Every day, Dan Buss sets aside roughly an hour to walk around and observe his employees. He tries to make it subtle; while observing he’ll maybe go to the side and talk to another technician.
Regardless, he says it’s an effective way to consistently gauge what’s going on in his shop, and where even simple improvements can be made.
“Especially with new hires, I can see when they’re not following procedure, and from there we can address the problem,” Buss, the owner of D&R Autoworks in Highland Park, Ill., says.
This is what Buss calls his everyday leadership. It involves constantly observing his staff, and always seeing where they can improve.
With 20 total staff members, Buss and his general manager need to focus on watching the employees and observing them to make sure the entire team runs smoothly. And through this everyday leadership, he’s able to offer tangible training tips to his staff throughout the day to mentor them, and help them consistently improve.
“The biggest thing as owners and leaders is that we’re often not observant in our shops enough,” Buss says. “Leadership is an everyday thing.”
Here are three case studies of longtime shop owners and how they showed everyday leadership in their shop and improvement outside of training courses. Dan Gilley, who consults hundreds of shops as the president of RLO Training, provides takeaways for each of the three situations.
Alex Whitney, owner of $1.1 million Duluth, Ga.-based Alex Automotive since 1980.
The Situation: Four years ago, a customer came to Alex Automotive for a repair and had a flex plate installed. Two years after it was installed, that customer was getting his transmission fixed at another shop, where the technician informed him his flex plate was cracked again and sold him around $3,000 in work, including a replacement of the flex plate. The customer hadn’t been back to Alex Automotive since that initial install, but called the shop several times very unhappy about the failed part. Whitney’s service advisor was perplexed with what to do next.
The Solution: Whitney stepped in and called the customer, having the service advisor watch him throughout the entire process. He found out what happened, and explained that it was a manufacturer’s part.
To make the customer happy, and reduce the chance of any future bad reviews, Whitney decided to give them a $600 in-house credit. He explained to the service advisor that this could bring the customer back long term, and this way, he avoided giving the customer actual cash.
According to Whitney, his service advisor says he learned a lot from the experience, and was happy they worked through it together.
“Generally, if there’s a learning opportunity created, especially when they throw their arms up to me, I’ll step in, and we’ll share it as a learning process together,” Whitney says. “When it works, that’s a very powerful teaching moment. They saw it not as a suggestion, but they saw it happen in real life.”
The Takeaway: Gilley says that service advisors need to have ongoing training every year. This might mean roleplaying situations, or practicing how to answer the phones in specific scenarios.
When a situation like this comes up, he says it’s important to have guidelines in place, like how much the service advisor can give away to the customer.
Bill Jaap, owner of the $1.3 million Minneapolis-based Good Carma Auto Repair since 1997.
The Situation: While usually very respectful, Jaap saw that, from time to time, his staff members talked negatively about vehicles in the shop that were in poor condition. There was a specific rusty car that his employees were discussing in a negative light, and Jaap knew he had to step in.
The Solution: To keep up with the positive culture he wanted in the shop, Jaap redirected his employees to never badmouth their customer base, or the vehicles they service.
“I always circle back to, how do we talk about our customers, how do we treat them, and how do we talk about their cars?” Jaap says. “Setting the tone and culture of our shop is key with our employees.”
Jaap told his staff that he would buy lunch, and then had a meeting with everyone, where he stressed that employees at his shop should never partake in what he calls “low talk.”
“I just redirected them to our mission; our mission is always about kindness,” Jaap says. “We need to take care of the customer.”
He reminded them that these are customers who may really appreciate this vehicle, and they pay the bills at the shop. If any customer heard the technicians or service advisors badmouthing their cars, it would reflect poorly on the culture of the shop. Coupled with that, Jaap reminded his employees of things they were doing well, like when he saw service advisors taking customers back into the shop to explain certain repairs.
“It opened up a conversation, and it was a good reminder,” Jaap says. “It wasn’t a punitive meeting like you’ve done something wrong, but let’s look at where we want to be.”
The Takeaway: Gilley says that situations like this are relatively common in shops, and your shop culture needs to be addressed daily. Additionally, as the owner, you need to set the tone on a daily basis.
“The fact that he saw it in his shop, and addressed it is key,” Gilley says. “If you don’t confront it, you condone it.”
Dan Buss, the sole owner of the $3.6 million Highland Park, Ill.–based D&R Autoworks since 2001.
The Situation: Buss noticed that one of his C-level technicians, recently brought into the shop, was struggling with his inspection times. This tech had been in the industry for 11 years, and Buss needed to pinpoint exactly where the tech was going wrong.
The Solution: Buss took some time out of his day observe his technician from afar as he was doing an inspection. After watching for a while, Buss realized this technician didn’t have a specific procedure when diagnosing vehicles, and would often double check spots, and look over the same areas multiple times.
“Nobody had ever taught him a routine,” Buss says. “So I put together a whole procedure for him, and customized it to the different services we needed to be doing.”
Buss sat him down, and walked him through the routine sheet, giving him copies he could study at home. Buss spent a couple days working with the technician so that he could get a routine down, understand why it was laid out the way it was and therefore work much faster. Soon the tech was following the procedure, and his times vastly improved.
“A lot of shops will barely train a guy, and throw him in there,” Buss says. “Then three weeks later, he’s slow, and the attitude is, ‘He ain’t gonna make it, we need to cut him loose.’ I know that if I give employees the tools to succeed and I’m a mentor, then the business will succeed.”
The Takeaway: Gilley encourages shops to train new employees on how to do inspections on the very first day of the job, then follow up quarterly so no slippage occurs.
It’s vital he says, to have a written process and procedure for your inspections, and from there you can hold your staff accountable.