The Care and Feeding of Your Superstar Techs and Advisors

March 10, 2023
Shop owners who don’t connect with their teams run the risk of losing them.

According to data from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 4.4 million people quit their jobs each month last year (2022). A Pew Research poll showed that 57% of people left their jobs because they felt disrespected, 43% left because of insufficient benefits and 39% due to long hours. Overall, 90% of respondents to the Pew survey said they want empathetic leaders—which equates to leaders, people who understand, respect and appreciate the value they bring into the work environment. 

Darrin Barney, co-owner Barney Brothers Offroad and Repair and president and CEO of Elite Worldwide, said that if shop owners really want to grow it begins with hiring people better than them in skilled positions. If you’re a shop owner who doesn’t want to end up on the short of the stick from a personnel standpoint should adhere to these steps. 

 Step 1: Vision: Know Where You Want to Go 

Barney recounted the story of Henry Ford’s now famous court appearance, in which he was placed on the stand to give an account for his lack of education. A man of wit, Ford proved them wrong by showing the court that It wasn't his personal intelligence that made him a man of education, but the collective intelligence of the personnel he surrounded himself with that did. 

“I had to learn to get out of the way and let my people do what I pay them to do,” Barney said. 

He added that employees today want to be part of the adventure. They don’t just want to work for you, they want to make meaningful contributions to the workplace. But that starts with shop owners first having a vision. 

"If you don't know where you want to go, superstar employees won't stay with you. People want to feel like they're part of something,” Barney said. "You have to inspire your people to where you're going. You have to take care of your people. They have dreams and goals and if you don’t know that, they're going to go somewhere else." 

Once you identify your vision, take time alone each day to think about that vision and how you’re moving toward it. 

"One of the coolest things about (Nike founder) Phil Knight was he'd sit in a recliner at night thinking about where he wanted his company to go. The successful are always thinkers,” Barney said. “I put a sticky note on my office door so people know when it's my think time. You need think time." 

To craft a vision, Barney said to build a mission statement. He added that shop owners need to consider what motivates people—and it's not just money. 

"When you start thinking about your mission statement, your brain will subconsciously help you to figure it out," he said. 

Barney said he created 12 guiding principles and has one member of his team recite a principle in each team meeting.  

"It gives your people something to think about." 

Step 2: Inspire 

As a shop owner who specializes in modifications, Barney was comfortable not doing auto repairs. His coach told him he needed to do it if he wanted to boost his bottom line and level up his shop. Hesitant, he did and was sold. When he started inspecting the vehicles that came to his customization shop, the business grew. He said the same is true when the inspiration to change trickles down from the shop owner down to the team. Some may push back before they buy in, he warned. 

"People don't like change. People will fight you on it, but you have to be enthusiastic and sell the vision to them,” he said, reminding the room of the first principle. “People support what they help create. You have to have your team involved before they adopt changes. One of the mistakes I made was not getting people involved. When I did, things changed.” 

Step 3: Set Goals and Have a Plan 

If you want to be the biggest shop in town, you have to do the work, know your competitors and understand what you have to do to be competitive. He said keeping an open mind and getting your team involved in building the dream is imperative. 

"You have to let the team help with the plan. People don't want a j-o-b, they want a career, and they want to help you," Barney said. 

Write short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for your shop. Goals aren't set in stone, but they give your subconscious and your people somewhere to go. And work on your job descriptions. Sometimes you won't know because you find someone special, and you create a place for them. Once, Barney and his manager interviewed a candidate they had no position for but liked and they brought her on as a bookkeeper. Putting her on the phone one day, they discovered she excelled and has since become a great service advisor. 

"You have to think outside the box. I saw something in her,” he said. “It may not always work out, but you have to find people's strengths and weaknesses and find where they fit. If they don’t fit at one position, their strengths may work in another.” 

One employee, who started with him as an advisor but who didn't work because he didn’t like being on the phone, was moved to shuttle driver, a position with which he has since excelled. 

Step 4: Innovate

Barney said shop owners need to know what motivates their people. It's not all about money for some and they need to learn that quickly. He has one tech who likes extra time off and one who likes recognition (read: words of affirmation if you’re a disciple of "The Five Love Languages"). Johnny, the advisor he reassigned to shuttle driving, likes to have his ideas heard. One thing Barney did was allow Johnny to start listing parts customers didn’t want back after modification jobs on eBay and Barney gives him a cut of the profit. 

He also said shop owners need to hire people with personalities unlike their own. These people will provide honest feedback and in doing so help the shop elevate to new levels. 

"When you hire someone who intimidates you, that person will take you to the next level. They'll spot things wrong to help you build your business. And when listening to them, they'll keep giving you ideas," Barney said. 

Step 5: Observe 

Learn to watch and allow things to happen. As long as the ideas and changes don't fly against the core values, you can permit freedom of thought. When his team implemented a three-inspection policy, he wasn't there for it, but he allowed it to happen. He also told the story of an employee on his team who was not used to checking the customer key drop-off box. He allowed it to happen for a few days and eventually reminded them of the need to add that step to their daily routine. 

"We get used to doing things a certain way. The subconscious kicks in with muscle memory. We have to change muscle memory. He wasn't used to checking the key box and had to learn," Barney said. 

There comes a time when you try out things, test systems and processes and they come up short, but not for a lack of effort and readjusting. They simply aren’t a fit for the shop. When ideas don’t work over time, Barney said to not be afraid to blow it up and rebuild. 

He recounted a time when he pulled his team together to walk through the entire customer experience as a team to help figure out where things were going wrong.  

"We didn't know (what we didn’t know) until we did that. I thought we had it all dialed in, but we didn't. Don't be afraid to blow it up and rebuild, but do it the right way," Barney said. 

Step 6: Nurture 

Leading must be done by example and for better or worse, your team will model the leadership you display in front of them. Once, Barney walked past some trash in the parking lot and his employees saw it. It happened for two days until the third when he picked it up and brought it in to throw away. Upon seeing this, one of his employees mentioned noticing the trash and himself walking over it the same as Barney had done. 

"When it comes to nurturing, we have to lead by example. Your people are watching you,” he said. “When you go to your shop, walk through the door and know that you're going to be the best shop owner you can be. We have to think all of our decisions through." 

In the shop, it’s imperative to get this right because tolerance of the wrong things can be detrimental to the team. 

He once hired a technician who had great references, a $150,000 toolbox and looked like a producer. Once in the shop, the tech averaged only 20 hours per week, which was a shock to Barney, whose minimum is 40 hours per bay. He observed the tech for two more weeks and nothing changed. He worked with him and every adjustment to make it work but at the end of two months, the tech still was unable to turn 40 hours. Barney reassigned him to shipping, hoping he’d fit because he liked his attitude, and he couldn't continue to pay him as a tech and when that didn’t work, he had to let him go. 

"He was a great guy, but he wasn't a good fit for us. If someone isn’t performing, you owe it to them to help train them. It's cheaper to keep them. If you don’t think they fit the position, transfer them to a new position. If that doesn’t work, you have to terminate. But the one thing you don’t want to do is tolerate,” Barney said. 

On the flip side of that, he once had an excellent mechanic but his attitude was terrible. The tech didn't show up on time for huddles despite being senior among the techs. The employee said he didn’t care about the huddles and didn’t want to listen to the other techs in the meetings. He became defensive and drew a line in the sand with Barney. 

"I let him go because he refused to be there and be there on time. It ended up being one of the best decisions. I didn’t realize how bad he was for the shop. It's the hardest one, but the right thing to do," Barney said. “If you tolerate that behavior, what does the rest of the team say?  

When Barney let go of the tech with the bad attitude, a new tech with the right attitude tech with better skills showed up and replaced him. 

Barney said shop owners have to always be available for their team and provide and receive good feedback. Do hard things, be willing to listen to ideas and make changes to show your team that you value their contribution. A caring shop owner also must be willing to work through things and figure out new ways to get things done. Change takes time. But meet regularly with your team to get temperature checks and to keep them invested.

“People want to be a part of something, and they support what they help create,” Barney concluded. 

About the Author

Chris Jones | Editor

Chris Jones is the editor of Ratchet+Wrench magazine and host of its companion podcast, Ratchet+Wrench Radio, a weekly show featuring automotive professionals across the auto care landscape.

Sponsored Recommendations

Find the right shop management system to boost your efficiency

Find the right shop management system to aid in efficient scheduling, communication and payment processing

Craft a strategic marketing plan

Develop strategies and communicate them to your staff to keep you on track

Establish and track your KPIs: Technician Productivity

WHAT IT IS: Technician productivity refers to the time a technician is available to work measured against the actual time spent working on positive cash flow repair orders. Tracking...

Empower your technicians with the right tools for efficient repairs

Foster a highly motivated and efficient team to get vehicles out the door faster