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Tackling the Tough Conversations

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SHOP STATS: Overbeck's Auto Service  Location: Cincinnati, Ohio  Owner: Matt Overbeck   Average Monthly Car Count: 160  Total Staff Size: 12  Annual Revenue: $1.3 million  

Communication is the hardest thing we do. It’s never comfortable and no matter how well versed we are at it, it never comes out right. 

As a shop owner, having uncomfortable conversations is required, whether you like it or not. Everyone has had an employee that’s shown up late one too many times, or who isn’t following the company’s sales script, or likes to turn a 30-minute lunch break into an afternoon off. 

But for many owners, broaching that conversation is anxiety-inducing, says Maylan Newton, the founder of Educational Seminars Institute which provides management and personnel coaching to the automotive industry. They’re trying to avoid the situation getting worse or they’re worried if they fire the employee, they’ll hire someone worse. 

For Matt Overbeck, owner of Overbeck Auto Services in Cincinnati, Ohio, the process of letting go of a long-term employee was filled with indecision and fear. 

A relationship with one of his top employees turned sour after starting out as a major success. Overbeck grappled with the decision for a long time and it hurt his business. It took a lot of coaxing before he finally let the employee go. 

So how can you avoid these long, drawn-out, painful scenarios? Ratchet+Wrench has your guide to addressing uncomfortable topics with employees that will stop problems in their tracks. 

Start small, immediately. 

It took Overbeck a long time to finally confront his employee. For much of the employee’s six-year run at the shop, things were fine. 

Overbeck took over the day-to-day operations of the shop in 2013 after his father’s health took a turn for the worse. He was never the type of person who liked to be at the front counter working with the customers. So he hired this employee to do it for him. Immediately revenue climbed and the new employee was a big reason why, Overbeck says.

But as the years passed, Overbeck slowly learned how to run a shop and started to see the limitations of his business. They needed to become more modern, but the employee wasn’t willing.

Slowly the shop’s success dwindled. Then COVID hit and it took a turn for the worse. Not only was the shop faltering, but Overbeck was struggling personally. He was mentally and physically drained. He was gaining weight and he couldn’t sleep.

Don’t let the situation get out of hand like it did for Overbeck. 

“Start with lots of little, easy conversations before you ever have to have a big difficult discussion,” he says reflecting on his situation. It’s what he didn’t do and felt was one of the biggest reasons everything spiraled. 

Overbeck didn’t initially confront the employee about any of the issues that were bothering him. That allowed the employee to believe his pattern of behavior was acceptable. He could take off from work early and criticize the shop’s strategies without any thought of repercussions. 

Newton sees situations like Overbeck’s all the time. “Most people don’t have that first conversation,” he says. That leads to a pattern of behavior that is hard to break later on. 

Newton recommends having a conversation immediately after the first subordinate action. If an employee comes in late, talk to them right when they arrive.

Ask them why they are late and let them know of your expectations. If it happens a second time, follow the same process. Ask how you can help them be on time. Work with them, but don’t change expectations. If you allow them to come in 30 minutes late, chances are that in a month, they’re going to be missing that start time too.

“Don’t put your blinders on. When you see stuff you don’t like, talk about it. Don’t let it go,” Overbeck says. 

Prioritize consistent conversation.

After Overbeck let the employee go, he brought the rest of his team together to share the news.

“Thank you,” Overbeck recalls his best technician saying. 

As a shop owner, if you are feeling the effects of one employee’s actions, there’s a great chance other employees feel the same way. And if the employees are feeling it, the customers are too. 

Overbeck thought he had an open line of communication with all of his employees, but this incident made him question it. Nobody said anything. They didn’t feel it was their place. 

Newton suggests meeting with every employee once a month for a check-in. They can voice their concerns about how things are going and this gives you a natural opportunity to remind them of what they’re doing well and not doing well. Be clear and concise. Make yourself accountable as well. Create a space where they can be constructive about how you can better. 

It also helps develop a connection between yourself and your employees. If they feel comfortable with you, they’ll be more likely to bring up issues happening throughout the shop and will feel a greater sense of responsibility to meet all the requirements you set out for them.

“Employees are just like relationships,” Newton says. “You need to nurture it with good communication or it deteriorates. It has to be consistent.”

Don’t be fearful.

We tolerate missed behavior because of fear, Newton says. 

Whether we’re worried about escalating the situation or that we could hire someone worse than what we currently have, that fear holds us back.

Overbeck could barely make it through a day at the shop in the months leading up to the firing. But even as his personal and professional life deteriorated, he was petrified to have an uncomfortable conversation. 

It took a webinar call with Shop Fix Academy’s Aaron Stokes, in which another shop owner brought up a similar situation to his for something to change. That shop owner let go of his employee and saw everything changed for the better. That flipped a switch in Overbeck’s mind. The next day he sat the employee down and let him go. 

When Newton is working with clients, the first thing he tells them is that the success of their business does not hinge on one person. Their business is more important than their relationship with one employee or the potential awkwardness that an uncomfortable conversation might induce. Don’t let the shortcomings of one employee create an environment where others are discouraged or see it as acceptable behavior. 

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