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Ensuring Speedy Service

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He’s not going to tiptoe around your feelings, sugarcoat the truth, or pretend everything is all hunky-dory. If you ask Steve Ahrens what he thinks? He’ll tell you. And he’ll be frank about it.

“I'm the type of guy that can't tell a lie because I can't remember it,” Ahrens says. “I wear everything on my sleeve. I try to be as polite as I can, but as boldly honest as possible.”

So when former COO of Honest-1 Auto Care Rissy Sutherland asked Ahrens— shop foreman at an Honest-1 shop in Maple Grove, Minn.—what he thought of the company’s inspection process, he was honest: “It’s not going to work.”

“(Corporate) wanted everything to be done in 10 or 15 minutes,” he says. “And I said, ‘In order to do that, I've got to make some changes.’”

And with that request, the 25-year, ASE-Master Certified veteran not only reshaped his own shop, but also revamped the entire company’s standard inspection process. The story is indicative of the culture Ahrens has shaped at his shop, his leadership on the shop floor and his focus on speedy service keeps the customers happy.

Our success boils down to the inspection process we put together. I sat down with corporate and we went through and rearranged the entire inspection sheet to focus on safety items. Then we went into breakdown issues, then maintenance items. The whole process is split into three succinct sections.

For Section I, I need my guys to get one thing up to me in ten minutes. That way, it gets the customer involved right away. That top portion of my inspection is going after the larger things safety items and breakdown items, like steering, suspension, ball joints, tie rod ends, belts, warning lights. We're actually going after the items that could leave the customer broke down alongside the road in our first ten minutes of our inspection. A lot of times the customer hasn't even finished filling out the paperwork by the time we've got that top section done and up to the sales team.

Section II is a little bit more of the safety concern items. We’ll test the horn, the headlights, the battery, the master cylinder, the bushing, and the shocks. Items that are important, and are similar to the Section I items but have a specific safety focus. Technicians have to check a box saying they’ve gone through each item, and they have a small space for notes.

Section III is maintenance: tires, brakes, flushes, hoses, blades. It’s all low-dollar items that aren’t urgent and need to be reported to the customer right away, and a lot of them we may just thrown in free of charge if you’re getting more extensive work preformed.

The system is simple and smart. It works. Sometimes the guys get off track a little bit and my job is to reset the train on the tracks. They'll pull in a car and they'll pull out the air filter first. I’ll pull up the inspection sheet and remind them, "The air filter is the last item of the last section."

Our policies and how our store operates are a bit different than most shops. When customers come in, we want their car moving and in service long before their cup of coffee is filled and they’re sitting down. We get the car in motion. We'll have the car in the shop and on the hoist faster than the customer expects.

If you go into a restaurant and it takes 15 minutes to get seated, you won’t be in the buying mood. You’ll probably want to get your food and get out of there. On the other hand, if you walk into a place and they're all booked up, but they hand you a buzzer and tell you to visit the bar, you're happy by the time you’re seated. You're probably going to get dessert, and you're probably going to leave a good tip.

A REALISTIC APPROACH: Steve Ahrens took it upon himself to create a better, more realistic courtesy inspection process that would allow his team to get its findings to the customer in 15 minutes. The result (shown in the above document) may seem simple, but it added a sophisticated solution to one of the business’s most complex problems.

Auto repair isn't any different. If the customer sits down in that chair and they're staring out at their car … and it's still there … and it's still there—you're losing them. Even if we just move the car, get it out of sight and out of mind, that does wonders.

And you’ve got to get them an update right away. They're expecting to wait about 45 minutes to an hour. But if I wait until 35 minutes goes by to even approach them about the order? Boy, they don’t want anything to do with you and they want to get out of there.

It's just crazy how much getting that car moving makes a difference. And my guys see all that. As I train my technicians on the process, that's a key component: "You see how fast we got this done? And how happy these people are?" It just gets them on board. And it’s great to have the front of the shop and the back of the shop working together and on the same page. We talk about taking down the wall between the front and the back and Rick Duchene—our store manager—and the guys in the front are great working with the guys in the back to take great care of our customers and meet their needs. And that’s what it’s all about.

If we find anything that needs attention, I bring the customer back and inform them of what I see and actually show them their car. And when they ask the two classic questions—"How much will it cost?" "How long will it take to fix it?"—I bring them back to the salesman up front. Then the ball is in their court and I'm moving on to the next step.

NOT COOKIE-CUTTER: It may have the franchise look, but Steve Ahrens has worked to make the Maple Grove, Minn., Honest-1 Auto Care facility stand out through a detail-oriented approach that allows vehicles to move through the shop more efficiently.

When our guys are up front to do the sales pitch, if we find a bad air filter or a set of bad wiper blades, and that customer just committed to a $500 repair, I'm going to throw that air filter or those wiper blades in there for free. We'll give away those small items, as long as somebody is committed to some service work.

That $10 air filter? That's what people talk about. "I was at Honest-1 getting my brakes done, and you know what? They gave me an air filter. Can you believe that?" That's the way people think: "What did I get for free today?"

Making technicians care about that level of speedy service is an ongoing battle. It's a new era. My older techs, they think that they're doing a customer a convenience by fixing their car. "I'll get it done when I can," they’ll say.

That’s just how our society operates. When we go get a haircut, if you can't get in the chair in 10 minutes, you're going somewhere else. That's the truth. Personally, I'm the same way. “If I can't get it done here pretty soon, I'm leaving.”

ONE MINDSET: Steve Ahrens, center, developed a thorough and quick inspection process that allows his team—(from left) Tyler Schoch, Aglan Hussein, Josh Vercimak and Cody Dykhoff—to perform at a high level.

And that's why we have to be a service provider, rather than having expectations. It certainly isn't an 8-to-5 operation anymore. We're open until 9 p.m. We're open Saturdays and Sundays. We're forming around what the customers need, because somebody else will if we don't. The bottom line is, we sell convenience and store hours along with the way we take care of our customers. That is a direct reflection of being convenient.

Part of finding that motivation for my technicians is paying close attention to payroll. Watching what the street value of production hours are, so we are paying a fair price to each employee. We have guys on a straight flat rate per billed hour, and Guys on our hybrid plan that gives them an hourly plus a nice bump with production hours over a set goal.

Corporate is making great strides in helping franchisees run their shops more efficiently. When Honest-1 started, all they had was a manual. But people need live help. We need to get some people that are educated in the Honest-1 process to come in and get the stores up and running. And this company is starting to make some real strides. I just went down to Cincinnati and helped a store owner who just recently opened up down there. As far as I know, that's the first Honest-1 shop where corporate said, "Hey, let's grab some people from a good store to help them in their setup and getting started.”

The more money each individual store makes, the more corporate makes, and the better all the shops can become. So, it's a plus for everybody. A lot of times when you get into big corporate operations, there's too many people that have hurt feelings. "They didn't use my process." They make it too personal. It's not personal, it's just business. And if it doesn't work, let's improve it and make it work. That’s the attitude we have at our shop.

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