Shop Management Software: Find Your Best Fit

Sept. 21, 2022

It can take a few tries to find the right shop management software for your shop. Here are some expert tips for finding the right one.

For some shop owners, it’s love at first use. For others, like Scott Bickley, it’s a case of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and it takes a few tries to find the one that’s just right. 

We’re talking about shop management systems. 

If there was one shop management system that was far superior to others, it would be an easy choice. The truth is, there is no one-size fits all solution. It may take a few times to find the perfect match. It all depends on the needs of your shop and your personal preference. Two shop owners share their journey to the right software and an experienced coach shares his tips. 


John Wafler, facilitator, coach and instructor for the Institute for Automotive Excellence, has been in the automotive industry for more than 40 years and has been working as a coach for over 20 years. Throughout his four decades in the industry, he’s experienced many shop owners switch shop management systems thinking it will solve all of their problems. For those with that mindset, Wafler has some cautionary words. 

“I have seen so many shop owners switch thinking that it will be an easy turn of a switch on and putting the data in. The reality is that it can cripple a business making that change.”

When Wafler talks to shop owners about switching systems, he first asks what problem they have with their current one. For shop owners who respond that it doesn’t do X, he asks if they’ve reached out to the company and maybe it does do X, they’re just unsure how to do it.

“Quite often they have workarounds. It’s not exactly the way you would want it, but you can work around it,” Wafler says. 

If you can make it work, do it, says Wafler. Switching to a new system will take four to six weeks before you get it down, he says. However, sometimes a change is the only option. 

Mark Pfleghaar, owner of Certified Auto Repair in Spring Park, Minnesota, switched systems because he was looking for one that would be easy for his front desk to use. The system he started with was slightly more technical and difficult for people working in the office with less automotive experience. Scott Bickley, owner of Little Wolf Auto in Waupaca, Wisconsin, switched a few different times before finding one he was happy with. What he found was one would do something extremely well but would lack in other areas. So, he decided to figure out what was most important to him and his business, which includes an express lube as well as a full-service repair shop. 

The Problem

For Pfleghaar and Bickley, the switch was made because certain needs weren’t being met. Pfleghaar switched because his system at the time was difficult for the front desk to grasp and Bickley says as his business grew, he found one would be good for quick lubes and struggle with full-service and vice-versa. He also realized his software, which was based on the server and not cloud-based, was going to cause issues during times of business growth. 

The Solution 

To find the right software system, Wafler advises never to trust the salesperson. They will show all of the aspects of their software that make it look easy, but the reality is that it might not be. Instead, ask the salesperson for references on shop owners in your area who use their system and reach out to them to ask for their honest opinion.

“If they can’t give you those, it’s a red flag,” Wafler says. “Call the shops, go there, and watch it being used in live action.”     

Pfleghaar found a system that made it easy to write up a work order and simplified sending inspections and collecting payments, which made it much more user-friendly for the front-of-house employees.

 Bickley realized he needed to stop getting caught up with new features and functionality and lay out what was most important for his business and match the software to his business. He decided he needed one that would work well with his quick lube and tire business, so he needed a system that would make setting those jobs up easy and quick. 

The Aftermath 

Pfleghaar says the switch has allowed him to train employees with ease and that it frees up time at the front counter. Bickley says his new system can set up a new customer with an oil change in less than 30 seconds and a returning one can be done in less than 10. 

The Takeaway

“Depending on why you’re switching, you’ll find features in the new software that are cool and you’ll say, ‘That’s better than what I have,’ but you’ll also find things that aren’t as good. Don’t get attracted by all the bells and whistles,” Wafler says. 

Bickley says the lesson he learned from switching numerous times is to prioritize your biggest needs and match the software you select to that. 

Is it Time For a Change? 

Before switching your shop management software, ask yourself these key questions: 

Are you using your current system in the most effective way? 

John Wafler, facilitator, coach, and instructor for the Institute for Automotive Excellence, advises that the best shop management system is the one that you currently have. Before switching over, do some research and see if you’re using the system in the best way possible or if possibly there was a feature that you previously overlooked. The best way to do this is to reach out to customer support. 

Can your data be imported into the new system? 

Not all software will transfer data effectively from one to the other, Wafler says. Be prepared to lose some data if you’re switching. Mark Pfleghaar, owner of Certified Auto Repair in Spring Park, Minnesota, says one way to work around this is to use separate software to export data and import to the new management system. 

Is the new system cloud-based or server based? 

Wafler says if you’re planning on making the switch, go to the cloud. Server-based programs present IT, update, and hardware issues. Those are eliminated with cloud-based software. 

Does it require the use of other software? 

Some systems will handle accounting, digital vehicle inspections, marketing, and other important business aspects within the same software. Others require you to purchase other programs, Wafler explains. However you want to do it is up to you, but having fewer companies to deal with can create less of a headache. 

Does it help you with the most important aspects of your business?

True, it may be extremely easy to use, but if parts make up a huge portion of your sales and the shop management system you’re using doesn’t handle your inventory well, it’s not a good fit, Wafler says.   

How is the support? 

Wafler says this is huge. If you aren’t getting a timely response from your customer support, it’s probably time to switch. Some companies offer great support, he says. There are easy-to-find resources, calls are answered immediately, and information is provided about features being added and how that is decided. Some even have forums where users can make suggestions on how to better the software, Wafler adds. This is the type of support that you should be getting from your shop management system. 

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