Compared to the other shops in his 20 Group, Robert Blaes says his Broomfield, Colo., shop probably sees the least amount of reprogramming work. And that’s not because his technicians are inept, or because the shop lacks equipment. It’s simply because—as is the case with any shop in this predicament—that’s what his market offers.
So, fewer reprogramming jobs means fewer reasons to invest in reprogramming essentials, right?
Wrong, actually, say multiple sources that spoke with Ratchet+Wrench. Because the second reprogramming becomes an afterthought and you don’t have processes in place? That’s the second your shop starts to lose money.
“You have to develop a good process: ‘This is what you do with Fords. This is what you do with Audis,’” the owner of Stang Auto Tech Inc. says. “If you don’t, you’re taking a hit. It affects technicians’ efficiency and the shop’s profitability.”
No matter how much reprogramming work your technicians receive, both Blaes and Raymond Ciriako—owner of Precision Auto Repair in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii—say researching your market and determining the necessary training, equipment and costs ahead of time will ensure it becomes a profitable venture.
Here is everything you need to consider.
A Reprogramming Overview
What is Reprogramming?
By utilizing a “pass-thru” device, the J2534 interface allows technicians to create a connection between a vehicle’s on-board diagnostic system and a computer to access and install EPA-mandated vehicle software updates—a procedure known as reprogramming (or reflashing, as some refer to it).
The Subscription Costs
Remember: Reprogramming vehicles requires either a temporary or months-long subscription. A long-term subscription (lasting six months to one year) typically costs over $1,000, while a two-day subscription costs between $55–$65 for domestic makes and between $90–$120 for foreign makes.
There are three basic necessities you’ll need to reprogram vehicles: the pass-thru device, a laptop and an operating system.
1. Understand Your Market
With an average monthly car count of 220, Stang Auto Tech might only have a handful of reprogramming jobs per month. And since the shop doesn’t specialize in a specific automaker, the few reprogramming jobs Blaes’ technicians encounter are usually various makes that require different processes.
And when Blaes realized this was the market being offered to his shop, he realized his technicians were inefficient because they were not used to a single, defined reprogramming process.
If your technicians encounter many different makes, Ciriako suggests developing diagnostic flowcharts (or SOPs) that go through specific processes for each vehicle. This way, when reprogramming is required, everyone knows exactly who the works goes to, what equipment will be used and how quickly it will be completed. The service advisors can then relay that time frame to the customer.
If your shop’s workload is dominated by one or two makes, it becomes much easier to define that process, Blaes says. And after nailing that process down, you’ll just need to know which tools are required.
2. Understand the Tools
Blaes’ shop owns between 10–12 pass-thru tools—and it’s not enough, he says.
That’s because many European and Asian automakers have dedicated tools for their vehicles. Domestics, on the other hand, can usually be reprogrammed with a universal tool.
“That’s where we run into some difficulty,” he says. “It appears we’re able to do it, we stay down a path, and then find out the tool doesn’t communicate with this particular module.”
So, if you plan on reprogramming many different makes, you’ll need that diverse array of pass-thru tools. Otherwise, you’ll have to outsource the work to a third party, whether that be a dealership or an independent reprogrammer.
If you want to retain all the reprogramming work, it requires you to research which universal tools work best, and which makes require specific tools. Ciriako’s technicians are able to stay on top of trends and updated pass-thru tools by regularly attending training.
“The garages that stay afloat are the garages that go to classes,” he says. “It’s important to keep up on everything, and that’s what we do.”
Several pass-thru device companies provide training videos on their websites and live technical support—often free of charge.
Ideally, you only need one laptop, an operating system and at least one universal pass-thru device to get started, which will initially cost roughly $2,000–$2,500 in total.
3. Understand Your Capacity
Nailing down your tools and defining your market means nothing if your technicians are incapable of handling the work efficiently.
As Blaes noted earlier, it is difficult for technicians to get used to a process when several different makes come through the shop. That’s why he recommends having one or two dedicated reprogrammers at the shop that will take on the work when it’s available.
That could even mean going out of your way to hire someone with his or her own equipment for filling that role, which Blaes recently did. Because of it, he feels more confident in retaining work that requires reprorgramming.
But if you don’t have the capacity to handle the work profitably, outsourcing is still a great option. In fact, until recently, Blaes used a third-party vendor for several years. He would arrange for the vendor to come by the shop the same day and spend an hour with the vehicle.
While paying the third party cut his profit in half, it was still more profitable than outsourcing the work to a dealership, which charged $120.
This process, of course, has its drawbacks and inefficiencies, as sometimes the third party was too busy and the job would get delayed for one day. Plus, it disrupts workflow and requires cars to be moved in and out of bays more frequently.
4. Understand the Customer
At the end of the day, even after all the research and investments, reprogramming can prove disastrous for your shop if the customer isn’t well informed.
“Some of them are frustrated about how complicated it is,” Blaes says.
“They’ll bring me other reports from other shops and want me to explain it to them,” Ciriako adds. “They really just want to know what is going on and why they need it. They’re not educated.”
At Ciriako’s shop, the service advisor’s job is to guide the customers through the reprogramming process. Everything will go much more smoothly if your service advisor can explain exactly what reprogramming is up front and why it’s necessary. Once you explain, Ciriako says the relatively light cost won’t matter to the customer.
He suggests breaking it down with some simple analogies that make the entire process appear less technical and more familiar. Instead of “reprogramming,” have the customer think of it as “updating” the vehicle, like you would update any smartphone.
“It’s just like a computer. It needs updates,” Ciriako says. “If we’re taking that approach from the start, then with our customers it doesn’t become an issue.”
Blaes says his shop charges between $130–$160 for domestics, and over $160 depending on how much work foreign models require.