Running a Shop Shop Life Leadership

Fixing Cars vs. Fixing People

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Fixing Cars vs. Fixing People

If I ask 100 shop owners in a room, “What’s the hardest part of your job?” a majority will agree that dealing with people, both customers and staff, tops the list. If customers trusted every recommendation we made, and staff always performed at 100 percent, shop life would be quite different.

That’s not the reality though, is it? Whether a customer is telling us how to do our job, or a staff member is not taking accountability for an issue, we use up precious energy solving these problems. And we certainly have no shortage of other tasks that require our attention.

Our business is fixing cars. In doing so, we end up fixing people too. There’s no way around it. When a customer brings their car to our shop, they have two needs. One need is physical: they must have their transportation situation managed. The second need is mental or emotional: they want to feel safe and have a positive experience. When it comes to staff, emotional energy is often expended daily and can lead to significant personal stress and reduced productivity.

Those of you who started as technicians may have a unique appreciation for the differences between fixing a car and fixing a person. A car is right or wrong, there’s little grey area. A car will wait patiently for you to deal with it and not even complain. When stuck on a automotive diagnosis, it may be best to take a moment and walk away; but when there is friction with another human being, it is likely best to deal with it right away.

Years ago I used to have a list of customers that were banned from my shop. Any of you have such a list?! Yeah, those days were different—that was before the Internet. I’ve also had some good people that I just plain let down and learned my lesson.

One of my favorite customers from long ago—I’ll call her Ann—had her transmission go out. I searched long and hard to get her a great deal on a used one. When that transmission arrived, we discovered a crack in the case. I worked even harder to get another one on the way as quick as I could. While I had made Ann aware of the risks of a used transmission after installation, I had failed to let her know that the job could take more time if issues came up, and she was paying for a rental car out of pocket unbeknownst to me. She was very upset.

Managing customer expectations is a delicate balancing act. If you let them know every worst-case scenario, you could scare a lot of customers away. And we all know what happens when you end up in a tough spot you didn’t anticipate. My personal favorite is the car that develops a new and unrelated problem while under our care and custody.

I wouldn’t be an automotive business owner if I hadn’t had to deal with an upset staff member also. One of my first employees became upset when he learned that another employee earned more money than he. The vibe in the shop degraded significantly because of it. Cutting him loose would have been the right move, but I worried how we’d get all our work done so I kept him on. When he decided to take a position at another shop, it was tough but we made due and a huge chunk of everyone’s stress left with him, especially mine.

I had no idea how much of my energy was drained until the situation changed. You simply don’t realize sometimes what a toll interpersonal relations take on your mental health. It’s the classic bad apple story where one unhappy person can upset the balance of a group of people. As an automotive consultant, I see many business owners themselves who need some fixing. It’s a tough job. Kudos to those who have realized they could use help and don’t have too much ego to ask for it! Help is always out there if you’re willing to look.

Unless you’re a hermit, you’re going to have to deal with people in your life: people at work, people at home, and everywhere in between. A little understanding of human psychology can go a long way to easing interpersonal stress. If you’ve ever takes a sales course, you’ve experienced some of this psychology. You might begin with a new customer by generating rapport. “Hey, I noticed a sports team sticker on your car. Did you see the game last night?” Knowing you have something in common with someone greatly reduces the fear of being taken advantage of.

Rapport is easy though, and can take only minutes. A more advanced technique would be drawing out objections in sales. Customers don’t always feel comfortable telling you why they’re not ready to do a service now. I had to call one of my service vendors last week to get some clarification on the price. In the end, everything was fine but the guy on the phone (the owner) gave me the “machine gun” objections pitch. He threw every reason he had at me to justify his price without asking me any questions to determine where my concerns were. It was unpleasant to say the least and he already had the sale! There is no shortage of resources out there to aid you in providing your customers with a pleasant experience that will reduce stress for both of you. We are very fortunate to have some great sales trainers in our industry. If you haven’t been to one of their classes, do it now.

When it comes to staff, there is a little more to it. With staff, you are also in a sales position. You are constantly selling your vision (what’s coming in the future) in an effort to keep staff engaged and interested. Engaged people are happier in their job and typically produce better results. My off-the-shelf vision for an automotive service business is to “be on the leading edge of our industry.”

With your staff, you’re also going to need to add in a leadership component. I’ve read many books and taken many leadership and management classes over the years. One of the timeless classics is Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. A great training course based on the book is also offered across the country. Some takeaways for me were that great leaders remember your name, smile, and are good listeners. A great leader doesn’t criticize, condemn, or complain. Make other people feel important. When the shop has a great week, make sure everyone knows it couldn’t have happened without him or her. Check that ego at the door! Sure, there are some great natural leaders out there but leadership is a skill that can be learned and improved upon.

With changing technology and daily workflow, we’ve got enough on our plates. Wouldn’t it be great to expend less energy dealing with problem customers and staff? With customers leaving online reviews and a shortage of qualified staff, we can’t really afford to burn through people. What we can do is increase our efficiency just like we would by replacing that 3-hour water pump in 2 hours.

Time is short, I know. We’re busy, but investments in sales and management knowledge pay dividends for a lifetime. Take the time to learn more about people’s needs, cater to them, and know how to express your vision clearly. You’ll see a tremendous difference in your work life and beyond. It’s 2018: let’s make a commitment to improve upon our people-fixing skills in addition to car-fixing skills. I’m betting we’ll live longer and better because of it.a

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