Sidney Billingsley found the best technicians he could when he opened Steve’s Auto Repair in 2005. He hired a group with various levels of training and experience, some of whom were better than others.
He noticed several struggles the first year. It was a daily battle to make sure technicians were doing things right and that customers were receiving all the services they agreed to. And a few entry-level technicians were making basic errors—in some cases even forgetting to tighten lug nuts.
Although every technician Billingsley hired had at least graduated from a technical school program, he says that wasn’t enough to ensure success in the shop.
“Even among people who go to school, most entry-level technicians still can’t fix cars properly,” Billingsley says. “It’s a whole different animal between classroom and actual shop work.”
Billingsley needed a way to train and indoctrinate new technicians into his shop, to help get them up to speed. That led to the creation of a formalized mentorship program that requires all entry-level technicians to shadow the shop’s master technicians—the A-techs.
“As a small shop, this was the only way we could afford to effectively train every technician to ensure they could adhere to our desired performance and quality standards,” Billingsley says.
The mentorship program has had a tremendous impact on the operation. Billingsley says the effort has developed a higher quality, more cohesive staff of technicians, which has created a stronger shop and sustainable performance.
Grow Your Own
George Zeeks, coach and instructor with the Automotive Training Institute (ATI), says it’s getting harder and harder for shops to find technicians who can naturally succeed. It’s becoming imperative for shop operators to take matters into their own hands.
“There is a decrease in qualified technicians in the industry, and the number of new people entering the profession is slipping year after year. If you want a good technician, sometimes you have to grow your own,” Zeeks says. “Set time aside to do this as an investment in making your shop better.”
Zeeks says implementation of a mentorship program, such as Billingsley’s, bonds employees together, creates a better culture and sets a standard that quality and expertise are important.
“You literally develop a family where everyone is working and training to make each other better, and people enjoy coming to work,” Zeeks says.
Billingsley’s mentorship program is simple, yet effective. And it’s something that shops of all sizes can replicate.
When an entry-level general service technician is hired, they work alongside a master technician for one full workday every week. For two years, the master technicians train them on new skills, monitor their work, and serve as expert resources to help the new techs overcome challenges.
Trainees learn everything about the shop. They learn repair processes and methods, proper use of equipment and technologies, and sets of best practices for efficient and productive work habits. Trainees also learn all shop-specific requirements, such as how to park cars, clean the interior, placement of parts and materials, how to complete courtesy checks, and how to communicate with service writers.
Billingsley spent nearly five years perfecting it. He offers some insight to help make it successful at any shop from the get-go.
Rotate Trainers. Billingsley’s trainees are not permanently paired with the same master technician. He rotates whom each person works with every week. That’s because each master technician has different areas of specialty, and trainees have an opportunity to gain a broader spectrum of expertise and knowledge by switching it up.
Have a Lengthy Duration. Billingsley designed a two-year program because he says it takes that long to become familiar with a majority of systems used in cars today. Vehicles are more complex compared to the past, and it takes time for entry-level technicians to become accustomed to the broad range of models repaired in shops.
Identify a Pay Structure. Billingsley says the program has to be a win-win for everybody. It requires extra effort for trainers so they should be reimbursed accordingly to make it worthwhile.
During the training sessions, Billingsley pays the trainees their normal hourly wage. The trainer gets paid for all of the labor hours generated between the pair, which Billingsley says is usually about 15 hours compared to 10 when working on their own.
Create Accountability. Billingsley says someone needs to be held accountable for the work trainees produce in order for the program to work. Otherwise, trainers could easily ignore the trainee while collecting additional pay.
Billingsley holds each trainer accountable for all work produced. That gives the trainer reason to pay close attention, provide feedback and ensure accuracy because they’re responsible for any comebacks.
Set Expectations. Billingsley says you have to be very specific with both the trainer and trainee regarding expectations of the mentorship program. He created a written document that outlines when the training will occur, for how long, what must be accomplished, how the pay structure works, and who is accountable for work production. Each person must sign the document to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Coach Your Trainers. Your trainers have to learn basic leadership skills. That’s not always a natural ability, so shop operators may have to coach them on how to deliver proper training, guidance, feedback and communication. Meet with your trainers often to find out what’s working and where they need help.
Billingsley says the mentorship program creates some extra responsibility for trainers, but it has dramatically improved the consistency of work on jobs across the board—from tough diagnostic work to daily oil changes and tire rotations.
“It doesn’t matter whether they’re a general service technician or master technician, the program has promoted quality and expertise among everyone,” Billingsley says, noting the shop only lost about $6,000 last year due to comebacks, compared to nearly $15,000 years ago without the program.
But that’s not all. Billingsley says the shop has experienced several other improvements that have generated stronger overall performance:
Better Hiring Processes. You can’t keep people in your shop who don’t have the right attitude, Billingsley says. The mentorship program can help you identify their work habits and behaviors within about six months. Your trusted trainers can offer feedback on their knowledge, abilities, desire to learn, attitude and outlook, which helps decide whether they’re worth keeping on the payroll before investing too much time, money and resources to develop them.
“This helps weed out the people who won’t be successful long-term,” Billingsley says.
Reduced Productivity Losses. Billingsley recently had one higher-level technician leave for another shop. Typically, he says that vacancy would either lead to productivity losses or cause him to scramble for a replacement—easily resulting in a hasty decision. But the mentorship program has created a solid team of “bench players” trained on shop processes who can fill the void. That helps maintain production levels when there is a technician absence.
“The trainee might still be going through the program and not have proficiency at everything, but you at least know they have been checked off for competency in certain areas,” Billingsley says. “When an emergency need arises, you know you can hand them certain types of work and feel comfortable in their ability to get it right.”
Identification of Future Managers. Billingsley says the mentoring program helps identify valuable characteristics in his master technicians. He sees who is patient, good with people, a good communicator, and able to manage the time of multiple people. That information helps promote the best people to service writer or management.
Stronger Staff Relationships. Although technicians are only paired one day a week, Billingsley says the mentorship program helps cultivate permanent relationships and teamwork. Technicians develop familiarity with one another, and become more comfortable to communicate every day. It’s become habit for master technicians to offer feedback and guidance to others regularly, and for young technicians to ask questions before making guesses and mistakes.
Improved Operational Processes. Billingsley says many of the shop’s standard processes have been developed out of the mentorship program. Master technicians often uncover better and faster ways of doing things when they’re forced to teach it.
All of these improvements, Billingsley says, have been the leading catalysts for stronger sales performance during two consecutive years.
“We’re able to get more cars out the door, and we’re doing better as a whole,” he says. “The mentorship program has hugely contributed to that.”