jobs, and storage and towing is handled, as well as the control of shop time and shop supplies. The manager who has no input into these matters is not going to succeed in providing good customer service, because he or she has objectives but no tools with which to meet them. The perplexed manager on the other hand is one having little or no technical background. This manager may have authority to make decisions, but hasn't the tools with which to make them. He is unfamiliar with correct powersports vehicle service technique, and may not even know that he or she doesn't know. Besides the frustration and the obvious effect on the shop's technical excellence, the techs will usually not respect or trust such a manager, further undermining his or her effectiveness and resulting in a serious deficit in shop morale that simply has to affect service quality.

Management means dreaming. Really. Thinking of ways the business (or dept) can grow. Customer appreciation programs, technician incentives, more effective service marketing. A cute acronym for this is POEM. Managers must plan, organize, execte, and monitor, and if they're writing service, dealing with disgruntled customers, holding their tech's hands and playing advocate between their department and others, they aren't doing that.

Reason #2: Inexpert Service Technicians
Many shops wish they could find well-trained techs. It's an ongoing struggle, but the training itself is not the problem. The quality, scope, and availability of factory technical instruction has never been better. The training's available, and it's the best there is. Honda has even gone on record as equating completion of their full training package as being as much work as obtaining a Bachelor's degree. Why then are many of our industry's techs not well-trained? For starters, demographics. There are a lot of inexperienced techs entering the business. Fortunately, most of them are graduates of such trade schools as Motorcycle Mechanics Institute (MMI) and Power Sports Institute (PSI). However, no matter how well educated, entry-level techs are still beginners in the larger sense, with a lot to learn, but that's not the issue either. Howvever, sadly, many techs don't think they need training, and surprisingly, many of their supervisors agree with them. The fact is, not all dealers take advantage of training that not only makes the dealership better, but results in fewer service related problems, and hence fewer customer relations issues. The training's there, and it's good. It's just not being taken advantage of.

Reason #3: Inefficient Service Parts Handling
Parts is a huge piece of this. Lexus, historically the 500 pound gorilla in automotive customer service, has not only an enviable customer service ethic, they also are strong advocates of proactive parts inventory management. That is, having parts when you need them. Could there be a connection? Many dealers do not stock parts. It's too expensive, or the OEM's shipping and return policies are unfriendly, or it's too easy to get caught with surplus inventory at tax time, they complain, and that's a real concern. But frequently needed parts really should be stocked. Does your service manager have to check each time if the store has an inner tube in stock before taking in an off-road bike flat tire job, or the correct spark plugs before taking in a maintenance service? Do the customers of either of these jobs expect parts delays on such routine work? Of course not!

Then there is the traditional infighting that happens in so many dealerships. Nowhere else in the dealership is there more misunderstanding and more resultant conflict than between the parts and service departments. In fact the situation is truly desperate in some powersports stores. Many if not most of dealership's parts departments view the service department's parts needs as secondary to those of their counter customers. This is very short-sighted. The truth is, a competently run service department generates a steadier flow of parts sales than do counter customers. Service parts are just as important as counter parts, and possibly more important, because inefficient handling of the service department's parts requests has serious consequences: at stake is the timely completion of service work. The store's reputation is in greater jeopardy when service work is delayed than when a counter request is snafued in some way. Believe it. This kind of parts management affects service department function in real-world ways.

So what's the answer? Service department management that is competent, empowered, and freed-up from daily issues so that it can look at the big picture. Techs with up-to-date training, access to resources, and the support they need to do their jobs. And finally, understanding and cooperation between the service and parts departments -- codified by the dealership owner or GM so that it is non-negotiable. The dealership must *want* their customers to feel good about them. They must yearn for it. Only then will the word "service" make sense as it applies to the service department.


Suggested reading:
The superstar myth
A story about motivation
The face of the store

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